Government & Politics

‘Cockroaches rained down’: Healthy Homes inspection empties one apartment building

Kansas City officials, using a new housing inspection law, have moved residents out of a troubled Northland apartment building where they found roaches, severe plumbing problems and other dangerous health violations, the Health Department announced in a news conference Wednesday.

In the building, city officials and elected leaders said they saw caved-in ceilings, mold and damp carpets. During their visit Friday, they walked through human excrement in an apartment where sewage had backed up into the toilet, sinks and bathtub.

“Disgusting is the best way I can tell you what I saw,” Councilman Dan Fowler, who represents the area, said of the apartment that had been vacant since February. “The door was opened to the apartment, and this is no exaggeration, cockroaches rained down from the door sill.”

The building in question is part of Englewood Apartments, a complex near Interstate 29 and Waukomis Drive owned by Cleveland-based Millennia Housing Management. It has been on the city’s radar for more than a year since officials visited the site to follow up on resident complaints. Millennia said the complex has 14 buildings, but city and U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development officials say there are 12. It’s unclear why there’s a discrepancy.

The conditions officials found last year are similar to what they encountered on their return.

In a statement, Millennia spokeswoman Valerie Jerome said the company was working on a $10 million rehabilitation of the complex and cooperating with federal and local governments, including Kansas City’s Healthy Homes rental inspection program.

“As a result of a recent Healthy Homes inspection, seven households were displaced,” Jerome said. “We have since rehoused those families, and we are diligently addressing the issues cited.”

City officials said, however, that 10 families were moved off the property, not seven, into extended-stay housing at Millennia’s expense.

Until recently, Kansas City had little authority to do anything about places like Englewood Apartments. They were exempt from Healthy Homes, which voters passed last year, because the complex is subsidized by HUD. Nonprofit landlords were also exempt.

But City Council members voted unanimously last month to expand the program to include those landlords, who account for 20 percent of complaints, according to the health department. Because those landlords were exempt, health officials couldn’t follow up on complaints.

The action at Englewood marked the first time since Healthy Homes passed that city officials had to move residents out of a building — HUD-subsidized or otherwise — Health Department spokeswoman Michelle Pekarsky said in an email.

In the news conference, city officials said other buildings in the complex also had health problems, including missing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, holes in the walls and mold, but they weren’t as severe as those found in the worst building. Those buildings remain in operation while one is vacated and two others are in the process of being rehabilitated.

Millennia has to fix the lower-level hazards by next week. If they don’t, they’re subject to additional inspections, fines and, potentially, an order to vacate those buildings.

The company gave little detail on its work to fix problems cited by city inspectors, but Jerome said it expects to complete renovations on the first building in the complex this month.

“Given the magnitude of this rehabilitation, we look forward to progressing with these much-needed renovations and continuing our partnership with officials to achieve the shared end-goal: quality and affordable apartments for our residents,” Jerome said.

Prior to the council’s vote to expand the program, the federal government was responsible for inspecting Englewood. Asked why federal inspectors didn’t flag the issues there, Jason Mohr, regional administrator for HUD Region 7, said the agency struggles with staffing.

“My staff, they take care of two regions, which are thousands of properties,” Mohr said, “and a lot of times with the amount of staff that we have, we don’t go to these properties every year. A lot of times, the only time we hear about a bad property is if residents complain about them.”

HUD has been supportive of the Healthy Homes expansion allowing city inspectors to look at federal properties.

HUD has been monitoring the construction at Englewood, and an email exchange obtained by the Star last month showed officials’ frustration with the pace. The emails show HUD officials had been promised construction would start sooner.

“As a result of these delays, tenants will continue to live in substandard conditions for a lot longer than was previously anticipated,” Edward Manning, director of HUD’s Kansas City Asset Management Division, said in the email.

On Wednesday, Mohr said improvements were six months behind schedule.

Affordable and quality housing have been a major topic for elected leaders in Kansas City this year and last.

Fowler said every Kansas Citian is entitled to affordable housing, which he said means “a lot more than just a low rent.”

“It is not affordable if our residents have to live in absolute squalor as I observed a year ago and again, most especially, last Friday,” Fowler said.

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Allison Kite reports on City Hall and local politics for The Star. She joined the paper in February 2018 and covered Midterm election races on both sides of the state line. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with minors in economics and public policy from the University of Kansas.