Faulty air conditioning, no hot water, mold, rats and roaches are among the complaints filed by tenants of Sky Landing Apartments in White Settlement over the past five years.
The situation became so dire the city hired a code compliance officer just for apartments, hotels and motels, said Robert Nunley, building official for the city of White Settlement.
Resident Kelley McBride, 60, said she moved to Sky Landing about two years ago, courtesy of a federal voucher program administered by Tarrant County.
She is diabetic and has high blood pressure and said she has experienced deteriorating conditions since she moved in.
“I can’t even get my grandbabies over here because the mold smell is so bad,” McBride said. “I’m scared to let them come over here. We stay congested over here and we know it’s the mold.”
Since October 2018, nearly 40 code compliance complaints have been filed with the city of White Settlement, according to documents obtained by the Fort Worth Report. Of those, 18 were filed in the last two years.
Sky Landing’s management told the Fort Worth Report it has been working proactively since taking over two years ago to address issues before they become bigger problems.
The property “was very neglected by previous management,” said Vijay Avaiya, one of the owners of the property. “If I’m living here, I have that kind of mindset from previous issues. It takes time to change that mindset. We are doing our best.”
While some tenants are brave enough to speak out against these conditions, many say they fear retaliation. Some people have even been evicted, McBride said.
“When you’re trying to get something done… they basically try to intimidate you and threaten to get you out of here,” McBride said. “The fear these people have about being put out if they complain is ridiculous.”
Built in 1968, Sky Landing Apartments is located at 400 Ralph St. in White Settlement, a city in west Tarrant County next to Lockheed Martin. The apartment complex has 144 units and is an all-bills-paid property.
Consistent issues leave residents frustrated
In February 2023, residents at Sky Landing had hot water for only six days, McBride said. And when she does have water, it’s cloudy. She’s afraid to use it.
“Two years I’ve been here, I don’t remember ever in one month having water consistently,” McBride said.
Avaiya, the owner of the property, said residents were without hot water for only six days that month. He also said management has added two tanks to the water-heating system in since February.
“The plumbing has been an issue in the past,” he said. “Over the last two years, we changed many things, replaced many things and improved a lot to minimize the hot water being down.”
Other submitted code compliance reports describe issues ranging from standing water and leaks to caved-in ceilings. The Fort Worth Report obtained copies of the complaints, with the names redacted.
White Settlement handled 1,795 cases in 2022
Complaints and calls from Sky Landing Apartments tenants played a role in the city of White Settlement hiring a new code compliance officer, Nunley said.
“This apartment complex is one of the primary reasons that we had to hire somebody that is strictly apartments and motels,” Nunley said.
Part of the problem is the high turnover rate with Sky Landing’s management team, he said.
The current management company has stayed in place longer than its predecessors in Nunley’s three years with the city.
“Once we kind of get our foot in the door, and we would do this routinely, where we’re going every week checking on the complex,” Nunley said. “We put enough pressure (on repairs) that they would just sell the property, and we have to start the process all over again.”
According to the city of White Settlement, the code compliance department handled 1,795 cases in 2022, compared with 1,624 cases in 2021 for the entire city.
Cases are slightly different from complaints and can come in via phone calls, observations made in the field or other methods not easily tracked, Nunley said
Sky Landing Apartments is one of over 200 complexes in Tarrant County with which the county’s housing department works to place residents using federal housing vouchers.
Wayne Pollard, director of the Tarrant County Housing Assistance Office, said issues like those experienced by some residents at Sky Landing Apartments are not uncommon. Older properties — Sky Landing is 55 years old — often have more issues and require more inspections.
“Anytime we get an older unit, there’s a lot of maintenance that may need to be done and sometimes, management doesn’t do an excellent job at it,” he said.
There is also a shortage of landlords willing to accept these housing vouchers or accept recipients who may have a criminal record or are financially distressed, Pollard said. This means government agencies and nonprofits are having to be more flexible with landlords than over a decade ago.
“There are some families, their rental history is so poor, they’re going to have a hard time finding a place anywhere. They may have to go to a place that is at the lowest end of standards because no one else would accept them,” Pollard said. “A lot of these places that are the challenging ones are the ones that we consider third- and fourth-chance places.”
Compounding the lack of affordable housing is the waitlist for Tarrant County housing vouchers, which has been closed since 2017 and is not expected to reopen until at least 2024.
Over 7,000 families remain on the county list, waiting to be served as demand for affordable housing options rises.
‘Ugly can pass’ during apartment inspections
Apartment complexes that receive federal or state money through housing vouchers -– like Sky Landing Apartments — must offer a safe, decent and sanitary environment to tenants.
In a housing quality inspection workshop on April 14, Pollard broke down what consists of standard living conditions and how to look out for these issues.
Apartments inspection scores are based on an individual unit rather than the entire complex. Instead of a number, the unit in question is rated either pass or fail. One failed item can cause the entire unit to fail.
“A family cannot live in an unsanitary home. That’s the bottom line,” Pollard said. “Not having plumbing, it’s an issue. Not having water is an issue.”
To receive a passing grade, an apartment unit must have safe, decent and sanitary facilities and conditions. This includes food preparation and storage, heating and cooling, lighting and electrical, access to the unit, water supply, the overall site and neighborhood.
If failed items endanger the tenant’s health or safety, management has 24 hours to correct the violation, Pollard said. Then, the unit is reinspected.
“Ugly can pass,” Pollard told the class. “Something can be ugly and it can pass all day long. As long as it’s safe, decent and sanitary, it passes.”
And as long as the landlord or management company is responsive to repairs, there’s not much that can be done, Pollard said.
“I’m not sure if it’s a Band-Aid approach,” he said. “As long as they’re fixing the problem, our regulation is meeting minimum standards.”
In some extreme cases where management is not cooperating with repairs, Tarrant County Housing can take away their portion of the paid rent from a landlord until issues are addressed.
“If you don’t put pressure on these landlords, they’re not going to do anything,” Pollard said. “Money makes them work harder.”
‘These leaks are costing us everything’
Jose Ramirez, code officer with White Settlement, said some of the submitted complaints are sent to the city instead of the apartment management team first.
“They’re coming to us for us to go there and talk to them, but that’s not how the process should work. It should be, they talk to the management. And then if the management doesn’t do anything within so many days, they can call us and we’ll go out there,” Ramirez said.
White Settlement’s code compliance team will still go on-site to inspect concerns, especially if they deal with health and safety, Ramirez said.
Sky Landing’s management agreed that the reporting protocol is a problem.
When a problem does arise, Jo Ann Guerrero, community manager, said she tries to be as transparent with residents as possible, such as when they have to turn off the water to fix a leak.
“Every time we’re down, I contact (White Settlement’s code officer) via email and I let them know ‘We’re fixing a leak’ in case a tenant starts to complain and I always notify the residents,” Guerrero said.
Recently, the apartment staff started doing weekly audits of each building for leaks.
“Some don’t like it because we go into their unit and check everything, but it’s something we have to do because these leaks are costing us everything,” Avaiya said. “Resident retention, it’s costing us all the utility bills, gas.”
As for mold, White Settlement’s code compliance officers treat every report of mold as “possible mold” because the officers are not certified as mold assessors.
“We treat it as if it is. We asked (management) to cut the board out, clean it and make sure it doesn’t come back,” Ramirez said. “We treat it as if it is and make sure the apartment complex does everything in its power to remove it and it doesn’t spread.”
Avaiya said most cases of mold are actually mildew, but the apartment’s maintenance team doesn’t test it. Instead, they remove it and treat it in-house.
‘My job is really to retain you’
Between May 2018 and September 2022, 71 evictions were filed in Tarrant County by Sky Landing Apartments.
Guerrero, who has worked at Sky Landing for five months, said her job is not to evict tenants.
“My job is really to try to retain you, but I can’t help you if you don’t come talk to me when you’re behind on rent,” she said. “If you’re not paying your rent, then I have no choice but to evict you because we do have bills to pay. We have mortgages.”
Avaiya had to evict many people, including squatters, when he first bought the property two years ago because of the negligence of the previous owners.
“A lot of squatters, but that’s what we face,” he said. “There are still a few we are cleaning up, to be honest with you, because of the lease violations.”
Tenant McBride said a lot of the Sky Landing tenants come from shelters or even lived on the street along East Lancaster Avenue. She said they fear retaliation for filing complaints; staying silent means having a home.
“I can’t fault them. Most of them don’t have anywhere else to go but back to Lancaster,” she said.
White Settlement’s Nunley said some residents have asked code compliance to not share their name or unit number with management for fear of retaliation.
“We do run into issues where somebody might reach out to us with a complaint, and then we go out there, speak with the individual and they don’t want you going back to the office and saying their name,” Nunley said. “They’re concerned that they may be evicted or something of that nature. And it makes it really hard to try to get some of the issues addressed.”
McBride remains committed to speaking out if management does not respond to the need for repairs. She has drafted petitions asking for the apartment to offer the tenants a credit on their next bill to make up for the lack of hot water.
She has also gone up and spoken during White Settlement’s City Council meetings, asking the city to do something, she said.
All her attempts have been unsuccessful.
“Nobody cares. That’s the point. All the people that could make a difference don’t care,” McBride said. “Everybody knows they’re crap but ain’t nobody listening.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 12 to include a clarified comment from the apartment owner.
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter at @ssadek19.
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