Heat-Stricken Senior Tenants Force HUD’s Hand
(APN) ATLANTA — Low-income senior and disabled residents of Friendship Towers, a rent-subsidized apartment building, have been drumming up public pressure to get the building’s air conditioning fixed, as sweltering temperatures threaten their comfort, and in some cases, their health.
News broke earlier in May that the building’s elderly tenants were suffering in the heat. Then a man was hospitalized for a seizure and his family told media they believed the heat was a factor.
On Friday, May 22, 2015, Friendship Towers residents succeeded in forcing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to address the issue. They had the support of two powerful allies: State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) and former Atlanta City Council member Derrick Boazman (District 12).
Fort and Boazman joined five residents at HUD’s Regional Office in Atlanta, where they demanded a meeting with the agency’s regional administrator, Ed Jennings.
“I’ve emailed Mr. Jennings twice and gotten no response,” Sen. Fort told Atlanta Progressive News.
“We believe that HUD is a slumlord and complicit with Friendship Baptist Church,” he said.
Friendship Baptist Church is the historic Black church that last year sold its 108 year-old building to the City of Atlanta for 19.5 million dollars. The City demolished it to make way for the new Falcons Stadium.
Friendship Baptist Church owns Friendship Towers and rents the units to low income seniors and people with disabilities through HUD’s Section 202 program.
APN was not able to reach a church representative for comment.
“We went to the church with the problem, we went to management with the problem, now we are coming to HUD, the overseer,” a Friendship Towers resident, who was granted anonymity because he fears retaliation, said.
The resident said he has lived in the building for one year and has not had air conditioning that entire time.
None of the residents will be named in this article because they fear retaliation from the Friendship Towers building manager. Glass Ratner, a property management firm, is in charge of building operations.
Another resident said he has not had air conditioning for four years and did not have heat last winter.
“My heat was my oven,” he said.
“On hot, inclimate days, when it’s ninety-two degrees outside, the temperature in the building is ninety-six degrees. You have seniors and disabled people suffering this intolerable heat,” a third resident told APN.
One of the residents said that when the conditions at Friendship Towers made news several weeks ago, Glass Ratner sprang to action – but only temporarily.
“To get rid of the media they gave us air for one day. It was faulty. Worked one day. Then they brought in fans. The residents complained again and then they brought in these portable cooling units. But those only cool one room. People are sleeping in the living room to keep cool,” she told APN.
Jason Shaw, a spokesperson for Glass Ratner, told APN the air conditioning will be fixed by June 03, 2015.
A lawsuit filed against Friendship Baptist church by Attorney Sean Campbell seeks a judge’s order to either make the repairs immediately or move residents into hotels until repairs are complete.
The residents who convened at the HUD office want immediate action too. They said the agency is responsible for inspecting the building and should have intervened long ago.
Jennings was not in his office when Fort, Boazman, and the residents requested a meeting. An administrative assistant spoke to the group in the lobby of HUD’s Atlanta office.
“Make sure to tell Mr. Jennings that he can run but he can’t hide,” Sen. Fort told the assistant.
“I can assure you that we’re not trying not to meet with you. He’s just not here,” the assistant said.
After further discussion, the group opted to wait in a conference room for Jennings to return.
Eventually Jennings did meet with them and agreed to three things: HUD will conduct a walk-through to assess the air conditioning in each apartment by Wednesday of next week; Jennings will personally participate in the assessments; and HUD will talk with the building’s management company about “their customer service or lack thereof,” according to Fort.
The latter is a reference to the alleged actions of Temple Miller, the building manager.
The five residents who convened at HUD’s office all said they’ve experienced or witnessed retaliation from Miller in response to their organizing efforts.
They said Miller called them “troublemakers” and started calling the police on outspoken residents for small infractions like failing to sign out a guest.
Some residents who knocked on doors to talk to tenants about the air conditioning problem were written up for disruption.
“Maybe the knocking was loud, but we were knocking because the doorbells don’t work,” said one resident who believes she is a target of retaliation.
Speaking to APN, Miller denied that she did anything to infringe on the tenants’ rights to organize, which is protected under HUD regulations.
“They don’t even have a formal association,” Miller told APN. “It disassembled last year.”
The residents said Miller was the cause of the tenants’ organization disbanding.
They also said Miller prevented people from donating water to Friendship Towers residents when media attention prompted a donation drive for cold beverages.
“[Miller] wouldn’t let them come in. She kept saying, ‘We don’t need that water, take it to the Bluff.’ They had to hand it over the gate,” one resident told APN.
Miller said it never happened. “Why would I deny them water?” she said.
Shaw, the Glass Ratner spokesperson, says the company investigated the complaints against Miller. The investigation, he said, consisted of talking to Miller, observing her work, and talking to Friendship Tower residents.
“We watched and observed and we don’t see a problem,” he told APN.
Shaw wouldn’t say whether a majority or a minority of the residents he spoke with shared the concerns about Miller.
“It depends on who you talk to,” he said.