CINCINNATI -- Inspectors from three different city departments descended on Maple Tower in April, roughly two weeks after WCPO reported about residents' complaints at the public housing high-rise in Avondale.
The Cincinnati Fire Department, Cincinnati Health Department and the city's Buildings & Inspections department found scores of violations at the property, which is owned and operated by the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority.
City records indicate a number of code violations have yet to be resolved, but a CMHA spokeswoman told WCPO in late June that all the violations identified at Maple Tower have since been corrected. A spokeswoman for the city said CMHA must schedule a reinspection with the city to show the work has been done.
"We embrace getting information because we want to know if there is something we need to address," said Lesley Wardlow, senior communications coordinator for CMHA. "Everything is up to date."
Yvonne Howard said the problems continue. Howard is a Maple Tower resident. She also is the president of the Resident Advisory Board there and works as the service coordinator for the building.
In WCPO's April 3 report, tenants complained mostly about plumbing problems that resulted in overflowing sinks that spilled water under cabinets, onto rugs and sometimes into the hallways. Residents complained about stinky, black water that had backed up into their sinks, too.
Howard said that smelly, dark water backed up into her sink again June 11.
During a recent tour of the building, she showed WCPO wet ceiling tiles in the building's community room and also how the door to her apartment doesn't swing shut completely on its own when she opens it.
Leaks in the community room have been a chronic problem and seem to come back every time CMHA fixes them, she said. Problems with fire doors throughout the building were among the violations that the Cincinnati Fire Department highlighted in its inspections.
"Fire door closers play an important role in stopping the spread of the fire," Robert Hart, the Cincinnati Fire Department's fire prevention captain, wrote in response to WCPO's questions. "When fire doors close they will stop the spread of smoke and flames for a significant amount of time (usually 30 minutes), helping people inside the building to evacuate safely."
WATCH VIDEO BELOW: Residents voice concerns about safety after inspections
Howard said she was there when maintenance workers adjusted the mechanism inside her door. They opened and shut the door a couple of times after that, and it seemed to be working properly, she said.
"I signed off on the work order because it was working," she said. "I came back upstairs from being somewhere and it was back like this again."
Communication is key
Howard said she told the building's property manager about the problem with her door but has not heard back from anyone. She didn't file a work order, she said, because the problem was discovered as the result of the inspections and wasn't reported through a work order originally.
Wardlow said every CMHA property has ongoing maintenance needs, much like privately owned homes do.
"Even new houses have maintenance needs," she said. "The only way we can get it done is through communication. We want everyone to contact the work order center."
Howard and other advocates for CMHA residents said they worry the problems are bigger than that. The Maple Tower resident advisory council, the Jurisdiction-Wide Resident Advisory Board and lawyers from the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio pushed for the city inspections that happened in April.
"These fire code violations were way worse than we expected, and they're extremely serious. It's a matter of life and death," said John Schrider, director of the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio. "I think CMHA has reported to the fire department that they've done everything. But I think the plan is to get the city back out there and make sure."
Other concerns the fire department raised included problems with smoke detector maintenance, fire extinguishers, openings in walls and problems with access to the building's "standpipe hose connection," which firefighters need in emergencies.
"Having easy access to the standpipe hose connection in a high-rise building is essential to fighting fires in this type of structure," Hart wrote.
Hart told WCPO that the number and scope of fire code violations found at Maple Tower is typical of high-rise apartment buildings of its size, based on a recent inspection of similar CMHA property.
"Unless it's an immediate situation you need to correct, you have to give them 30 days to work on it and try to correct it," Hart said. "My understanding is that they've been working on correcting these issues. You have to give them time."
Howard said she is especially concerned for the older residents of Maple Tower. Senior citizens occupy the vast majority of the 120 apartments in the building, she said. Many of those elderly residents have disabilities or other health problems that make it more difficult for them to walk, she said.
"We have a lot of our seniors who live on the higher floors," she said. "If a fire breaks out, it's going to be hard for them to get down. If the doors are not working to trap the fire outside of where they're at, that's a problem."
The bottom line is that residents of public housing have a right to live in safe, sanitary conditions, said Nashid Shakir, a program manager for the Jurisdiction-Wide Resident Advisory Board, the group known as J-RAB that represents residents throughout CMHA properties.
"These are real people that are living in bad situations that need to be addressed," he said. "It seems like a lot of the things are not very hard to address."
Wardlow said CMHA is addressing problems at Maple Tower as quickly as possible after finding out about them.
CMHA scheduled a fire safety session with the Cincinnati Fire Department to be held at Maple Tower on June 21, but the fire safety educator missed the session because her cell phone broke, and she didn't get the scheduling reminder, Hart said. The session hasn't been rescheduled yet, he said.
‘We can't wait'
Vickie Goodson leads safety sessions for the fire department as a fire and life safety educator. She told WCPO that residents in a high-rise, in particular, must understand that not everybody will be able to leave the building using the stairwells in the event of a fire.
She said she tells people that when they hear an alarm go off, they should get up and feel the door to see if it's hot. If it isn't hot, they should open the door and look in the hallway to see if their neighbors are okay and determine whether smoke or fire is visible from their apartments.
If they can't see smoke or fire, they should go to the stairwells. For those who can't make it down the stairs, they should shelter in place there, she said.
"The alarms probably go off a lot in these buildings," she said. "When you hear the alarm, at least treat it like it could be the real thing."
It's especially important for residents on the highest floors of a high rise to have a plan in case of fire because the fire department's ladder trucks don't reach above eight stories, Goodson said.
"The first thing that happens when you see that black smoke is that OMG factor kicks in," she said. "You need to figure out what you're going to do if you have a fire."
For problems that don't require emergency personnel, though, residents must call the housing authority's work order center to file a request to have things fixed, Wardlow stressed. Unless that happens, she said, CMHA has no way of knowing what the problems are.
CMHA officials hope a federal program known as Rental Demonstration Assistance, or RAD, will provide the funding needed to make major repairs and renovations to its aging properties.
Wardlow said CMHA isn't waiting for RAD to make necessary repairs.
"RAD is set up to address big-dollar items, but if it is something that needs to be done at the current time, we can't wait for RAD," she said.
For her part, Howard said she plans to keep speaking out when she sees problems at Maple Tower.
"I'm living in this condition along with everybody else. If I'm unhappy, I know they're unhappy," she said. "Quality of life is for everyone, no matter if you're in low-income or regular housing."
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.
To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.