Fixes in store for foreclosed Austin apartment building

Court-ordered cleanup for West End property after tenants complained

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By ELLYN FORTINO

After tenants living in a troubled foreclosed apartment complex in Austin declared last month they weren't going to pay rent until problems in their units were addressed, a new court-ordered receiver was appointed to clean up the building, and the city has stepped in too.

Some housing experts say the owner of the apartment complex, Berkat Property Management Group, LLC, also has a responsibility to maintain the property and needs to do more to address tenant complaints - tenants like Pamela Johnson.

A resident of the building at 5159 W. West End, Johnson, like others, have been living with no heat and leaking ceilings, as well as a bug and rodent infestation since BMO/Harris bank foreclosed the property in 2008. The 32-unit building wraps around West End Avenue to Laramie Avenue. Roughly half of the units are empty.

Johnson, a second-floor tenant who's lived in the building since February, said that recently her apartment smells like raw sewage.

"The pipes that go into the basement are not properly installed. [Expletive] is coming into the basement, and the smell is coming up," she said.

Johnson let AustinTalks see inside the building earlier this month. One apartment building had its front door hanging off its hinges. The tenant in that unit said he hasn't been able to shut and lock his door for more than a year. And in the building's back courtyard, which was littered with trash and graffiti, Johnson pointed out at least three broken or boarded up windows, along with a missing stair on the porch.

A previous resident, Kuntina Hill, only lasted two weeks in the building. She moved in in early February but said every night she would wake up to bed bugs crawling on her body. Hill showed AustinTalks pictures of her blood-stained white sheets from where the bugs bit and sucked her blood. She moved out, but didn't receive her money back from the property manager.

Janelle Teague, who moved in Dec. 13, didn't have running water in her unit until February.

"I couldn't wash my kids' butts," she said, adding that upon moving in, she wasn't told the building was in foreclosure.

Johnson and her neighbors have tried their best to find out what's going on with their building. But like other residents in large buildings throughout the city that go into foreclosure, renters, who aren't evicted, find themselves lost in a maze of legal terms and double-talk. A trained lawyer would have difficulty figuring out how the building complex got into such shape.

For starters, BMO/Harris bank no longer holds the mortgage of the troubled property, so, technically, it doesn't have a financial interest or responsibility to upkeep the property, said Angela Maurello, vice president of the Community Initiatives Inc. Like its parent company - Community Investment Corporation, the non-profit mortgage lender - Chicago Initiatives buys and rehabs apartment buildings.

To speed up pressing issues in the apartment complex, the city hired Community Initiative, Inc. as the emergency receiver. The agency is required to turn on the building's utilities, replace broken windows and fix a plumbing and electrical issue, according to the court order on April 10 provided by Chicago's Law Department.

The limited receiver will have 14 days to make the necessary repairs and prove the fixes have been made during a May 29 court appearance, the document states.

Visit AustinTalks.org for additional coverage of the West End property

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