BRADENTON -- Some residents of Bradenton Village Apartments say their living conditions -- plagued by mold and mildew, leaky windows and roofs -- are being ignored, city officials and Bradenton Housing Authority Executive Director Ellis Mitchell Jr. acknowledge.
Bradenton Village, a public-private project that has received millions in local and federal tax dollars, was built in 2003 at First Street and 13th Avenue West to replace the troubled Rogers Garden Apartments. But it has had ongoing problems dating back to 2009. Now there's a resurgence of residents' complaints about living conditions and management bullying.
A group of residents had scheduled to meet with the Bradenton Herald last week, but they canceled, saying they feared retribution from the management company, and declined to go on record. Residents say they stopped the tour after property manager Sheree White-Townsend told them to, but White-Townsend insists no such conversation with residents occurred.
"It's the first I'm hearing of it," White-Townsend told
the Herald. "I can't tell them who they can have in their homes."
Asked about the conditions in some of the units, White-Townsend acknowledged complaints about mold and mildew, but said it was self-inflicted.
"They all signed a lease stating what they need to do to properly maintain their residences and their (air conditioning) units," she said. "They say they can't run their AC the way they need to, to keep the heat and humidity from building up. They signed the lease. We can't pay their bills for them."
Distinguishing between what may be a civil matter among private residents and what might be a bigger issue with federally aided low-income housing residents is all part of a contractual iceberg that Mitchell, hired in November, calls "a bad deal" for the city, the BHA and residents.
The original development agreement essentially does not authorize the BHA to assess and address its own concerns at the complex.
Bradenton Village was BHA's first Department of Housing and Urban Development Hope VI project -- a combination of public and private housing. It was spearheaded by former BHA boss William DeSue Jr., who laid the framework for how a large complex would be managed. The solution was to turn the public housing residents over to a management company, because the BHA did not have the staff to manage 125 additional units.
Problems began to surface under DeSue's successor and son, Wenston DeSue, who is accused of leading the agency into a financial morass and was fired in late 2013, after a federal raid of the BHA offices. No charges have been filed, but the federal investigation continues.
The younger DeSue shrugged off the problems at Bradenton Village in 2009, telling the Herald at the time that the issues were "minor." The city disagreed and began to take action, with code enforcement department head Tim Polk filing a complaint after seeing the conditions firsthand. Code enforcement applied pressure on the management company, Roush Field Ltd., to fix the issues.
Not enough was done, according to Polk. He said progress was made in addressing the outside structure violations such as chipped paint, but the management company had 120 units cited and the status of those violations is unclear. While code enforcement did an initial inspection, it took another two years to reinspect the complex. When it did in 2011, code enforcement found most of the violations had not been fixed.
The violations did begin to go through the code enforcement review board, but were never completed. Polk acknowledged that the code enforcement process "just kind of went away."
But now, six years later, Polk claims code enforcement is taking action again, but he would not elaborate on what the extent of that action would be.
Ward 2 Councilman liaison Gene Brown, the city's liaison with the BHA, also contends that code enforcement "is on top of it."
Mitchell said he was told by city officials that code enforcement actions stopped in 2011 because the city was confused about who they would potentially fine.
"They thought they were going to be fining the housing authority and they didn't want to do that," said Mitchell. "Bradenton Village has caused a lot of confusion because of the private and public components of it, but it's not a housing authority issue, it's a management company issue. We need the city to come back in and take a look at this."
City efforts vague
Polk said code enforcement efforts have been renewed to address the mold and mildew complaints. Now there are issues with leaky roofs.
These would be code enforcement violations, according to "city standards" within city ordinances outlining violations.
BHA board members have speculated that the developer, Telesis Corp. of Washington, D.C., used cheap materials during construction, especially sheetrock that is susceptible to mildew.
But Polk said it wasn't so much cheap materials as it was the use of wrong materials. Roofs, he said, shouldn't need to be replaced after 10 years.
Telesis President and founder Marilyn Melkonian was called by the Herald for comment earlier this month on the residents' and city's concerns, but she did not return the call. Executive assistant to the president Alicia Durfee said the company did want to respond and that the request for comment had made it to the appropriate people, but no response came.
Melkonian and Telesis have solid reputations in the nation's capital. Melkonian also founded the National Housing Trust and serves as its chair. While Telesis did not respond directly, the company prompted White-Townsend to answer the Herald's inquiries as a representative of the management company overseeing the complex.
The original development agreement handed over 95 percent of the public housing unit rent to the management company, about $36,000 a month, for operational costs. The city also spent $250,000 in infrastructure improvements and agreed to pay Telesis about $70,000 a year in tax increment funds for 15 years to help the developer pay down debt.
In theory, the contract made sense because the BHA did not have the staff to manage a large complex. But the contract left the BHA and its public housing residents at the sole discretion of the management company, which was created by Telesis. The lack of access to its public housing residents has left the BHA frustrated.
Polk said even the city has not been willingly invited to resolve residents' concerns.
Many complaints cited
Some of the more common complaints Mitchell has heard from residents include mold from rain coming through the windows and mildew settling into the sheetrock. Outside maintenance issues include the vacant land between Bradenton Village and Rogers Garden Elementary School. That land was to be the final phase of the project until HUD's Hope VI funding ran dry around 2005. The land is supposed to be maintained by the management company, but it is often overgrown with weeds and piles of dead vegetation. Undesirable wildlife is entering the residential area from the field, according to BHA Commissioner Norma Dunwoody, who is also a resident of the complex.
Dunwoody, too, declined to let the Herald tour the facilities, saying she was told not to cooperate by White-Townsend, who denied Dunwoody's claims. A second request was made to schedule a tour and Dunwoody did not return the call to reschedule the tour to allow the Herald to document the complaints.
After the Herald began inquiring into the maintenance issues, Mitchell reported earlier this month that the field had been cleared.
The BHA has been using its own funds -- about $40,000 a year -- to keep the field maintained as often as possible, Mitchell said. But it's the responsibility of Telesis, which took over land rights as part of a 400-page contract that has yet to be fully digested by Mitchell.
Other issues within Bradenton Village have been costing taxpayers money. At the complex's entrance, there is a turnoff road near the elementary school. The road was built in anticipation of the final phase of construction that never happened and leads to nowhere.
Residents have been using that area as a garbage dump. The city pays extra to have those materials removed to avoid health hazards for children playing not more than a few hundred yards away from the illegal dumping. Telesis promised for years to put up a gate to keep residents from dumping, and only did so after the Herald began making inquiries earlier this month.
The increasing concern of the BHA is that the buildings, just over a decade old, "won't be worth the land it's on," said BHA Commissioner Rigo Rivera, implying that the BHA will eventually inherit a costly piece of property that is more of a liability than an asset.
Mitchell said property management costs can get out of control if a management company doesn't know what they are doing. Roush is telling the BHA its operational funds are not sufficient to take care of the concerns.
"Operational costs can go up, but the HUD funding they receive, never does," Mitchell said. "So if you aren't careful with your operational budget, it can get out of control very quickly. It's why you have to do a good job with an operational budget -- and it doesn't look like that happened."
The management company contends that the public housing units cost more to maintain than private units. Mitchell said the BHA's question is, "How is that possible and if it is, show us proof, because our contract does say we have to make up the difference."
The proof has yet to be provided, Mitchell said, noting it isn't likely Telesis will sink a lot of money into property they own on a temporary basis.
"We are caught in the middle of what they say and what our families say," said Mitchell. "I'll never understand why the BHA did a deal that ties our hands."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.