8/14/07

St. Louis Teamster slumlords

Broken windows and a rusted canopy greet visitors to the Council Tower Apartments in midtown St. Louis. But the deteriorating conditions don't stop there. City inspectors condemned part of the building earlier this summer after pieces of the facade began to break away, leaving a pile of rubble that blocks a basement exit. City officials fear that the bricks could continue to fall, possibly even on the highway below.

The Grand Boulevard building also has been cited for excess trash, leaky plumbing and roach infestation. State elevator inspectors have identified numerous violations over the past several years, noting that often only one elevator is available to service the tower's 27 floors. Many of the tower's residents are elderly, disabled or both. Even if they could afford to leave, for many, it would not be easy. "We have tried so hard to get somebody to just listen to us plead our case," said resident Darlene Way, 58, who suffers from degenerative arthritis.

The trouble at Council Tower comes at a time when the city is facing problems at two other apartment complexes that also serve low-income or elderly residents. Council Tower was built in 1969 by the Teamsters union, which owned the building until it was acquired by a prominent real estate family, the Sansones, 10 years later.

The building is run by the Sansone Group's property management division and owned by a nonprofit corporation, the Council Tower Association, whose officers, according to the most recent report available from the state, list Sansone's Clayton headquarters as their address.

Sansone officials refused repeated requests for an interview. They say they are pursuing a claim with their insurance company to fix the most pressing problem at the tower: the dozens of bricks that have fallen off the east wall.

Sansone also says it has applied for emergency repair funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which subsidizes rent at the tower. Meanwhile, the city is concerned that the crumbling facade — visible from westbound Highway 40 (Interstate 64) — presents an increasingly dangerous scenario for motorists.

In a recent e-mail to a HUD official, Deputy Mayor Barbara Geisman wrote that the situation has been a problem for more than a year. The tower's owners, Geisman wrote, "have told our Public Safety Department that they do not intend to do anything about it until their insurance company pays the claim."

"This situation has reached a new level of severity," Geisman wrote. "When the bricks started falling last year, they fell from the lower part of the wall — now they are falling from the upper part of the wall on this tall building, and in the Public Safety Department's opinion there is a danger of them falling onto I-64."

Council Tower representatives must appear in city housing court on Wednesday to address the falling bricks and other code infractions.

City officials want the problems fixed without shutting down the building — a step that would require relocating the tower's elderly and disabled residents. That's not something that tenants, many who need help moving around, want to do.

"They want to die here," said resident David Clinton, 61, who walks with a cane and is blind in one eye.

Local HUD officials are watching closely. The agency has a contract with Council Tower worth about $719,000 a year. If the building is completely condemned, one option HUD would have is to stop payment.

For now, residents are organizing, reviving the building's tenant organization to address their concerns. One key issue is elevator service, which they say is spotty, at best.

"It's a crap shoot to even get out of here," said tenant Carol Newman, 66, a former nurse who now uses a wheelchair.

Newman lives on the sixth floor, though that's not always where she ends up.

"The elevators are so funny," she said. "No matter what floor you push, they will take you anywhere."

Of the building's three elevators, only two are operational, and one of those is frequently occupied by maintenance workers, noted the Missouri fire marshal's office after a June visit.

On July 19, Sansone distributed a memo to tenants promising improvements that will make long waits for the elevator "a thing of the past."

"When the total modernization of the elevator system is completed," the memo said, "the modernized controls and speeds of the new system will make it seem like we have six elevators instead of three!"

The elevator issues at Council Tower are similar, though not as severe, as the problems at Plaza Square near downtown. State inspectors last week were in the process of shutting down most if not all of the elevators at the apartment complex. While HUD is not involved with Plaza Square, the department recently cut off its support to another downtown building, Centenary Towers, which was declared a "public safety nuisance" because of chronic crime and vandalism.

James Heard, director of HUD's St. Louis office, said the problems at Centenary Towers and Council Tower are part of a larger concern: A building supply that is not up to the task of supplying affordable housing to a growing elderly population.

"Aging housing stock is an issue," Heard said. "When we start looking at the stock here in St. Louis and across the country, there are some problems."

For Council Tower residents, the concerns are more immediate. In June, city health inspectors wrote that residents at 15 apartments had complained of roaches. One tenant complained of gnats, while another voiced concerns about rodents.

Far more worrisome for tenants, though, is what happens if there is a fire — which has happened before at Council Tower. In October 1998, a blaze gutted a 21st floor apartment at the tower. About 150 firefighters responded to the fire, in which 160 elderly residents were evacuated. One firefighter was hospitalized, but no residents were hurt.

Even so, residents fear that the unreliable elevators could lead to a catastrophe.

It would be a "crypt," Newman said.

At their appearance in housing court this week, a city judge could fine Council Tower's owner thousands of dollars — up to $500 for each of about 15 violations, according to the city counselor's office.

Way said that she and other tenants are trying to arrange transportation to be at the court hearing.

"What we are going to say is 'Help us save our home,'" Way said. "We don't want to move, but we don't like where we are living."

(stltoday.com)

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