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Wednesday, August 14,2013

From 'The Carter' to a home

Crime and discontent at South Washington Park Apartments and the efforts to stop it

by Andy Balaskovitz
The first half hour of the 1991 fictional crime movie “New Jack City” introduces viewers to The Carter, a high-rise apartment complex in New York City that’s taken over by the Cash Money Brothers during the crack epidemic.

Wesley Snipes plays Nino Brown, the Cash Money gang leader who orchestrates a $1 million a week crack cocaine hub in the apartment complex, where it’s all manufactured and sold onsite. Buyers can pick up and get high at home or indulge at the Enterprise, a sort of designated crack-smoking area at the complex. Residents living there become “loyal customers,” or, “If they don’t, fuck it, it’s like Beirut — they become live-in hostages,” Brown says. Concerned neighbors look on as their community disintegrates like a crack addict’s motivation. 

In what’s obvious hyperbole but nonetheless reminiscent, residents at the South Washington Park Apartments sometimes refer to it as “The Carter.”

The five-story building, at 3200 S. Washington Ave. near Holmes Road, is public housing.  But unlike in the film, it hasn’t been overtaken by a gang. In my short time walking the halls with a resident, I didn’t see armed gang members with machine guns or a room full of half-naked bodies preparing vials of drugs.

But with an underlying discomfort among some residents, a relatively high rate of crime and concerned residents from the closest neighborhood association, it wasn’t really surprising that when I asked more than one resident about the problems there, the response invoked The Carter.

The Lansing Police Department, officials of the Lansing Housing Commission — which operates the building — Mayor Virg Bernero, City Council members and even Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings have all taken notice, paying visits to the complex over the past year. “There’s a lot of hands trying to get their arms around this specific location,” said 3rd Ward Councilwoman A’Lynne Boles-Robinson, whose ward includes the apartments.

Even the most critical residents of the complex’s shortcomings recognize these efforts, though they believe more can be done, particularly when it comes to securing the 278-unit building from outsiders. Infestations and drug dealing are at the top of residents’ complaints.

Still, not all are open to speaking out about the problems. “I keep to myself” is not an uncommon response. Others fear retaliation from criminals or an eviction notice from management. Yet another segment of the population at South Washington Park Apartments — and even some of the city officials overseeing the situation — say the complaints are overstated. “You hear from those who complain louder than those who don’t,” said Housing Commission Executive Director Patricia Baines-Lake. 

And things are improving. From Aug. 1, 2011, to July 31, 2012, the LPD responded to incidents here about once every four days, according to department data provided to City Pulse. In the year since, LPD on average responded to incidents once every nine days.

But there’s no denying that things reached an all-time low at the complex a little over a year ago. That it’s a publicly managed housing facility adds another layer of complexity.

Ingham County Commissioner Sarah Anthony, whose grandmother stayed in the complex “upwards of 20 years,” said the family “had progressively seen things get worse and worse and worse.”

The family reached a tipping point last year. They were dropping off Anthony’s grandmother on a Sunday morning after church. “Someone who was clearly intoxicated literally came into our car. It really scared the crap out of my mom.” Harassment, loud noises, drug activity, a lack of cleanliness and management’s slow response to issues were becoming common, she added. 

“We decided enough was enough.” So the family moved her out.

Inside

When I visited around 5:30 p.m. last week, residents were hanging around the front yard, playing games and smoking cigarettes. Anyone can enter a small lobby area inside, but the next door is locked and requires a key card for entry. The locked door was propped open, but a sign saying any unaccompanied guests would be trespassing kept me out this evening. The next day, resident James Henry invited me up to his third-floor apartment. His one-bedroom space is cramped with a TV, a couch, chair, coffee table and kitchenette. Not much space was left in the bedroom with a full-size mattress. Downstairs, the inside lobby and halls — with concrete walls and plain floor tile — feel as much like a hospital as they do apartments. 

Henry, who’s 68 and has lived there nearly 10 years, has stayed over the years because it’s “handy.” He lives on $650 a month and his rent is just under $200. He despises management and the younger crowd that he says is spreading drug problems. He’s not afraid to speak out.

“The things they do around this building,” he grumbled in a raspy voice. Day to day, “I’m gone, just to get out of this dump.”

A full-time manager and assistant manager and a temporary receptionist are at the building for about eight hours a day. Two senior maintenance employees complete work orders, while another full-time employee does janitorial work and maintains the grounds. A security guard is on duty in the evenings and on weekends. There is not an around-the-clock security employee because the housing commission can’t afford it.

Tenants pay 30 percent or less of their earnings for rent. To qualify, they must satisfy an income formula and pass a criminal background check. Anyone old enough to execute a lease can live there. 

The complex is one of four properties the housing commission oversees, which also include Mt. Vernon, Hildebrandt and LaRoy Park townhouses, duplexes and single-family homes. It manages a total of 832 housing units in the city, which are 96 percent occupied. Ninety-eight percent of the housing commission’s budget comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Baines-Lake said.

When I arrived for my first visit at South Washington, 46-year-old Rodney Trahan was playing dominoes outside with his friend Tony. Unlike Henry, the two see nothing wrong with the facility. Trahan’s lived there a little over a year; Tony since February. For Trahan, it’s better than the alternative.

“For seven months I lived at the (homeless) shelter,” he said. “Coming here was a blessing. It’s the people coming from outside causing the trouble. The building itself is beautiful.” 

Drugs, bed bugs, etc.

Complaints about the building, which is 96 percent full, are twofold: the crime that occurs in and around it, and the living conditions.

Since Aug. 1, 2011, LPD has recorded 117 incidents taking place in and around the building. Incidents range from obstructing justice to aggravated assault. Just less than 10 percent — 11 — were drug related. Nearly a quarter of the incidents involved theft of some kind.

Brandon Washington, who lives across the street from the apartments, notices people arrive in cars, go in the building for a few minutes and leave. Or smokers in the outside gazebo flicking a lighter every 10 seconds — both are signs to him of drug activity. Washington, 25, has lived in Lansing since he was 3.

“I’m sure there’s probably good people over there,” he said. “But I’d never go over there.”

The consensus is that problems stem from residents having guests stay with them for extended periods.

“Individuals not on leases are creating a number of problems — ranging from drugs, loud music and some domestic incidents — and that’s bleeding out into the neighborhoods and traffic, creating a problem specifically for Old Everett (Neighborhood),” Boles-Robinson said. “The level of activity happening at that site is of concern.”

But why is the crime particularly bad here? 

Patricia Baines-Lake, executive director of the Lansing Housing Commission, said the biggest problem is the design of the building. Unlike townhouse-style homes the housing commission manages, hundreds of people share multiple access points to an area with hallways.

“It’s not the way you see people design housing unless it’s for seniors anymore,” she said.

Police Chief Mike Yankowski said crime trends depend on “what’s acceptable” in a certain area. “For some reason, it became an acceptable norm for that complex that crime was acceptable to people that lived there,” he said. 

A high turnover rate of renters, as well as a study influx of visitors, may also have contributed to the problem, he said.

And then there are the bed bugs. One resident, who asked not to be identified because “I don’t want to get kicked out,” said she hasn’t been in her apartment for the past month because of an infestation. She wanted something done about it; a manager told her they may have originated because of her “lifestyle.” She muttered softly, looking away: “They really hurt my feelings.”

Baines-Lake acknowledged that the process from complaint to full treatment can take as long as 30 days. She said the bed-bug problem is monitored regularly with preventative cleaning and inspections and that the commission has “spent a substantial amount of money on addressing” them — $800 to $1,500 per unit, depending on the size. 

Still, “We don’t believe we have an infestation,” she said, downplaying the notion that it’s a problem specifically at the building. “Bed bugs are an equal opportunity parasite. … They are found in even the most expensive hotels in America.”

On July 1, South Washington resident Anita Smith-Harris spoke publicly during a City Council meeting about what she called “deplorable conditions” at the site. After citing bed bugs, rats, drugs and prostitution, she said a man had recently passed away in his fifth-floor apartment, his body sitting for a week before anyone noticed. After the meeting, she described the stairwells as a giant toilet where people would relieve themselves.

“I don’t understand why the Council would allow that to go on in the city,” she said. “The whole fifth floor reeked of his dead body.”

Baines-Lake confirmed that on occasion staff will have to clean stairwells of human waste, but she was unaware of the specific death incident Smith-Harris mentioned. Janell McLeod, the apartment manager, referred questions to Baines-Lake. 

Two Old Everett Neighborhood Association board members, President Linda Pung and Treasurer Emly Horne, declined to comment about the group’s involvement for this story. Boles-Robinson summed up the association’s position this way: “They believe that location is the bane of the entire neighborhood’s existence.” 

What’s being done

Over the past year, the housing commission has teamed up with the Police Department to eradicate what the former Old Everett Neighborhood Association president told a TV news station last year was a “cancer” on the neighborhood.

The police and the housing commission conducted three unannounced “sweeps” of the building, knocking on “virtually every door in the apartment complex” to see that those living there were actually residents, Baines-Lake said. “A substantial number of residents who didn’t live in the building were taken out of the building.”

The commission reimbursed the department for the first two, while the third had already been planned by LPD. Baines-Lake could not specify how much it cost the commission.

“We feel like we have to be pretty aggressive,” she said.

Yankowski said the Police Department started a “data-driven” approach to the area around the building last August because it had the highest number of repeat calls for service. “It was identified as one of the hot spots for the city,” he said.

LPD’s strategy included the sweeps and installing a community policing officer onsite. The department also identified the area around the complex near MLK where it would start a “Data Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety,” or DDACTS, plan that increases the police presence in the area. The result? A nearly 50 percent drop in the number of incidences LPD has responded to.

In June, a $65,000 surveillance system was installed. The housing commission board also approved funding for renovations in the building’s community room. However, federal sequestration has negatively impacted the Housing Commission and particularly South Washington Park Apartments. On Thursday, HUD announced statewide public housing grants that could give the commission some relief. It received nearly $1.2 million in capital funds for major improvements, which will replace stoves, refrigerators, kitchen and bath upgrades and staff training. 

In July 2012, the Old Everett Neighborhood Association proposed a list of “action items” it wanted to see accomplished to address the issues. It included forming a committee with city officials to create a long-term crime prevention plan, imposing a 11 p.m. curfew and making the building “drug and alcohol free.”

Baines-Lake said she has no idea how many of the action items have been met. The curfew, she added, would be illegal to impose.

Some of the residents suggested that the neighborhood association is merely stoking an unnecessary fire. When asked if she felt the group’s input has been constructive, Baines-Lake said: “No comment. I’m neutral on it. I know they’re concerned about their neighborhood as each of us would be. They have the best interest of the neighborhood in their heart.”

As the data suggests things are improving, Baines-Lake said the complex still has an image problem.

“We’ve had a perception of a problem for quite a while,” she said. “It is hard to change perception. We’re going to keep working on it till we’re effective in doing it.”

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