Elderly and disabled residents in J. Van Story Branch public housing live among bed-bugs and fight for basic repairs
By Kenneth Stone Breckenridge
Oct 26, 2016 | 3:00 AM
Michelle Owens, 72, sits in a wheelchair outside her apartment in the J. Van Story Branch Senior Apartments enjoying the fresh air. She rarely goes outside these days because it is so dangerous, she says, but her son is visiting for the day from Philadelphia so she feels safe. He listens; she vents.
"It's terrible in here, honey," she says, nodding at the public housing high-rise behind her. She never intended to stay. "[I've lived here] seven years too long." Sweat trickles down her cheek on this muggy July day. "They sell drugs in here. They kill people in here. They stab people in here. They rape people in here. They try your doorknob at night to see whether or not you left your door open so they can come in and rob you and beat you up. They do a lot of things in here."
Her son is silent as he nods, legs extended from the low beach chair he sits in. Owens goes on: "It's the rats, the roaches, the bed bugs. It's infected with 'em. Infested. I threw out three beds and three couches. Now I don't have anything to sleep on."
Owens, elderly and on a fixed income, has been unable to move despite repeatedly asking the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which owns the building, to transfer her, she says. She is determined. "I want outta here. I'm trying to find somebody to get me out of here."
Michelle Owens is just one of the hundreds of residents at the J. Van Story Branch apartments who is living in a building that is dangerous, bug-infested, and in desperate need of basic repairs. The 20-story building, located on West 20th Street between Charles Street and Maryland Avenue houses mostly elderly and disabled people in its 357 apartments and is visibly infested with rodents, insects, and parasites, which can be particularly harmful for those whose health is fragile. Since Jan. 1, 2015, there have been 2,110 emergency calls to 911, according to police records. Residents put in 85 calls regarding assaults, 28 reporting burglary or robbery, 32 complaints of narcotic sales on the premises, and two for shootings. Inside the 43-year-old building security is lax, the elevators are often broken, pipes are busted, ceilings leak, air-conditioning and heat falters, and residents sometimes struggle to control the broken faucets and water temperatures.
The building was constructed with loftier goals. In the 1970s, Baltimore's Housing Authority created several public housing sites specifically for senior citizens which, at the time, were among the first of their kind. One of those properties was the West Twenty, the tallest structure in Charles North. The building provided a sense of pride for the residents and the Housing Authority in its heyday.
In 2008, the "West Twenty" building was renamed the "J. Van Story Branch" building after the first African-American Director of Housing Management. Former Baltimore Housing Commissioner Jay Brodie, boss and friend of J. Van Story Branch, says that Branch came up through the ranks of housing managers and was "terrific."
In fact, during the 1968 riots on the heels of Martin Luther King's death, Branch journeyed with his son through a burning city and thousands of rioters to visit many public housing complexes to ensure that the residents and their property were protected.
He had a different management style, Brodie says. "This isn't sitting back in a desk downtown, it was not just being sympathetic and collecting the rent, it was doing maintenance and the maintenance was good. We were very proud of the way properties were maintained. There wasn't anything like—hmmm, how should I put it—the media coverage of recent years."
But things have changed radically in the building that was named to honor Branch.
Today, the J. Van Story Branch building blends in with the rest of developing North Avenue with its newly built modern facade and it doesn't stand out among local landmarks such as MICA, The Crown, and Red Emma's. But renovations on the exterior are not reflected inside and residents, with few alternatives, say they are hunkered down while things fall into disrepair around them.
The building, run by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, is currently in a kind of limbo, waiting to be sold to a private developer under a program called Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). Under this same program, Baltimore is selling off 23 similar properties to private developers, putting them in charge of maintaining the buildings for thousands of Baltimore City residents. Those who live in J. Van Story complain that the city is just treading water, declining to do necessary maintenance as it waits for a buyer.
But the Housing Authority insists that's not the case, pointing out that the agency has put nearly $8 million into exterior and interior renovations at J. Van Story since 2010. The Housing Authority has also created new offices, improved some of the heating and electrical system, replaced doors and windows, and resurfaced the exterior with stucco and insulation, among other things at J. Van Story, says Housing's Director of Communication, Tania Baker.
However, she admits that it is not enough. "Despite HABC's substantial investment in J. Van Story over the years," Baker writes in an email, "significantly more work needs to be done." She estimates that further necessary construction will cost $32 million.
That means the Housing Authority has invested only 20 percent of what it says needs to be done to have all of these residents' homes in proper working order. Unfortunately, it is likely to be at least a year for a prospective buyer to first agree to purchase a building with millions of dollars worth of structural problems and then invest the remaining money to address the slew of maintenance issues.
Wanda Sanders, 48, stands in front of the J. Van Story building one afternoon in June talking to her friend, Philip Cambell, 62. They are both fed up with the state of their apartments and run through a list of needed repairs.
"It's full of bed bugs," Cambell says. "The pipes break when they get ready. The elevators, they shut down. Sometimes we don't have any elevator working and there's 18 floors in there. Most of the time there's only one elevator working when three of them should be." (Indeed, as they step inside the building minutes later with a reporter and photographer, only one out of three elevators works.)
"It's falling apart on the inside," Sanders says.
But Cambell doesn't blame the maintenance workers. "They understaffed," he says, straightening his posture only to return to balancing himself on his walker. "So when they get to you, they get to you. Sometimes it can be months."
"It's ridiculous," they both say simultaneously.
"They want that money every month," Cambell says, referring to his rent, which is set at a mandated 30 percent of a resident's income. "[If] we got a problem in our apartment, it should take them two days at most!"
There is only one maintenance worker for every 74 apartments in the building, not nearly enough to manage a 43-year-old building that even the Housing Authority admits needs "normal rehab of each individual unit, common areas, and mechanical systems," as well as needing "remedies for lower level parking lot flooding, water infiltration issues to the foundation, and other targeted structural work."
"The building needs to be torn down," says Cambell.
"Blew up," says Sanders.
While the exterior work completed last year gives the building curb appeal, the inside is another story. Sanders, who is in recovery and was featured in an April City Paper story on methadone clinics, insists on displaying her own apartment as an example of the neglect. She hugs Cambell goodbye and heads toward the entrance. She walks past the lobby to press the "up" button on the only working elevator. She waits with about six other residents for the elevator to work its way down to the ground floor. Everyone packs into the elevator and the doors close. The elevator, lined with duct tape and particle board panels, stops at a few floors until arriving on the 18th, Sanders' floor.
Sanders places her key in the door and turns the knob. She walks in and points to a spot near her bed, which is sitting only a few feet away in her tiny efficiency flat.
"As you can see, it's bedbugs crawling now, see?" she says, pointing to a bed bug the size of an apple seed crawling on the wall near her bed.
Bed bugs are nocturnal parasites that feed on their victims' blood as they sleep. The female insects can produce from one to twelve offspring per day. The initial signs of an infestation are small bites on legs and arms along with small bloodstains on bed sheets.
There are dozens of small reddish-brown splotches on her bed sheet.
"[It's] from us killin' them," she says. "We get no sleep. My husband and I, we take shifts because I got bit by a bed bug. I went to the hospital and I caught a blood infection." Five times Sanders and her husband have thrown out their infested mattresses and purchased new ones. Twice, they've done the same with their living room furniture—a real financial hardship on their fixed incomes.
On this particular afternoon, five bed bugs crawl across her bathtub. More are in her kitchen and on the bathroom sink. At one point, she flicks one off her forearm.
"There is not a place that you don't turn and there is not a bed bug. You might be sitting on the toilet," Sanders says stopping to laugh. "I mean it's not funny but you might be sitting on the toilet and you feel something crawl on your leg or even on your butt!"
As any pest control website will explain, getting rid of bed bug infestations only works when all adjacent apartments are treated simultaneously. But, according to Sanders, when residents finally get someone to treat the bug problem, the exterminators will only come to the single apartment, rather than treating all the apartments on the floor or the whole building.
And bed bugs aren't the only issue. Sanders waits months for repairs.
Baker, spokesperson for the Housing Authority, explains how to have a concern addressed in an email. "Residents may submit maintenance requests directly to their building's management office or they can call a work order hotline or they can call the HABC central communication phone number," she writes.
Sanders has done that. She brings out a maintenance inspection form dating back to Oct. 8, 2015, listing numerous problems. It was signed by her husband and a maintenance worker. None of the items listed, including the bed bug infestation, the detached sink, and the broken closet, had been addressed when City Paper visited the apartment nine months later.
And the J. Van Story is just one building in the Housing Authority's collection. In fact, the Baltimore Sun reported in November 2015 that there was a backlog of over 4,000 work orders in which some Housing Authority tenants, such as Sanders, had to wait over a year with no work done. When the work is done, it is often "Shoddy [and] incomplete,'" the Sun reporter noted.
After repeatedly investing in new furniture and landing in the hospital, Sanders has no faith that help is ever coming.
"You are basically on your own."
Security issues plague residents
Many J. Van Story Branch building residents feel that the Housing Authority has not taken proper steps to ensure their safety. The police are frequently called to the building and residents complain of drug activity, violence, and security lapses.
What is being done?
Baker says that the Housing Authority takes action to minimize illegal activity on the property. "HABC enforces its lease; organizes and attends community meetings; cooperates with law enforcement; reports illegal activity and encourages resident to also report illegal activity," she says in an email. "Violation of the lease or house rules are handled in accordance with local and State laws."
Baker also says that security procedures are in place to ensure the safety of the residents.
"Building security includes security cameras and 24 hour armed security," she writes. "Camera coverage includes the following areas: elevators, lobby area and garage entrance."
Residents say that's not enough.
"They need cameras in the halls 'cause once you step off that elevator, that's your ass!" says "Jump," a 50-year-old resident who is reluctant to provide his real name out of fear of reprisal or even eviction by the Housing Authority. "The security here is bonkers."
"You can come in here at one or two o'clock in the morning," he says. "They sleep at the desk, you can walk right by 'em. Just like you did."
And indeed, this reporter and photographer entered the building twice without speaking to a security officer while visiting residents.
"You came right in here and they didn't say nothin' to you," Jump says. "They don't know who you are. Anybody else can come in here and do what they want to do: kill, rob, steal and go right back out the door.
"When you walk out of your house or go into your house you want to feel like you are secure."
In addition to the 2,110 calls to 911 since Jan. 1, 2015—including more than 80 for assault—nearly a dozen residents referred to a recent incident related to a woman whose apartment was broken into.
"A girl got raped and beat up on 17," says Denise Kinslow, a five year resident of the building.
Wanda Sanders, who is visiting Kinslow, joins in. "This happened this past winter. For three days he held her in her apartment. I mean, he really beat her. Bad!"
According to a Baltimore police report, last November at 2:15 a.m. police officers responded to a 911 call from J. Van Story Branch apartment building. A 49-year-old woman reported that she was "getting off the elevator when she was attacked and pulled into a apartment, beaten and raped."
According to court records, Hubert Carr, a resident of the building who has been previously charged with armed robbery, assault, battery, drug possession, and theft, was arrested and charged with various assault and sex offense related charges in the incident.
Police reports state that Carr admitted to the arresting officer that he attempted to kill the victim during the assault. "He punched [the victim] in the face and placed a pillow over her head," the officer said Carr told him. It is important to note that there were, and are, no cameras outside of the elevators nor in the hallways for security to observe, respond to, or deter such incidents. The case is still pending.
"They shouldn't have never allowed him in because he had a record," Sanders says. "I even heard that they get more money to accept tenants like him here."
"It started out okay and it just keeps getting worse and worse and worse and worse," adds Kinslow. "It's a lot of drug dealing."
Indeed, while interviewing residents in front of the J. Van Story entrance one afternoon, a few feet from a security guard at the front desk, one of the interviewees conducts a drug transaction while discussing the troubles of the building. A person walks up to the resident and says, "I'm trying to buy three of them." The resident hands the person two unidentified pills and accepts money in exchange responding "Shit, I need to go back up [for the third pill]."
Property conversions leave residents in limbo
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) created RAD, a program designed to convert public housing into private housing using what are called Section 8 contracts. Acknowledging that it "has an enormous backlog of repair and improvement needs for the roughly 11,000 units it operates," the Housing Authority argues that RAD is "a powerful tool to preserve and improve public housing properties."
Not everyone is buying it.
"This RAD program came about because the federal government had been defunding public housing," says housing advocate Jeff Singer, an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. "It's a way for these private developers to make a profit."
The plan is to privatize and renovate nearly 40 percent of the city's public housing stock. But Singer says the Housing Authority's move isn't likely to help residents much. "They run it like a business, a failing business," Singer says. "They're much more interested in the bottom line than the well-being of people that live in the buildings."
In June of 2014, 60 residents and Union workers staged a protest against the implementation of RAD.
"The Housing Authority, from my perspective, have no commitment to poor people in Baltimore," Singer says. "I think the Commissioner has demonstrated that over and over and over. They have had a $150 million dollar surplus that they haven't spent on maintaining the buildings."
Singer references last November's City Paper article, "Where's Housing's Money?" which mapped out how the Housing Authority was failing to utilize its nine-figure surplus for the benefit of its tenants.
Residents worry that things will get worse under the RAD program. "The building is up for sale [and] HUD ain't put no money into the building," says Floyd Gross, an 11 year resident of the J. Van Story apartments and the Vice President of the tenant council. "We try to help the residents and their problems and keep a working relationship between maintenance and the residents, [but] we got all kinds of construction and housing problems."
"It makes the maintenance look like they ain't doing their job because they don't have they stuff to work with or the people to work with," says Gross.
"I'm a carpenter. I worked for a private realtor," says Gross, explaining that he knows what should be happening to properly maintain a building. "They not doing anything. They ain't taking care of their responsibility and they always want to infringe on our rights. The Housing Authority ain't investing in our building anymore. They don't care about these people."
Residents like Michelle Owens concur, and worry. Sitting outside the building on that same July afternoon her eyes follow everyone that passes on the sidewalk as she chats with her son.
"I don't come out here unless I have to go to the store and I come right back in my house and stay," Owens says. "It's always something happening."
As an elderly person, Owens says she is fearful of all the crime in the building—but has little faith that things will change any time soon.