Judge sides with Alms residents over HUD, grants injunction so they can stay in their homes

CINCINNATI -- A federal judge overwhelmingly sided with the residents the Alms Hill Apartments, granting them a preliminary injunction late Thursday that will allow them to stay in their low-income Walnut Hills apartments.

Four longtime residents sued the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development after the agency announced it would end low-income rental subsidies to the complex, which has a long history of neglect.

Residents worried they would become homeless if forced out of the Alms, because the city of Cincinnati has a severe shortage of low-income housing. U.S. District Judge Timothy Black agreed.

“Plaintiffs have demonstrated they will be irreparably harmed … abatement will terminate (their) leases and force (them) to search for another residence in a community with a 40,000-unit shortage of affordable housing,” Black wrote in his order granting the preliminary injunction.

“In all scenarios, Plaintiffs will have to move. However, because landlords are not required to accept housing vouchers and there is already a shortage of affordable housing in Cincinnati, there is a realistic possibility some of the Plaintiffs will become homeless,” Black wrote.

It is a huge victory for the residents of the 200-unit complex that is home to mostly African-Americans, many of whom are disabled or elderly. But it is also a win for the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Alms residents, and the city of Cincinnati, which sided with the residents and spoke on their behalf at a federal court hearing last week.

“This is a big deal,” Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, wrote in a press release about Black’s decision.

“We are not near the end of this struggle,” Spring wrote. “The work to save the 200 homes in the Alms and the 550 other homes in this full portfolio continues, but this is a big deal, most notably for Alms residents who are working so hard to save their cherished homes.”

HUD attorneys had argued the Alms is not decent, safe or sanitary, and should lose its housing contract after failing four inspections in two years.

Giving a pass to the Alms for deplorable conditions could have a ripple effect at low-income housing complexes nationally, HUD attorneys argued. “Owners of Section 8 housing properties across the country are going to know that they can leave their properties in such a disrepair that they don’t have to spend any money.”

The Alms is in “deplorable condition with a potentially dangerous roof” and “grossly substandard living conditions,” wrote HUD attorneys in a motion opposing the preliminary injunction. HUD lists many problems found during inspections, such as exposed electrical wires, roach infestations, cracks and gaps in walls, a serious bedbug problem, and an overall lack of maintenance and cleaning.

But residents said a court-appointed receiver is making repairs and the complex is in better condition than it has been in years.

“It’s my home. It’s not a tenement slum,” longtime resident Kimeta Carter told City Council’s Law and Public Safety Committee at a hearing on the Alms on Sept. 25.

She said residents are ecstatic about recent improvements, such as two new elevators and an upgraded electrical system. Residents are so attached to their homes, that Black noted in his order, “One resident said the only circumstance in which he will leave the Alms is if he is thrown out of the window.”

Black noted that all health and safety items flagged by HUD in their two inspections in June and September have since been fixed. And HUD attorneys could not show any “an immediate health or safety risk to Alms’ tenants or the general public.”

Black also noted that HUD didn’t give Alms’ residents any notice before it decided to terminate its low-income housing contract in July 2017.

HUD only met with residents on Sept. 22 -- nearly three months later.

"First, this meeting occurred two months after HUD already decided to abate the HAP Contract and after Plaintiffs commenced this lawsuit,” Black wrote. “Second, just two days before that meeting, … HUD had already decided to 'opt-out' of the HAP Contract and had secured funds for voucher assistance. These circumstances strongly evidence that HUD's mind was already made up prior to the September 22, 2017 meeting."

Black’s order means residents can stay in their apartments while the lawsuit is ongoing. It also means that 70 vacant units at the Alms can now be rented. While HUD had the building under closure orders, those units could not be rented, Spring wrote.

The long downslide of the Alms began in 2013, when New Jersey-based PF Holdings LLC bought the building, along with several other low-income properties in Cincinnati. The Alms needed repairs at the time of the purchase due to years of deferred maintenance, and it continued to deteriorate afterward, according to the lawsuit.

After finding many housing, health and fire code violations, the city of Cincinnati filed a lawsuit in February 2015 against the owner of the Alms. The city sued PF Holdings over the condition of five apartment complexes with problems such as lack of hot water and heat, broken sewer lines and a roof collapse that forced dozens of residents temporarily from their homes.

Residents were hopeful conditions would improve when a judge named Jodi Ridings of Milhaus Developer as as receiver of the properties on Feb. 1, 2016.

And they did. Elevators were replaced, along with appliances, windows and doors. Repairs were done to electrical systems, the roof and boiler, sewer lines, and apartment interiors, according to the lawsuit.

But the pace of repairs slowed after a storm water backup in August 2016 and a fire in January 2017, according to the lawsuit.

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