For years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has slept through opportunities to improve the Phoenix Apartments, allowing the Northeastside complex to reign as the city's saddest example of urban neglect.
Now, the feds have yet another opportunity to act. It won't last long, though. And if officials continue to slumber, years will go by and we'll see no significant changes at the troubled complex.
What would that mean? Many years of more children growing up amid poverty so deep, and violence so routine, that they won't have a fair shot at a safe and healthy life.
HUD officials have been silent even as the Phoenix makes the front page for all the wrong reasons. The federal agency sends more than $2 million a year in taxpayer-subsidized rent payments to owners of the Phoenix, but the agency has had no public reaction to recent allegations of Section 8 violations or the beating death of 3-year-old TaJanay Bailey.
An opening to dramatically improve conditions at the Phoenix now exists because RCM Phoenix Partners of Hamden, Conn., the latest in a long line of owners, is preparing to sell the complex. The government has a role in that sale -- one it should exploit by forcing the new owner to clean up the Phoenix.
It sounds easy. But HUD apparently doesn't believe in playing tough. That became clear as I talked with Indianapolis-based officials recently.
During a frustrating meeting Downtown, HUD administrators uttered the unmistakable sounds of buck-passing. The local office, I was told, can't force landlords into specific promises, such as better security. The local office can't order an immediate inspection of troubled properties or withhold Section 8 payments as an incentive to get things cleaned up. Only the slow-moving headquarters in Washington, D.C., can do those things.
It shouldn't be this way.
Couldn't HUD officials hold up the looming sale in return for promises to invest in improvements? Couldn't they demand that the new owners work with groups that provide job training and parenting classes? Couldn't they force the landlord to provide full-time security and make sure those coming into the complex belong there? Couldn't HUD think about ways -- such as mentoring programs -- to provide a more livable existence for the many children who call the Phoenix home?
"Basically, that's something the owner decides," Tony Mitchell, an Indianapolis-based HUD official, said when I asked about programs and security at the Phoenix. "We would like to see a lot of these things materialize, but often they don't."
Of course they don't. Why would they -- unless HUD forces Section 8 landlords to take action? The Phoenix's current owner, part of a larger company called Belfonti Associates, sees only the bottom line. The company "has always believed in acquiring real estate on the basis of its profit-making potential," its Web site says. Don't expect the company to expend any more money or energy than is required.
Nothing will change unless the city and federal governments demand it -- unless Mayor-elect Greg Ballard and Sheriff Frank Anderson make the Phoenix a priority and HUD ties subsidies to living conditions, which it has the authority to do.
Tully is rightfully outraged at the HUD's attitude about the Phoenix. One would think that a company like Belfonti would be ashamed to associate itself with such a sleazy apartment complex given the more prominent real estate venues in which it typically plays such as Manhattan. I would still like to know who the local investors, if any, in the Phoenix are.