CINCINNATI -- Larry Wilson has lived in Maple Tower for 22 years. For three of those years, Wilson said he had a leak from his bathroom ceiling that dripped right over the toilet.
The good news is that the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, which owns and manages Maple Tower, fixed the leak in his Avondale apartment a few months ago. The bad news is that the repair left a hole in his ceiling around a pipe chase that remained for months after the leak was fixed.
But there’s more good news.
After WCPO began asking CMHA in January about residents’ concerns at Maple Tower -- and specifically about Wilson’s first-floor apartment -- a two-man maintenance crew showed up at his place, patched the hole in the bathroom ceiling and painted it.
“My ceiling has not looked that good in years -- seriously,” Wilson told WCPO. “I almost forgot what that was supposed to look like.”
WCPO’s I-Team spent much of 2017 investigating Cincinnati’s public housing at what is a critical time for CMHA and its more than 10,000 tenants.
Public housing authorities across the country are struggling to maintain aging buildings with a shrinking supply of federal dollars for their upkeep.
Last year’s reporting focused on three CMHA properties: The Redding and The President apartment towers in Avondale and Stanley Rowe Towers in the West End. Residents in those buildings complained about maintenance problems, chronic pests and security. They said they understood funding was tight for CMHA but questioned whether the agency is spending its money where it matters most.
After last year’s report, residents of Maple Tower reached out to WCPO. Over the course of three visits to the building, tenants complained mostly about plumbing problems that result in overflowing sinks that spill water under cabinets, onto rugs and sometimes even into the hallways.
“This happens almost every other month,” said Yvonne Howard, a resident of Maple Tower who serves as the president of the Resident Advisory Board there and also is service coordinator for the building.
The problem got worse just before Christmas when a CMHA contractor “jetted” the plumbing lines, forcing water throughout the building, Howard said. Sinks in many apartments filled with dark, stinky water after the procedure to the point where some overflowed, she said.
“I guess the problems that already existed, that made it worse,” Howard told WCPO. “The mold people were getting and the bedbug problems.”
A spokeswoman for CMHA disputed that assertion. She said the agency jetted the plumbing lines as a preventative maintenance measure and that discolored water backed up into sinks briefly as a result.
“Since the jetting was completed there have been no complaints of discolored water, and no work orders for kitchen sink stoppages have been submitted for 2018,” Lesley Wardlow, senior communications coordinator for CMHA, wrote in a Feb. 1 email responding to WCPO’s questions.
When residents follow the proper procedures and file work orders, CMHA addresses their concerns, she wrote.
But Delorise Calhoun said Maple Tower is just one of several CMHA-owned properties with chronic plumbing and sewage problems. Others include the Winton Terrace community in Winton Hills and the San Marco apartments in Walnut Hills, she said. CMHA makes repairs one by one as needed, she said, but the agency hasn’t invested the major dollars needed for a more lasting fix.
“The plumbing system across the board is lousy,” she said.
Wardlow responded that CMHA's housing portfolio "is an average of 74 years."
"If something breaks, we work to resolve the issue as fast as we can," she wrote on March 19. "There are no outstanding sewage items at any properties."
Following up on concerns
Although Wilson and other Maple Tower residents told WCPO they had been waiting for months to get problems addressed in their apartments, Wardlow said that was not the case.
“Maple Tower is a high-rise with 120 units, and at this time there are 14 work orders open for the site,” she wrote on Feb. 1. “And none of them are more than 20 days old.”
As of March 19, CMHA had records of only seven outstanding work orders for Maple Tower, Wardlow told WCPO, and those work orders were 15 days old or less.
Georgia Williams has lived in Maple Tower for about two years.
Within her first year in the building, she said, her kitchen sink backed up, overflowed and spilled water all over the floor and under the refrigerator, stove and cabinets.
Williams said when she mopped the floor, more water seeped out from under the cabinets with a black, spotty film atop the water.
She suspected the black spots were mold and said she called CMHA to complain many months ago.
Wardlow said until WCPO alerted CMHA to Williams’ concerns, the agency had no complaints related to mold for her apartment.
Nonetheless, CMHA checked the apartment, Wardlow said.
A man and woman visited Williams’ apartment, pulled the refrigerator away from her wall and then sent a maintenance employee to check the kitchen, Williams said.
“They said that it wasn’t mold, what came up from under my sink, that it was something coming out of the wall that they have taken care of,” she said.
Williams said she didn’t argue.
“I got the impression that they just wanted to put my mind at ease,” she said. “I still think it’s mold.”
Staying on top of problems
Howard said that Wilson and Williams are not the only residents of Maple Tower with problems in their apartments that CMHA hasn’t addressed. She noted problems in the building’s common areas, too.
During two visits by WCPO in January, she pointed to evidence of leaks in the ceiling of a community room where Cincinnati Area Senior Services operates a meal program Monday through Friday.
Cincinnati Area Senior Services CEO Tracy Collins said no leaks have put the meal program at risk.
Collins said the Maple Tower community room kitchen failed a health department inspection several years ago. But CMHA responded quickly to the problem and met all the health department’s standards to reopen the kitchen, Collins said.
“They constantly have to stay on top of issues with bugs and exterminations, but we’re able to serve meals. And that is our criteria,” Collins said. “They stay on top of all of that for us, and they’re very receptive.”
CMHA replaced the ceiling tiles in the community room after WCPO’s initial visits. But residents said the fixes haven't been permanent.
“There have been some changes and some repairs done,” Howard said. “But as soon as they make repairs, more breaks.”
Leaks in Howard’s former office next to the community room resulted in a partial collapse of the ceiling, damaged a computer and ruined important paperwork, she told WCPO in January.
Within the past six weeks, CMHA agreed to move her office to a larger space with windows that is located on the building’s first floor. It’s a move she has been requesting for about three years, she said.
From there, Howard said, she plans to stay on top of the aging building’s problems and continue to advise Maple Tower residents on the proper procedures for filing work orders to get their concerns addressed. If that doesn’t work, she said she would make her concerns public again.
“I’ve complained to everybody,” she said. “And once the complaints started, they started taking Maple Tower seriously.”
If you have a problem
If you live in a CMHA property, the housing authority says you should call the work order line at 513-381-CMHA. Resident advocates recommend that you ask for a work order number so you can track the progress.
For any tenants having problems in their apartments, the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio recommends these steps:
• Call your landlord first about maintenance problems.
• Call your local health department or your city's property maintenance inspection department if your landlord doesn't respond.
• If you suspect a serious mold problem, don't wait to call the health department for an inspection. The number to call at the Cincinnati Health Department is 513-352-2908.
WCPO digital reporter Lucy May and photojournalist Emily Maxwell spent much of 2017 learning about public housing in Cincinnati. Their reporting continues this year.
Reporting on poverty has been an important focus for May and Maxwell and for WCPO. To read more stories about poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.