Judge will decide if Alms families can stay in their homes, as HUD tries to end contract

CINCINNATI -- Is the Alms Hill Apartment complex a bedbug-infested, uninhabitable building that deserves to lose its federal low-income housing contract?

Or is the building so on the upswing with new repairs that residents should be allowed to stay?

They are sticky, complicated questions wrapped around issues of poverty and race, involving everyone from the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition to the federal government.

Ultimately, it will be up to U.S. District Judge Timothy Black to decide the fate of this 200-unit Walnut Hills complex that is home to mostly African Americans, many of whom are disabled or elderly.

At a court hearing on Friday, attorneys for both sides will lay out reasons why residents should, or should not, be allowed to live at the Alms while a federal lawsuit that will determine its future winds its way through the court system.

Residents have asked for a preliminary injunction to keep the low-income housing contract in place at the Alms and find other ways to bring the building into compliance. Black will likely issue a ruling on the matter next week.

Four longtime residents and the Alms Residents Association filed a federal lawsuit on Sept. 12 against 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.

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“HUD’s actions threaten the permanent loss of this affordable housing from Cincinnati’s already limited stock of affordable housing,” wrote attorney Virginia Tallent of the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Alms residents.

The Alms apartments in Walnut Hills | Phil Didion for WCPO

“Should HUD prevail in its efforts to eliminate the federal rent subsidies from the Alms, (they) will be displaced from their homes and will likely be forced to move to areas of greater poverty and racial segregation, and may have to leave the city of Cincinnati altogether,” Tallent wrote. “Some … may even become homeless.”

But HUD argues the Alms is not decent, safe or sanitary, and should lose its housing contract after failing four inspections in two years, including one in early September.

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 say 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.

Alms Hill Apartments is a 200-unit complex in Walnut Hills.

“The Alms is a beautiful old sturdy building," Carter said. "It deserves to be saved, it deserves to be preserved for the entity that it is, and for homes for people. I’m one of those people. Please don’t let us lose our homes.”

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.

Hallways in The Alms apartment were full of water damage, trash and holes in ceiling tiles in November 2015 | Phil Didion for WCPO

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.

Throughout this, HUD attorneys say the agency tried to remedy the situation without ending the housing contract. But repair timelines were vague, deadlines weren’t met and not enough money was being spent on the property, according to court filings.

HUD attorneys argue that giving a pass to the Alms for deplorable conditions could have a ripple effect at low-income housing complexes throughout the country.

“Subsidized housing owners across the country will have an incentive to invest as little as they can into properties, for they will have no fear of losing their … contract,” according to HUD court filings. “All other project-based housing owners will no doubt use this loophole to neglect their properties.”

Councilmen Kevin Flynn and Christopher Smitherman grew frustrated as they listened to an hour-long presentation about the Alms at a council committee meeting last week.

They learned HUD officials from Detroit had asked for armed guards to accompany them to a meeting with Alms residents on Sept. 22.

“Folks out of Detroit felt they needed armed guards in Cincinnati,” Smitherman said, laughing.

The inside of one of two elevators in The Alms. Only one was working in November 2015, but both have since been replaced. | Phil Didion for WCPO

Smitherman wants Legal Aid to document depositions of HUD officials so the city “can have a clear record of what happened.”

“It’s a shame the only way we can get any interaction with them (HUD) is with Legal Aid to be at a table deposing them,” Smitherman said.

Flynn urged city attorneys to attend the court hearing and depositions.

“When we finally get HUD to do what they should have been doing 10 years ago … when we finally get their attention, instead of helping us … they’re saying, ‘Screw you Cincinnati, we’re going to shut it (Alms) down,'” Flynn said. “'And we don’t have any place for these people to go, but we don’t care. We’re the federal government you’re going to do it our way.’ And that’s just wrong.”

Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, said the idea of trying to find alternative housing for the hundreds of people who live at the Alms “is a nightmare.”

There are very few places for Alms residents to use their housing voucher due to the extreme lack of affordable housing, Spring wrote in an affidavit with the lawsuit.

“In our community, we currently have a shortage of more than 40,000 units of affordable housing. Our homeless shelters are either full or operating over capacity,” Spring wrote. “It is hard to imagine where an additional 100-plus families in immediate need of affordable housing would go.”

HUD will provide rental vouchers to Alms’ tenants, as well as moving expenses, security deposits and utility hookups. But that does not guarantee housing, especially in the increasingly popular Walnut Hills neighborhood, according to the lawsuit.

“Residents … will in all likelihood find it nearly impossible to stay in the Walnut Hills neighborhood, or even to move into a similar neighborhood, as few landlords in such neighborhoods in Hamilton County accept vouchers,” the lawsuit states.

That’s exactly what worries Carter. She fears if the Alms’ loses its housing contract, she could be homeless.

“HUD seems to think, to issue vouchers is the panacea for all of our problems … the problem is there are no landlords to accept them,” Carter said. “It's like the birth of Jesus -- there is no room at the inn, there is nowhere for us to go.”

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