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Avondale housing complex crumbling from years of violence, neglect turns a new page

The low-income housing development haunted by homicides, drugs and untenable conditions is thriving under new ownership.
Colonial Village_Avondale_Irving Street
Posted at 2:28 PM, Dec 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-18 22:18:54-05

CINCINNATI — For Colonial Village residents like Florence Cornes and Sherry Mitchell, the apartment complex’s new ownership, Related Affordable LLC, couldn’t come soon enough. They, among others on the property in Avondale on Irving Street near Forest Avenue, had grown accustomed to dodging bullets while inside their homes as shooting and gang activity simmered outside.

Sullen and speaking in a matter-of-fact voice, Cornes recalls being terrorized while in bed at her granddaughter’s unit when she first arrived.

“I’d be sleeping in the middle of the night and then all of a sudden I’d hear, ‘bam, bam, bam, bam, bam,’” Cornes said. As heat flew through the air, her granddaughter would urge her to get on the floor. Cornes said she eventually realized that much of the violence was not necessarily carried out by residents who lived at the village. Instead, agitators and gang members from outside were coming into the area. The violence was particularly jarring for Cornes, because she had just moved from Richmond, VA, and was accustomed to a more quiet, peaceful way of life.

“It was a frightening experience, because like I said, I wasn’t used to it,” Cornes said. She has been living in the village for seven years.

Like Cornes, Mitchell moved to Colonial Village in early 2014 because one of her relatives lived on the property and enticed her with the low cost of rent. Mitchell said she would later regret moving to the village, telling WCPO about the time a bullet went through her wall, barely missing her as she got up from her couch. She also had a habit of hitting the floor when loiterers started firing gunshots outside. Her friends and family urged her to leave, but Mitchell had nowhere else to go.

“I was scared, coming in and out of the house, because you know, so many people was out here. The gangs, like, it was scary.”

Before Related Affordable, a real estate company based in Georgia called Affordable Housing America (AHA) owned Colonial Village. During its reign from May 2015 to September of this year, conditions at the Village dramatically declined. Residents who had been living at the complex for decades prior to AHA taking over the Village described it as a once functional, even boring place to live on a sleepy cul-de-sac. They say the tenants were hardworking and responsible, and that management tended to their needs.

Then the complex started making headlines for its harrowing homicide cases. Back in 2014, the Village made national news when two separate fatal shootings occurred there in just a month. In September 2020, three people were fatally shot in one of the units. The Cincinnati Police Department said children who were in the apartment had discovered the bodies.

Residents and community stakeholders who pushed for the change in ownership accused the AHA of being grossly negligent.

Terry Leek says that because AHA’s management was so absent, “people started doing whatever they wanted to do. It got out of hand. It got out of control.”

The overwhelming violence was not the only problem. Drug activity pervaded the property while the units’ features fell into a deplorable state. Representatives from the Avondale Development Corporation found ceilings and walls caving in, sinks overflowing with sewage and black mold while conducting home visits to check on residents and investigate their living conditions.

Meanwhile, doctors at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital nearby were finding a concerning pattern of asthma symptoms in children from the area. Through collaborating with the Legal Aid Society, the hospital’s researchers were able to identify Colonial Village as a primary source of the cases among other hotspots for health disparities in the city. The findings sparked meetings among Cincinnati Children’s doctors, Colonial Village, residents, Legal Aid, the Avondale Development Corporation, and the city to determine how to craft an intervention that would lead to new management—and therefore better conditions—at the Village.

“Where you live matters for your physical and mental health,” said Dr. Andrew Beck, one of the researchers at Cincinnati Children’s who helped sound the alarm on the number of asthma cases at Colonial Village. “I think there’s power in overlaying and information to try and identify these patterns…One of the things that’s been good about this story was that there was partnership, yes with us, but also with the city, with Avondale-based organizations like ADC, Legal Aid, and importantly with the residents themselves leading and being right there at the table alongside other groups.”

The issues at Colonial Village also sparked lawsuits from the city against AHA, one in 2016 and another in 2019. The city cited a litany of delinquent behaviors against the defendant including the constant criminal activity happening on the property, failure to report that criminal activity, failure to implement agreed upon site improvements and policy reforms for guests and residents, inadequate staffing as well as health and safety code violations. The immense disrepair and danger of the property also jeopardized the Village’s affordable housing subsidy from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city and AHA had come to a settlement over the 2016 lawsuit, causing that case to be thrown out. However, the city refiled the lawsuit in 2019 once AHA breached the lawsuit. Those proceedings took a shift when AHA went into foreclosure last January.

Prodigy Title Agency took over as a court-appointed receiver as residents and community stakeholders anxiously waited to see which developer would next take over ownership of the Village. Eventually, Related Affordable, also the owner of the Alms Apartments in Walnut Hills, bought the village in September for $2 million. An entity controlled by Related Affordable, the Colonial Village Preservation LP, is listed as the owner. Assistant City Solicitor Mark Manning says the city has a good relationship with Related Affordable because of the welcome changes it has made to the Alms, another low-income apartment building that had once fallen into disrepair. As a result, the city dismissed the 2019 lawsuit against Affordable Housing America to allow Related Affordable to move forward with purchasing the Village.

Manning explains that because of Related Affordable’s positive track record in leading reform at troubled housing sites, residents and community stakeholders hope that new ownership and renovations will significantly elevate the culture and morale of the Village. More importantly, it’s expected that the area will be much safer for residents who already live there and want to stay.

“When you look at crime across the city, it’s really concentrated at a few points. Even when you look at a neighborhood like Avondale that might have a broader reputation as having a lot of crime issues, really the crime in Avondale or any neighborhood is really concentrated in just a few places.

“And Colonial Village has historically been one of those places. So if the issues at Colonial Village get addressed, then I think both Avondale itself as well as the city as a whole will see the benefits for years to come,” Manning said.

Residents and stakeholders whom WCPO spoke with echo Manning’s optimism about the impact that the new ownership will have on the development on the area. Tenants say they feel safer now that there is a security guard on the premises, and that they are encouraged by the renovations that started soon after Related closed on the Village.

“You see what they’re doing. They’re gutting out the apartments, they’re cleaning them up, they’re getting rid of the trash. So you can see what they’re starting to do,” Terry Leek said. Leek has been living at Colonial Village for 30 years. “We didn’t have that. And they’ve been doing that for a while since they took over. So you can tell they’re doing the things they actually said they were going to do.”

Stephanie Lee, who has lived at the Village for seven years, feels more protected with the new security at the development.

“That makes a world of a difference, especially when you felt like for so long that it went unheard, or no one was concerned or no one cared about your safety…,” Lee said. She went on to explain that for years, she felt that the area surrounding Colonial Village was a forgotten part of Avondale. “[K]nowing that we’ve got someone here who, like I said before, that cares, it’s a comfort.”

“They were our number one choice when we were vetting people to come in and take over this property,” said April Gallelli of the Avondale Development Corporation. Regularly in contact with residents, Gallelli was a central coordinator in the effort to mobilize tenants as they pushed for new ownership at the Village. “The evidence is here now. Since they’ve been here, I’ve got nothing but rave reviews about them…they don’t just care about the property, they care about the people here.”

Related Affordable issued a statement saying:

Colonial Village Apartments was in desperate need of a comprehensive rehabilitation after years of neglect, and we are proud to preserve its affordability designation while building on our history in Cincinnati following the successful redevelopment of Alms Hill Apartments,” said David Pearson, Senior Vice President of Related Affordable. “Related Affordable is firmly committed to undertaking the incredible amount of work needed at this property, and we look forward to working alongside local officials and residents on the revitalization plan, which would not have been made possible without our financing partners, KeyBank and Freddie Mac.

Cornes, Lee and Mitchell all told WCPO that they look forward to being able to sit and socialize outside of their homes again now that the complex is safer. Before, they were too afraid to do basic things like let their grandchildren play in their yards unsupervised.

“It will change me a lot, too” Mitchell said, “for not being so stressed out anymore. I can be able to sit in front of my door.”

“I think that it may give off a positive attitude, because it’s showing that we can have decent places to live. All the violence and different things that are going on, it’s not a part of the situation. It hurts it,” Cornes said.

“I’m just praying that everything will work out all right. But I have faith that it’s going to turn around.”

Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.

If there are stories about gentrification in the Greater Cincinnati area that you think we should cover, let us know. Send us your tips at moveupcincinnati@wcpo.com.