Mold, Rats And Uncertainty Run Rampant At KCK Housing Project

May 20, 2015

Driving up the hill to the Rosedale Ridge apartment complex, it's hard to imagine that anyone lives at the top of this steep incline. But the steps cut into the side of the road tell a different story: 350 low-income residents live in six squat buildings and most them don't have cars. They walk up and down this hulking hill multiple times a day. 

But probably not for long — Rosedale Ridge is on the verge of being shut down because of terrible conditions. Residents have mixed feelings about their departure, if it even happens at all. 

Mold, rats and fire hazards

Rosedale itself is a Kansas City, Kansas neighborhood tucked between Missouri and Johnson County. At one end of the neighborhood is KU Medical Center, a Five Guys and new development projects. At the other end sits Rosedale Ridge, a housing project. These apartments are a last resort option for people that need a place to live — fast. 

Javon Swopes says she's eager to get out of Rosedale Ridge, whenever that might happen.
Credit Javon Swopes

"My uncle was the one that brought me here," says Javon Swopes, a resident of Rosedale Ridge for four years. "He was like, I don't know how good they are but it's somewhere to stay."

Swopes was on the run from her abusive partner and was living in a homeless shelter with her three children. When Rosedale Ridge got her an apartment in three weeks, she thought she was saved. 

"They're like, 'bring your money, HUD's going to pay for your portion, just sign on the dotted line right here,' knowing behind them, they've got problems up the ying-yang," says Swopes. 

The first apartment they gave her didn't have a working refrigerator, or a stove at all. She put in maintenance request after maintenance request as her neighbors just shook their heads. Didn't she know? No one was going to answer. 

Swopes has moved apartments twice and found the same conditions in all of them — mold, water damage, electrical fires, vermin.

"They won't fix anything, they won't make sure the kids are safe, they won't make sure things are taken care of," she says, on the verge of tears. "I just don't understand how you can have all of this money, all of this power and not want to help people." 

[See a timeline of how the Unified Government revoked Creative Choice's rental license.]

The complicated world of low-income housing

To understand who is at fault here is a bit complicated. There are two types of low-income housing assistance. The first is called tenant-based vouchers: an individual is given funds to help pay rent. They can use those vouchers anywhere a landlord will accept it. That's your best option, but the wait list is long and there are a lot of ways to be disqualified.

If you don't qualify for a tenant-based voucher, you can live in an asset-based property, like Rosedale Ridge. There, the federal funding is attached to the apartments themselves, not the people that live in them. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides funding to the owners to subsidize rent and maintain the units. 

In the case of Rosedale Ridge, HUD provided the money to the owners, Creative Choice, who hired a Missouri-based firm, Yarco, to manage the property. According to Yarco, they weren't given the funds they needed to do that. 

"We spent not only all of the income that we were able to obtain from the rental sources at the property, but money of our own in order to complete the repairs that were appropriately required by HUD and the Unified Government [of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas]," says Jonathan Cohn, the CEO of Yarco. 

Creative Choice said they didn't earn any money off the property, so it's not clear where the money went. 

"Yarco wants to make claim that it's the ownership's fault. Ownership wants to make claim that it's Yarco's fault," says Diane Richardson-Spaite, a former services coordinator at the property. "From my perspective, it's both peoples fault because everyone knew what was happening. 

 In March, Creative Choice and Yarco severed their relationship and a new management company, PPG, was brought on. Creative Choice declined to be interviewed for this story. 

With or without sufficient funding, Rosedale Ridge continued to take on new tenants, continued to get funding from HUD and continued to pass inspections by a hair or fail and pass on the second try. 

"Literally, four times a year, all the doors would be painted, all the doors would be fixed, there would be mulch laid everywhere," says Richardson-Spaite. 

But residents say those changes were superficial. Inside the units, they were struggling with water damage, plumbing problems and black mold like you wouldn't believe. One resident said she had mushrooms growing out of her carpet. 

Change is in the air (and mold spores, too.)

In the past year or so, the mold got so bad that residents started calling HUD and the Unified Government directly, fearing for the health of their children. The wider community — from the schools to the Rosedale Development Association — jumped on the campaign. 

In September, notices went up around the complex saying that Creative Choice had failed the latest inspection and everyone would have to vacate within 30 days. 

Finally, seven months after that first notice was posted, Ed Manning, the Kansas City HUD director, met with the residents. The news was final: HUD had terminated their contract with Creative Choice. Everyone was going to be moved out. 

Residents were excited, though they had a few questions, like this one:

"What took ya'll so long?"

Manning was sympathetic but realistic: "I don't mean to sarcastic, but this is the federal government. This is actually kind of fast."

Rosedale Ridge residents were going to be moved to the front of the line for tenant-based vouchers. They could take those vouchers anywhere that would accept them. Even better, HUD was going to pay their relocation costs. Moving costs money and the average Rosedale Ridge resident earns $6,000 a year. Javon Swopes, for one, was ecstatic. 

"My pastor, he owns houses and stuff and he's willing to take a Section 8 voucher for me and my family," says Swopes. "It was bad how it happened, but [he was] excited for me that I'm able to go somewhere else."

Left behind

There were about 60 residents at the meeting with HUD. They left generally happy and hopeful. But not all residents believe HUD when they say no one will get left behind. 

I spoke to one resident who skipped the meeting, saying she'd heard enough promises. She's at Rosedale Ridge because she had already been disqualified for a housing voucher. She had an assault charge on her record then, and she has a more recent one on it now. She knows she's going to get left behind, no matter what HUD says. 

"There are literally people that have been hiding out, in their own words, at Rosedale [Ridge] for years," says Richardson-Spaite. "Nobody's really thinking that they owe a $2,000 utility bill in Missouri. But those things will all come to light because everyone will be investigated." 

In their haste to fill apartments and get the HUD dollars, Rosedale Ridge wasn't always stringent with their background checks. That helped a lot of people who otherwise might not have qualified for housing. The closing of Rosedale Ridge means the end of that option. 

It also means the end of a community. As much as residents want to get out of their apartments, they worry about leaving Rosedale Ridge and a community of people who are going through the same things they are. 

"If they've already had their lives already going and I come into the community, I might need a little bit more help than others and that might be something they might be maybe looking down on," says Swopes. 

Swopes also doesn't know how she's going to find a school like the one they have now. Frank Rushton Elementary may be the only organization that gets universal support from residents. 

"Their life is in upheaval and it's so important for us to keep this place joyful and positive and to keep it as consistent as possible," says Ellen Teran, a Kindergarten teacher who also volunteers at the after-school program at Rosedale Ridge. "They beg me to let them stay after school on a Friday afternoon. That's not a normal reaction for a child." 

As the school year winds down, the teachers and community are preparing to say goodbye to about 80 students. 

"The thing I pray is that they know where this school is," says Teran. "Even if it's 10 years down the line, if they need help or if they need to remember a positive memory, that they will come to one of these places ... they will know that this is a place that loved them."

A dream deferred 

But this is all assuming that everyone comes through on their promises. So far, the signs are not good. During that meeting with HUD , Ed Manning told residents not to make any serious plans until the relocation experts arrived at the end of April. 

It's now the end of May and ... silence. The relocation experts haven't shown up yet, nor have the vouchers. Construction crews have been crawling all over the property, ripping out carpeting and painting doors. The management went door-to-door, asking residents if they'd like to stay in the buildings at a new lower cost. 

That's confusing, since they don't have a rental license and that would be illegal. But with no word from HUD in weeks, some residents say they're tempted to say yes. 

Last week, Creative Choice flew in from Florida for a Rental License Appeal hearing. Residents, including Javon Swopes, testified against them. But the board decided to give them a 30-day extension to prove that they were making progress on the property. 

"We're not doing this for an absentee landlord," said Chuck Stites, a member of the board, as he handed down his decision. "The only reason we have come to the conclusion of extending 30 days is for you guys. Because where do you guys go? Where do you go if we say you got to get out? Where do you move to right now?"

He spoke directly to the residents, who visibly deflated. They don't want a 30-day extension. They want what they've been promised: tenant-based vouchers and relocation funds. 

It's still unclear how this new development will impact that process. As school lets out for the summer, residents are left with as many questions as before. 

All they have is the word of HUD and the rumors swirling around Rosedale Ridge. And, for Javon Swopes, at least, hope.

"This is going to get turned around for the better for us. It's going to work. It's going to happen, and you stand in what you believe in."

She believes she's going to get off that hill...eventually. 

Eds. note: As of May 21,  the Department of Housing and Urban Development has rescheduled the relocation meetings for Rosedale Ridge residents for May 27 and May 28. HUD is moving forward with offering residents vouchers and relocation funds.