Published May 17th, 2023 at 6:00 AM
The complaints are the same.
Roaches crawling out of sockets. Mice chewing through furniture. Ceilings caving in. Mold spreading.
The health issues are also similar. Asthma. Late-night emergency room visits. High levels of lead in children’s bloodwork. Worse yet, young children have died under mysterious circumstances.
“It’s to the point where we all were pretty much breathing very funny,” said Mia R, who requested that her last name not be used out of fear of retaliation. “I had to call the ambulance about four or five times for my boyfriend because he is asthmatic.”
Mia, a mother of six, is one of many current and former residents at Blue Valley Court Townhouses, at 2190 Wheeling Ave., who say they have been living in sub-par conditions for years. Even though she and her family moved into a more updated unit, she became tired of living like this.
So are about 60 other tenants who signed a petition for property managers to fix their units. Some tenants say they are ready to join several lawsuits involving Millennia Housing Management, which is based in Ohio. Millenia is one of the biggest owners and operators of federally subsidized Section 8 housing for low-income residents in the country.
One of the recently filed lawsuits cites concerns about Millennia’s mismanagement, lead poisoning, a child’s developmental delays and repeated infestations.
One counterclaim in an eviction lawsuit alleges that plaintiff Mercedez Davis (the filing also lists her last name as McGhee) and her children experienced repeated illness. She sought reimbursement for “deceptive practices” and “misrepresentation.” Point by point, the case outlines alleged toxicity of the environment, health issues and mismanagement by local property managers.
On a breezy 50-degree day in March, residents gathered to sign a petition that seeks to hold property managers accountable for their negligence. This is the culmination of two years’ worth of grassroots efforts.
It began with two moms and a friend determined to push for a solution.
Current tenants Amira Wyatt and Jasmaine Colbert met Kimberly Miller, founder and co-director of Empire Dreams Inc., a community development nonprofit. Wyatt and Colbert have bonded over the years, having endured similar situations.
Wyatt repeatedly called the Kansas City Health Department to investigate issues with pests and mold. Three separate visits confirmed several health violations. Then, the property manager issued a lease violation against Wyatt. The reason: a bottle cap flushed down the toilet.
Numerous stories like this depict mismanagement, neglect and retaliation.
Although Miller isn’t a Blue Valley Court tenant, she saw the deplorable conditions of her friends’ apartments and decided to step in.
Colbert’s story really hit home for her.
“Just seeing the mold, knowing about the past lead … and then seeing her baby, he’s the same age as my son and wondering why he’s not developing,” Miller said.
She added: “That’s not OK simply because this is her housing option.”
Tests showed that Colbert’s son had high levels of lead in his system, which might have contributed to his developmental delays. To date, he remains mostly nonverbal. Although he has not yet been diagnosed with a specific developmental delay, the family is on a waitlist at Children’s Mercy in the hopes they find an answer.
Colbert followed in the footsteps of other tenants to sue.
Millennia’s lawyers responded to the Davis counterclaim by asserting that damages occurred beyond the statute of limitations. Case filings show that Millennia officials either deny culpability because damages were incurred too long ago or that the facts in the case were inaccurate.
In an emailed statement, Millennia spokesperson Valerie Jerome said:
“Millennia does not retaliate against residents when they file complaints or requests, or otherwise. Blue Valley Court does not have any code violations; it is up to code. Blue Valley Court is currently in a process to correct deficiencies noted in the most recent HUD physical inspection. Additionally, residents may also report concerns to the Healthy Homes program. Once reported, the property management team works with the HH inspector to correct and document the resolutions.”
Citing new documentation and evidence as well as residents with similar stories, housing attorney Jesi Stanley contends these cases provide evidence of neglect and unhealthy living conditions.
“I’m very confused about why the A.G. (attorney general’s) office in Missouri hasn’t stepped in,” Stanley said, adding that she thinks Millennia is “violating all sorts of consumer protection laws in our state.”
With a clipboard in one hand and her young son wrapped around her waist in the other, Miller has been going door to door for weeks.
Her small team collects signatures, examples of issues and testimonies from tenants. Both Wyatt and Colbert trail behind her, starting conversations with their fellow neighbors.
Their work led to an impromptu tenant meeting in Wyatt’s meticulously decorated living room.
The room buzzed. Heads nodded. Voices rose.
Mothers and their young children huddled around, sharing stories of the many hired-then-fired property managers, handymen who ate their kid’s snacks and the shared exhaustion of living in a place that feels like their only option.
One former tenant, Delesha Cornelius, said the mismanagement threw a wrench into her plans to move out and into a better situation.
“I’m trying to get up out of here. One day I’m going to live in Brookside,” Cornelius said, as she signed the petition.
Blue Valley Court Townhouses is a Project Based Rental Assistance (PBRA) property, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This means the residents housed there are Section 8 voucher recipients because they are considered low-income. The vouchers cover a portion of the rent for residents depending on their income and employment status.
Federal subsidies are tied to the units, so if someone decides to leave, they no longer receive assistance. This leaves tenants like Colbert with no other viable option than to stay.
“I just really want to move. For the sake of my kids,” she said. “My kids are sick, sick, sick.”
Fifteen other tenants present at the tenant meeting, many of whom have young children, raised similar concerns.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that nationwide almost half of those living in PBRA Section 8 housing live in urban areas. More than 60% are female residents.
HUD’s assistance is supposed to support lower-income folks and help them avoid houselessness. But some critics, advocates and tenants say HUD is not enforcing inspections. This leads to persistent issues and a lack of accountability from property owners.
This isn’t new.
Millennia Housing Management, which manages Blue Valley Court Townhouses, has repeatedly been under fire for neglecting their properties in other cities, such as Baltimore, Houston and Atlanta, with strikingly similar issues to those cited by Kansas City residents.
Media reports from other cities cite a lack of government oversight. In Kansas City, inspections and quality control have not been properly enforced, according to U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II of Kansas City, who is a ranking member of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Housing and Insurance. Regional HUD officials also acknowledge that Blue Valley Court was in bad shape.
A HUD inspection report from 2017 shows that Blue Valley Court Townhouses – property number 800011459 — scored an 81. The most recent publicly available report from November 2022 scored Blue Valley a 32.
“The lower the score, the larger the number of inspections,” Cleaver said.
Guidelines state that scores above 60 pass and those that score less than 80 must have an annual inspection. According to those metrics, Blue Valley Court Townhouses are only required to conduct inspections every two years.
After multiple requests for clarification, officials from the regional HUD office acknowledged Blue Valley Court Townhouses management’s failure to address issues raised during a more recent November 2022 inspection.
In January, HUD issued a “Notice of Default” to Blue Valley Court Townhouses. If they do not comply, HUD has several enforcement options that range from changing ownership or management to, as the last resort, canceling the Section 8 contract.
“At the start of this Administration, we recognized the need to put more resources toward inspections and other processes that have been historically under-resourced to manage a portfolio the size of HUD’s assisted rental portfolio,” a regional HUD spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement to Flatland.
“We did this so that we could better identify and rectify challenges such as those experienced by the residents at Blue Valley Court. Over the last two years, we have focused on improving our inspections and our asset management oversight to better address properties that need attention in order to get them back on track in providing safe, decent affordable housing for their communities.”
Until then, Blue Valley tenants are pushing for change.
As of May 8, about 60 tenants have signed up to pursue Millennia and Blue Valley Court Townhouses for damages.
They are represented by Jesi Stanley, who used to work with Legal Aid of Western Missouri. She now has her own firm focused on housing cases.
The Blue Valley case began with Mercedez Davis, a current tenant who has experienced health issues and the death of a loved one. Davis has been in and out of the hospital, having been treated with steroids for asthma and severe lung inflammation.
She also recently had a baby who was born three months prematurely. Doctors told her the lack of oxygen induced labor and suspected a connection to hazards inside her home.
When she reached out to the property managers, they cut out the moldy drywall and replaced it without additional treatment. Unsatisfied, Davis had her home tested for mold. The results showed elevated levels of mold that needed to be remediated.
The next step was to file a formal complaint. Soon after, she received lease violations, once in front of Stanley, her lawyer.
“It’s frustrating, because realistically, I felt like for years, there was nothing that I could do. And when I tried to do something about it, I was threatened with eviction,” she said.
That prompted her to fight back, this time with documented evidence and a lawyer who understood her case.
Then word spread.
As Stanley discussed the litigation at Wyatt’s apartment and folks shared their stories, more tenants signed up to join the legal effort against Millennia.
Some are former tenants, like Karen Rogers, whose six-month-old son died after she sought help to repair a gas leak. A couple of months after her son’s death, her one-year-old niece died under similar circumstances.
With tears rolling down her cheeks, Rogers said she seeks justice for lives lost and those currently living here.
“We have to … lift our windows up at night just so we won’t smell gas. Like, make it make sense. We have to sit here and scrub just so we can get the mold out of our apartments. Make it make sense,” Rogers said.
Some tenants, who were afraid to speak on the record for fear of retaliation, said management doesn’t respect their complaints. When they speak up, their cars are towed, or they are issued lease violations for pets that they don’t own or for having a clogged toilet.
Many folks are unsure what entity should be held responsible.
Some look to the Housing Authority of Kansas City. Edwin Lowndes, the authority’s executive director, said the authority does not manage Blue Valley Court Townhouses, though they run similar project-based Section 8 voucher programs for other complexes in the region.
But Lowndes has tried to collaborate with Millennia to help manage Section 8 properties. He met with Millennia representatives to find ways to better serve folks who need affordable housing, but those conversations were unproductive.
Now, it’s up to HUD, he said.
“HUD has the power of the purse,” Lowndes said. “It’s confusing or baffling to see these types of circumstances where families have these deficiencies. And, you know, they’re not being corrected.”
After years of grassroots efforts and door-to-door conversations with families and elders who live at Blue Valley Court Townhouses, Kimberly Miller never expected to get a call from Arthur Krauer, executive vice president of compliance and community affairs at Millennia.
Krauer, who has not responded to Flatland’s requests for comment, has been with Millennia Housing Corporation since January 2022.
Property managers recently began cleaning out abandoned units at Blue Valley Court Townhouses.
During a call on May 5, Miller said Krauer owned up.
“He said they dropped the ball for two years. That it’s on them, on local leadership,” Miller said. “He talked a lot about making ‘the wrong things right.’”
In the next several weeks, Krauer assured Miller that management would complete 162 work orders and flip 30-40 units. Within six months, the units should be up to par.
The goal moving forward is to host monthly tenant meetings, enforce quarterly inspections and follow through with plans to complete a full renovation within two years.
Miller said she is cautiously optimistic. Current and former tenants say they’ll wait and see, but they have one message.
“We’re not a product of our environment. We are not who they think we are. We are women. We are men,” Rogers said. “We are living human beings.”
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs and heads up the journalism engagement series, curiousKC, for Kansas City PBS.