Militant Journalism

Cleveland tenants demand fair treatment, compensation after displacement due to burst water pipe

For the past two months, residents at the Winton Manor Apartments in Cleveland have been displaced from their homes after a water pipe burst on the night of Dec. 23, 2022, flooding several apartments in the building.

Water ran for 14 hours before the valve was shut off. Both management in the building and property management executives failed to communicate effectively or respond quickly to the crisis.

The burst pipe came after over a year of negligence by the property management company, Evergreen Real Estate, which took over the building in May 2021. The irreparable damages caused by Evergreen’s management has compelled the residents to form a tenants council and struggle for compensation and fair housing.

“[Water] came gushing out [of my apartment] like Niagara Falls,” said Latonia Morgan, a Winton Manor resident and president of the tenants council.

Her belongings had been packed up in bags and boxes on the floor in preparation for a move to another room in the building, long-promised by Evergreen, but never delivered. When the ceiling in her kitchen caved in from the water, all her belongings were damaged.

“I can’t even put a dollar value on some of the sentiment that I’ve lost that can’t be replaced,” Morgan reported to Cleveland 19 journalists after the incident.

Liberation News spoke to a number of residents, who did not want their names used because of fear of retaliation. They gave similar stories of loss.

“I came home from the store and saw water coming out the ceiling,” one resident described. He ran through his corridor, trying to wake up as many of his neighbors as he could.

“It was like a river running through,” said another resident. “I was trying to sweep the water out, but it was too much.” She described waking up to a water-logged apartment. “[When I woke up,] I thought I was dreaming, but it was mists of water drifting down.”

That resident has only been back to her apartment one time since the flooding. “My floors and walls are ripped apart,” she said. “I can see into my next door neighbor’s apartment.”

The displaced residents have only been back to their apartments to retrieve whatever could be salvaged. For most, there wasn’t much remaining. Most residents reported losing all of their furniture. One resident had 13 bags of clothing that needed to be laundered before knowing what’s salvageable.

Damage from flooding at Winton Manor. Photo credit: Winton Manor Tenants Council
Damage from flooding at Winton Manor. Photo credit: Winton Manor Tenants Council

This is not an isolated incident at Winton Manor. The property is overseen by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and largely serves fixed-income and disabled residents. The residents that Liberation News spoke to described a pattern of discrimination and negligence by Evergreen.

The deplorable behavior of Evergreen and their agents combined with little oversight from supposed allies in the government has led residents to organize themselves and fight for their rights to fair housing and dignity.

When Evergreen Real Estate took over the building in May 2021, they came in with a mandate to deliver much-needed renovations. The company reported raising $18 million in capital for the renovation of Carter Apartments, now known as Winton Manor.

Their funding for renovations came from a bridge loan from Huntington National Bank, construction financing through KeyBank and Freddie Mac, low-income housing tax credits syndicated through CREA LLC, and pre-development financing from the Local Initiative Support Corporation — a subsidiary of the Ford Foundation.

Given the amount of private investment, Evergreen is under pressure to deliver the promised renovations: new appliances in all apartments; accessibility improvements in units for residents with wheelchairs and other care needs; fixing outdated and unreliable elevators; replacing flooring and repainting hallways; a new community kitchen; and major repairs and updates to the mechanical systems, i.e., plumbing, electrical and HVAC.

Upon acquisition of the building, Evergreen announced that these repairs would be completed no later than December 2022.

The rosy picture marketed to residents has differed wildly from their reality since Evergreen took over management. Long-time residents at Winton Manor told Liberation News that, while management was never stellar, conditions deteriorated once Evergreen got involved.

“It’s gotten worse,” was the unanimous refrain.

One resident described his bedroom ceiling collapsing shortly after moving in early in 2022. It was not fixed until renovations on his apartment began months later. “If it weren’t for construction starting on my apartment, I don’t think it would have ever been fixed,” he said.

Other residents told stories of continuous issues with the water in the building, such as toilets not flushing for weeks on end.

“I’ve been scalded three times,” said a resident, who has to hold onto the faucet handle while showering to prevent blistering water from scorching her body. “I wanna get out of there as fast as possible.”

Residents even describe being asked to pay back rent they did not owe. “[Evergreen] told us HUD said that we owed rent.” Residents suspect a pattern among the residents who received those false notifications.

“Most people aren’t good at record keeping, and they know that some residents have mental disabilities,” one resident said. “I felt like the majority of residents [Evergreen] targeted were people [with mental disabilities].”

Since renovations began, building residents have reported a lack of communication, theft, exposure to environmental hazards and neglect at the hands of agents of the Evergreen Construction company — a sister company of Evergreen Property Management.

There has been an alarming turnover of foremen managing day-to-day construction work. “We’re on the ninth foreman now. There’s no communication between each foreman that has come and gone. Every time we get a new one they have to start all over,” a resident said.

A lack of documentation passed between construction managers or any sort of process to ensure the project can continue without interruption has led to delays and mismanagement.

“Anytime they come to work in your apartment,” exclaimed one of the inhabitants, “they make you leave until 5 o’clock in the evening!” When asked if any progress could be identified after being out all day, residents all said that the contractors would almost always need to return the next day to complete whatever it was they were working on. “They never finish a job. It never gets finished. Never.”

Residents told Liberation News about missing items and food upon return to their rooms. “It’s either the construction people or other residents,” said one, “because a lot of times they don’t secure the door to your apartment after they’re finished.”

Residents also say issues with infestations, mold and asbestos have cropped up since renovations began. “When they started pulling up old carpet and knocking down walls, the stuff that lived in the walls and the carpet started coming up,” one resident said.

Evergreen moved forward with these renovations and kept people in place despite knowing that several tenants had respiratory and other health issues.

“People have gotten sick and had to go to the hospital.” Another resident said that when they pulled up the carpet, she broke out in hives. “We should have been moved out of there,” one of the residents told the interviewers. Her neighbors agreed.

“My plants keep turning white!” one resident exclaimed during a group interview. One of her neighbors explained that the color change was probably due to lack of oxygen and poor ventilation. The plant-owner was taken aback: “Well what about me? I’ve been sick lately and I don’t know why I’ve been sick.”

These complaints have been raised to Evergreen, and residents have said they are often ignored. “We’ll get back to you at a later date,” said one inhabitant in a mocking tone.

“I’ve recommended that everyone get a home camera,” said one of the residents. Ultimately, the managers in the building do not live in the building, and they are not invested in the conditions at Winton Manor.

Displaced residents were told they could move back into their apartments on Jan. 7. That day, Evergreen reported another pipe had burst, and their return date would be postponed indefinitely. Residents have been forced to continue staying in the nearby hotel where Evergreen placed them on Christmas Eve.

These displaced residents do not have access to any sort of cooking facility. They said that the $200 gift cards they were originally receiving were barely enough to feed themselves, given that they cannot prepare any of their meals.

The organized pressure from tenants and their allies has led to Evergreen agreeing to another $80 a week, and back-pay for previous weeks. Outside these gift cards and pending insurance claims, there have been no other attempts to make residents financially whole. Even the insurance claim is not a forgone conclusion.

“What it boils down to is they said they ‘will try,’” said a resident who has been in contact with Evergreen about claims for personal items. Residents make the point that, beyond loss of personal property, there should be some sort of culpability for the residents’ mental health. The relocation and the destruction of valued personal and sentimental items has taken a significant toll on displaced residents.

“It’s very mentally and emotionally draining. And nobody wants to stay up in that [hotel] room all day, because that’s even more depressing,” said a displaced resident. “Home cooked meals … things that we would normally have access to, we can’t do that.”

Evergreen offered to relocate residents to an extended stay hotel, where rooms are equipped with kitchenettes, however, the hotel is located in the affluent suburb of Beachwood. Residents report said that groceries would be just as expensive, if not more so, than downtown. The lack of transportation amenities for seniors and disabled people make that solution unworkable.

Additionally, while the offer may seem in good faith, the reality is that the move would only enable Evergreen to further exploit the residents. “The reason that they wanted us to go to an extended stay was so they could charge us rent,” reported the resident who had been in contact with Evergreen. “They really said that out loud.”

Extended stay hotels have kitchenettes, and are considered “reasonable replacements.” This would allow Evergreen to begin charging rent they are currently losing while residents are at the downtown Cleveland hotel.

While these residents remain displaced from their units, other renovations promised by Evergreen have not been completed — despite the advertised completion date of December 2022. Residents report that the freight elevator is almost never operational, which leaves only one passenger elevator to be used by residents and construction crews. If the elevator is delayed by construction crews, there is often a large crowd of residents waiting to ascend from the ground floor. This leads to residents overloading the elevator followed by the elevator breaking down and more delays.

During the week that Liberation News interviewed residents, the fire department had rescued a group of people from the broken elevator. Then paramedics arrived on the scene for a call and were unable to use the elevator to respond. “It’s dangerous!” a resident said.

Residents also told Liberation News that there have been issues with minutia as basic as measurements during renovations. Some bathroom vanities were overhanging toilets, rendering the toilet in the apartments impossible to use. Brand new refrigerators have to be kept in living rooms, unable to fit in the space opened up by the old refrigerator. The materials installed in apartments are cheap and mismatched. Residents said the materials installed were inconsistent with the materials that they have seen being brought into the building, leading to speculations of theft.

“The construction company that was [doing the work] traded out [higher-quality material for what was actually installed in the apartments],” claim residents. “I saw the material, and then it just didn’t make it into our apartments. Next thing you know, we got a new foreman […] stuff started disappearing as we got more new foremans.”

Most of the accessibility improvements, some of which are required under the Americans with Disabilities Act, remain unfinished. Plumbing remains an obvious area of concern.

Evergreen reported that the pipe bursts on Dec. 23 and Jan. 7 affected the rooms where most renovations had been completed. However, this contradicts the testimonies of displaced residents themselves, some of whom had been packed and waiting for months for those renovations to begin.

In conversations with residents, Evergreen described a three-stage process to the renovations. They asserted they were currently in Phase 2 of the project, but did not give a specific date for completion. Interestingly, the management company also admitted that they had just begun Phase 2 of renovations, despite promising completion by December 2022 in all their previous marketing materials. Evergreen projected “maybe February or March” as a timeline for residents displaced by flooding to return to their units in the building. When pressed, they were not willing to commit to this timeline.

Tenants demand answers

With $18 million in capital — nearly $70,000 per apartment — and nearly two years to complete the renovations, there are many questions which demand answers from Evergreen. How have conditions gotten worse for residents? Where has the $18 million gone? Why was the December deadline missed? When will the renovations finish? When will the displaced resident get justice for what has been done to them?

Government agencies which should be responsible for addressing questions have failed residents. Representatives from HUD — which should be overseeing the building — met with residents in November, and residents left feeling “[HUD’s] position is they don’t care about anything other than getting the project finished,” a resident said.

Representatives from HUD who arrived on the scene in early December did record and address some residents’ complaints, however HUD has not responded following the Christmas Eve flood. “HUD don’t give a damn about us,” a resident said.

Cleveland City Council has also failed to address the pressing questions pertaining to Winton Manor. Winton Manor is located in Cleveland’s Ward 5, and their Councilmember Richard Starr did not meet with residents for a month following the flooding.

Despite the failures of Evergreen and the government, the residents of Winton Manor are determined to get justice. The past 20 months of hardships have bound them together and made clear the need for unity in action. Residents have organized themselves into a tenants council to provide a unified, collective voice for their demands.

Latonia Morgan, who was elected president of the newly formed council in September 2022, stated that the property management company became more willing to address issues following the formation of the council. “They’ve been very cordial. If I call them with a problem, they are more responsive,” she said.

Morgan has led the council through tough times, and at great personal expense. At the start of January, she suffered a heart attack which landed her in the hospital. The stress of being displaced was undoubtedly a factor in the attack. Despite these personal difficulties, she was not deterred from her responsibilities to her neighbors. The tenants council hosted a January cake-and-ice-cream event as a birthday celebration for residents, which Morgan attended virtually from the hospital.

The tenants council hosted a birthday celebration for residents. Photo credit: Winton Manor Tenants Council
The tenants council hosted a birthday celebration for residents. Photo credit: Winton Manor Tenants Council

“People felt special. That’s the feedback we got. They felt it was their own personal birthday party,” she said.

Between struggling for concessions from Evergreen and events which build a deeper connection between neighbors, the tenants council has been a vital positive force for residents at Winton Manor.

“If it wasn’t for [the tenant’s council], a lot of the stuff I’m getting I wouldn’t be getting,” said one resident, describing the role of the council. “Folks up there [at Evergreen], they don’t care about us down here. As long as we’re quiet and out of the way, they’re good.”

The tenant’s council refuses to stay quiet and out of the way. The Party for Socialism and Liberation calls on the Cleveland residents to stand in solidarity with the tenants council and materially assist them in their struggle.

Their struggle is the product of the systemic crises in the city — negligent landlords, government institutions which fail to serve the people and the dictatorship of profits. These crises impact the vast majority in Cleveland and must be confronted with deeper organization amongst poor and working people.

Feature photo: The Winton Manor Apartments in Cleveland. Liberation photo

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