Holding signs that read "Hold Slumlords Accountable" or signs calling for inspections of various HUD-subsidized apartments, members of the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center (MSPJC) protested outside Serenity Towers on Highland Wednesday afternoon to bring awareness to the plight of Memphians living in substandard housing.
Serenity Towers, a senior living apartment complex, is owned by Global Ministries Foundation (GMF), a religious nonprofit that operates several apartment complexes subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Since last year, several of GMF's properties have been found to contain black mold, bed bugs, plumbing leaks, and structural issues.
The nonprofit lost its HUD funding for two of those properties — Warren Apartments and Tulane Apartments — earlier this year for failing to correct violations. Those residents are supposed to be receiving HUD vouchers to move into new housing, but one Warren Apartments resident — Cynthia Crawford — at the protest on Wednesday said the residents are at a "standstill," still living in mold-infested apartments, as they await those vouchers.
Serenity Towers has received several code enforcement violations for issues with bed bugs, and the property is being inspected again this week. GMF purchased the Serenity property in March 2014, and a spokesperson for the nonprofit, who asked to remain anonymous, said the group has spent more than $200,000 on efforts to eradicate bed bugs at Serenity. She says roughly 95 units there still have bed bug issues, but GMF has ordered new mattresses, box springs, and bed frames and will be replacing residents' beds at no charge. The beds should arrive this week.
But MSPJC executive director Brad Watkins said, with only 50 city code inspectors on the force, the department is stretched too thin. Watkins suggested that the city renew its reserve code enforcement officers program, which allows volunteer citizens to assist with code inspections. Watkins said MSPJC could oversee the formation of tenant-based associations at all HUD-subsidized properties, and each of those associations could have a few volunteer reserve code inspectors to hold landlords accountable.
"This would be a godsend to code enforcement. They would have more eyes and ears on the ground," Watkins said.
He said the center has reached out to code enforcement, but the department hasn't responded to their request for the program's renewal. The Memphis City Council passed an ordinance allowing for reserve code officers more than a year ago.
Watkins said other GMF-owned properties and HUD-subsidized properties across the city should be inspected, and if code enforcement is stretched too thin, volunteer tenant inspectors could assist.
“We have seen the living conditions that tenants have been made to live in by Rev. Richard Hamlet [of GMF] at Warren,Tulane, and now here at Serenity Towers, but what of the tenants at his other properties like Madison Tower and Bend Tree? What of the other HUD-subsidized properties owned by other companies like Peppertree or Tillman Cove? We are on the verge of a housing crisis and the Peace and Justice Center stands ready to aid in the solutions," Watkins said.
Serenity Towers resident Gail Clark was standing outside the complex, waiting on a ride, while the protest was ongoing. She said her experience with management at Serenity had been largely positive, and she feels they've been responsive to residents' concerns. She said they'd recently formed a tenants' association to assist with critical needs.