Columbia mayor says federal agency “dropped the ball” by giving Colony Apartments passing score on appeal
COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The mayor of Columbia believes the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development “dropped the ball” after the federal agency gave the Colony Apartments in north Columbia a passing inspection score on appeal.
The property failed a HUD inspection on December 12, two weeks before a complex-wide evacuation prompted by a lack of necessary utilities.
In a January warning letter to property management the Monroe Group, the complex was given 60 days to address “life-threatening safety issues” or risk losing federal funding.
However, with its new passing score of 80c, HUD “does not require a further response from the Owner.”
This is based on a 100-point scale.
A visibly frustrated Columbia mayor Daniel Rickenmann said in an interview Friday that HUD’s latest decision was a “real blow” to the tenants who live at the Colony Apartments.
He called the decision unacceptable.
“To be quite honest, I think HUD left them out by themselves, unprotected, with nobody fighting for them,” he said.
HUD said the complex’s initial failing score of 52c* during the December inspection was due in large part to inconsistencies between local code and HUD protocol. The agency references closet door locks within several units.
A host of other issues were outlined in the warning letter HUD sent to property management in early January, including roach infestations and mold.
“HUD’s giving them the green light to continue to get their full funding without making those units livable and up to date, there has to be a standard,” Rickenmann said. “And all the other issues can’t be ignored over one. I’m very disappointed in HUD and their reaction.”
In addition to the problems outlined detailed in the letter, Rickenmann said inspections by city officials revealed 83 fire violations and 144 code violations, including things like gas leaks and missing carbon monoxide detectors.
“I mean that’s a HUD problem,” he said. “It needs to be fixed. It needs to be addressed. If you’re telling me that all the other issues, and we’re talking about hundreds of issues, not just two or three, hundreds of issues that were found in there, and this is how we’re going to let them off the hook?”
With much of its funding coming from the federal government, Rickenmann says HUD’s updated score tells him that the ownership group’s money is protected, and the Monroe Group will not have to follow through on commitments they have made to the city.
“I thought HUD would be a stronger player,” Rickenmann said. “I’d like to understand personally with them more why made that decision and how that decision was made. But I don’t think that the 300 families that are living over there think HUD did them any favors.”
Rickenmann said he has requested a meeting with HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge in the next month in Washington, D.C. to address the situation.
Senators Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, along with Congressman Jim Clyburn, are aware of the issues at the Colony Apartments and are working to facilitate that meeting, according to Rickenmann.
He added that former Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin, who serves as the White House’s Senior Advisor and Director of the Office of Public Engagement, is also advocating on behalf of the tenants.
Rickenmann said his legal and government affairs staff are looking at all avenues to find a way to hold management accountable.
He said this situation has disappointed and frustrated him.
“It created this sense of, I’m sorry, it created a sense of anger for me because nobody ought to be put at that level,” Rickenmann said. “We can’t have it. And that’s why we’re not going to let go of the bone. We’re going to keep moving forward, figuring a way to change the culture there because people ought to have a sense of pride.”
He said the lack of compassion from the Monroe Group, and the company’s dismissiveness, have made tenants feel like they are not worthy of respect.
“They need to feel like they’re human beings, that if they’re being wronged, they ought to have a voice, and we’ve got to change that,” Rickenmann said. “I don’t know that we’ve been through anything like this before. I really don’t. You know, we dealt with the flood and other things like that, but this is nobody felt that they could call anybody. That’s sad.”
The complex’s problems came to light in late December.
While investigating the murder of Miasia James there, tenants told police they had been living without heat or water for days over the Christmas holiday during frigid temperatures.
“I think the young lady who passed away didn’t pass away in vain from being shot,” Rickenmann said. “She opened the door for us to see all that was going on there, and it wasn’t just the water system and the heat, it was all the other things. And that we’re bringing it to the forefront. Now we just have to have accountability to it.”
Rickenmann has cast doubt on revoking the property’s business license and said vacating the property would cause a myriad of other issues for residents.
On Friday, he did express an interest in breaking up the property but said the only way to do that would be through federal action, and applying additional pressure on HUD.
HUD said that seven units at the property were inspected on March 8.
When asked for clarification about the visit, the agency sent WIS a statement, which reads, “HUD performed a routine site visit at the property, inspecting occupied and vacant units. Any findings were communicated to the Owner at the time of the site visit. The findings will be documented in an internal report.”
Rickenmann said the Monroe Group is facing nearly $200,000 in fines from the city, having to do with overtime, clean-up efforts and the fixing of the property’s water system.
Ownership has not once apologized to the city for the situation there, according to Rickenmann.
The Monroe Group did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
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