Alms families forced to move, may become homeless, after HUD ends contract with apartment

CINCINNATI -- Residents of a Walnut Hills apartment complex that has a long history of neglect filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They fear they could become homeless after the agency announced it would end low-income rental subsidies to the complex.

Four longtime residents of the Alms Hill Apartments and the Alms Residents Association filed the suit in U.S. District Court. They want a judge to issue a temporary restraining order to stop HUD from ending subsidies to the Alms so they can stay in their apartments while the case is being decided.

“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.

“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,” Tallant wrote. “Some … may even become homeless.”

If U.S District Judge Timothy Black doesn't intervene, it would mean that most of the 100 families living at the Alms -- who are overwhelmingly African-American, and many elderly or disabled -- will be forced to move, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is seeking a permanent injunction asking HUD to keep the subsidies at the Alms and ordering HUD to take alternative steps to bring the Alms into full compliance. The lawsuit states, "this was HUD's final decision."

This is the latest in a string of troubles for Alms residents, who have lived in a neglected building in need of serious repair for many years.

Hallways in The Alms apartment in Walnut Hills were full of water damage, trash and holes in the ceiling tiles when WCPO toured it in 2015. (WCPO file).

The poor condition of the Alms is the reason HUD is ending its contract, according to the lawsuit, because the building failed two inspections in 2017. A spokesman for HUD did not return a call for comment.

But residents say the Alms is finally turning around under the oversight of a court-appointed receiver.

“The Plaintiffs were unaware that their housing was in jeopardy. From the residents’ perspective, the Alms was in better condition than it had been in many years,” according to the lawsuit.

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, according to the lawsuit.

“The city warned HUD that the Alms would fall into a state of serious disrepair under the ownership of PF Holdings,” according to the lawsuit.

The Alms continued to deteriorate. Property management ignored criminal activity, did not allow Cincinnati police to enter and instructed security to not report domestic violence to the police, according to the lawsuit.

Then the city got involved. After finding numerous housing, health and fire code violations, the city of Cincinnati filed a lawsuit in February 2015 against the owner of the Alms to get repairs made and improve conditions.

The city sued PF Holdings over the condition of five apartment communities in Cincinnati. Problems ranged from lack of hot water and heat to broken sewer lines and a roof collapse that forced dozens of residents temporarily from their homes.

But Alms residents were optimistic when Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Beth Myers named Jodi Ridings of Milhuas Developer as receiver of the properties on Feb. 1, 2016.

Conditions did improve. Two passenger elevators were replaced, along with appliances, mailboxes, windows, screens and doors. Repairs were done to electrical systems, roof and boiler, sewer lines, and apartment interiors, according to the lawsuit.

The inside of one of two elevators in The Alms in 2015. They were recently replaced.

There were some setbacks at the complex. An August 2016 storm flooded the Alms’ boiler system under feet of sewage and water. Those repairs caused a delay in other work, according to the lawsuit.

Then a Jan. 28, 2017 fire at the Alms prompted the need for immediate repairs and an upgrade to the faulty electrical system, according to the lawsuit.

Just over a month after the fire, HUD officials visited the Alms and “expressed dissatisfaction with the pace of the receiver’s work,” according to the lawsuit.

HUD officials abruptly returned to the Alms for another inspection in June 2017. The property again failed inspection, according to the lawsuit.

Residents, city officials, the mortgage lender and the receiver then all tried to get HUD to lay out a plan of what could be done to prevent termination of the rental subsidies.

“HUD has repeatedly refused to engage in such discussions, other than to say that it wanted the Alms … sold to a third-part purchaser, in a pre-foreclosure sale,” according to the lawsuit.

Alms Hill Apartments, a 200-unit property in Walnut Hills.

On July 31, HUD sent a notice to the Alms’ owner and receiver that its contract had been abated, and residents would be required to relocate, according to the lawsuit.

“Throughout the process, HUD has ignored those who have the most to lose... the residents,” the lawsuit states. “Once HUD terminates the project-based contract, the residents will be required to either pay market rent for their units, which they cannot afford, or relocate from their homes.”

Few, if any, residents can afford to pay full market rent, the lawsuit states.

HUD will provide rental vouchers to Alms’ tenants but that does not guarantee housing, especially in the increasingly popular Walnut Hills, 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.

In the lawsuit, Alms residents accuse HUD of discrimination because 98 percent of them are African-Americans and already face the greatest need of affordable housing in Hamilton County.

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 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.”

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