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East Akron tenants are demanding help -- and may be getting it

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Keianna Winchester.JPG
Kabir Bhatia
Keianna Winchester inspects a very full roach trap -- which she says is a common occurrence at her apartment in Akron's Ericsson Homes.

Renters at two Akron housing complexes have had it: they’ve been dealing with a range of problems and feel like their complaints are being ignored.

A few days ago — at LaTonya Tyes’ tidy, tastefully decorated apartment in Akron’s Wilbeth-Arlington complex — I almost stepped on her cat, Prince. When he’s not getting underfoot of visitors, he’s catching mice. But Tyes says that’s getting to be an almost impossible task.

“He runs [and] he runs. I think because of his scent, he probably runs them out.”

And Tyes knows how they’re getting into the apartment.

“I still have the issue with the gap in the door. We don’t have screen doors.” Tyes says when it rains, the water even gets into the unit.

No maintenance
The Wilbeth-Arlington apartments were built in the 1940s. Tyes and her two kids moved to the complex two years ago. She says they’re not maintained regardless of which unit her family has been in.

“I've been asking since I moved over here in July -- when they moved me to the renovated unit -- to fix [things]. Nobody has come. And they keep telling us that when they come in to do our siding, they're gonna [fix things].”

Tyes and her neighbors have complained of mold, rodents, roaches, and water damage – issues which they say are being ignored by their landlords. So, they’ve decided to form a union to get something done. Ray Greene has been advising the union, and is with the Akron-based organizing collective Freedom BLOC.

“What’s really discouraging is, on the other side of town, we’re building $250,000 homes. What we want to do is bring light to the situation. We need a mayor, we need a city council, county council, state reps, and HUD that cares about the poor as much as they care about the rich," Greene said.“This is just a whole bunch of systems which are not talking to each other at all. There isn’t even a pipeline for them to talk to each other. This isn’t going on deaf ears; it’s going on no ears.”

Tenant Union QR Code - IG.png
Freedom BLOC
The organizing collective Freedom BLOC is trying to collect 20,000 email addresses of people concerned about the conditions at the East Akron apartments -- whether they live there or not. This QR code is part of their call to action.

Getting representation
The Wilbeth apartments are in Ward 7, represented by Councilman Donnie Kammer. He says residents have started coming to his community meetings, voicing concerns on a range of issues.

“So, I drove around three different nights just to kind of get an idea of how many street lights were out and I passed that information along to FirstEnergy.”

Kammer is working to get FirstEnergy replace the lights – which the utility should be done by the end of the month. He’s also got the city’s service department working on potholes in the area. But as for the apartments themselves, “I spoke with Duane Groegor, our city housing Administrator, and I believe he’s working with a lot of those tenants, the tenants’ union, and other representatives,” Kammer said.

Akron v. HUD
That could include relocation or renovation – as is the case with LaTonya Tyes and others. The City of Akron declined to be interviewed for this story. Kammer says he’s planning to send a letter to HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge – because the buildings are federally controlled and out of the hands of the city. Councilwoman Tara Mosley says she’d be happy to sign onto that letter: residents in her ward, at the Ericsson homes, have also organized a tenants union.

“As soon as I seem to make traction with whomever the owner is -- or was -- at that time, it changes hands again. And whoever the property manager is, it changes hands from them. It's like there's never any stability there where you can actually have a conversation with them about the issues that are plaguing that community.”

The management company – Michigan-based KMG -- didn’t respond to a request for an interview. The firm took over both Ericsson and Wilbeth earlier this year. That’s when the issues really began, according to Lauren Green-Hull, associate director of Fair Housing Contact Service, which provides support for renters and homeowners in Akron.

“Unfortunately, there are times when further action needs to happen. And I think that we’re at that point right now [where] state and local officials need to step in. And if legal action needs to be taken, then that’s something that the attorneys will definitely consider.”

Aside from the attorneys, Green-Hull says they’ve gotten little response from the company. Akron’s Community Legal Aid had similar results.

Starting over
Another consideration is just starting over. Councilwoman Tara Mosley, and LaTonya Tyes – the head of the Wilbeth-Arlington Homes tenants union – both say that many of the units simply need to be torn down and replaced, given their age and the issues involved. Until then, tenants plan to keep making their voices heard while the city, HUD, and community organizers are trying to make the situation livable.

A HUD spokesperson provided the following statement on the apartment complexes:

“Our department is closely monitoring the work and responsiveness to resident concerns at Wilbreth Arlington Homes and Ericsson Apartments, both of which are under new management. HUD has also been in direct communication with the City of Akron and local public safety officials to understand what actions are being taken and ensure defects are immediately addressed along with the renovations under way by new ownership and management. We take the safety and wellbeing of those who live in HUD-assisted properties very seriously, and we will continue to work with management to ensure the properties are meeting the proper standards.”

Editor: The spelling “Wilbreth" is as it appeared in the written statement released by HUD.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.