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Could Claysburg Tower 'hell' end with new owners?

New ownership could signal end of poor living conditions

  • 8 min to read

JEFFERSONVILLE — At 5:40 p.m. on a Tuesday, Claysburg II Tower is alive. Not that that's abnormal. The apartment building is typically swarming with people at all times of the day.

On this particular overcast evening, a group of people loiter around a car in the visitors' parking lot. One truck's bed is full of items covered in a tarp.

My guide, a resident, tells me that it's been sitting there for multiple days.

A woman exits the residential towers' side door, setting off an alarm. She looks back and laughs, heading to another car in the parking lot, also carrying passengers going nowhere.

My guide fears that the woman was buying drugs.

Inside, the 12-story tower at 1306 Wall St. is not nearly as busy. No one is walking the hallways, but they aren't empty. A mattress rests against the wall in one. The stairwells are clogged with discarded furniture: an armchair at the end of one set of steps, two mysterious blocks at the end of another.

Don't brush up against them, my guide warns. I might get bed bugs.

That's another problem at Claysburg Tower.

In addition to overflowing dumpsters and delayed repairs, some inhabitants of the 228 unit-facility say that they and their neighbors deal with pest infestations: from rodents to bed bugs. The Clark County Health Department has received 12 complaints about Claysburg Tower this year, three of which mentioned pests. For comparison, Clark Arms Apartments in downtown Jeffersonville, an affordable housing tower with 101 units, has received two health department complaints this year.

Management sprays for bugs, but residents still live in fear of their return.

Tenants of Claysburg Tower, which was privately owned by an Ohio company until recently, but completely subsidized through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its Section 8 program, complain of unsanitary and unsafe living conditions.

“They're just in hell,” said Mary Jo Carrico, who has worked the front desk at a building next door to Claysburg Tower for 11 years.

The development, which was built in 1979, is meant to house people who are elderly, disabled and who meet certain income requirements. Residents who fall into these categories say that their home has been overrun by people who don't live in the building, a portion of whom are probably homeless. Their claims are confirmed by Carrico and Barb Anderson, the executive director of Haven House, a homeless shelter that is less than a mile away from Claysburg Tower.

Anderson said that the homeless people who live in the tower are the ones banned from her shelter.

Residents, who are given electronic key fobs to enter the tower, believe that outsiders slip in by buddying up with other residents who they sometimes live with — multiple people to single, one-bedroom apartments. This is not only a violation of their lease (tenants are required to register new household members with management and inform them of any visitors staying longer than three days), but it further crowds Claysburg Tower, which is already at 92 percent occupancy, according to office staff.

Tenants say previous ownership has overlooked their own rules and continued to rent to troublesome residents, who they are allowed to evict for multiple reasons outlined in their lease, including drug use and criminal activity.

I spoke with five Claysburg Tower tenants about their lives in the building. All but two specified that they wanted their names left out of any article, mostly for the same reason: They feared retaliation from their rule-breaking neighbors.

Police cars and ambulances are a common sight at the building. So far this year, officers have been called to the property 36 times, while emergency medical responders have made 135 trips there, according to records from the Clark County Office of Emergency Communications. On a heat map representing the volume of emergency calls in the downtown area, Claysburg Tower is the only property with three rings of color — its own planet.

Jeffersonville Assistant Chief Michael McVoy said that officers have been called to Claysburg Tower to address drug issues, loitering and trespassing, including homeless people living in stairwells. Violent crimes, such as one incident in August when a resident's live-in relative assaulted them and killed their 3-month-old pit bull, are not as common.

In addition to extra police patrols, the tower is protected by security guards, but they are limited by the number of hours previous ownership allowed them to work, said one part time officer working for the company, called K4 Security. Management occasionally employed 24/7 security throughout the years, but not since the beginning of 2018.

Claysburg Tower's latest physical inspection score from HUD, given in 2018, was a 70b, meaning that there were some violations found in the building but none that were life threatening. Section 8 developments are scored out of 100 and given an "a," "b," or "c" grade. In 2016, Claysburg Tower failed its inspection, although the ownership made repairs.

One resident has lived at Claysburg Tower for more than 20 years. She believes that conditions worsened when a new regional manager who does not live in the area took over around 10 years ago. Still, the resident doesn't want to live anywhere else.

“We shouldn't have to leave our home,” she said.

Claysburg Tower is one of the cheapest options for housing in the City of Jeffersonville. Rents are dependent on tenant income — often 30 percent of their monthly pay per HUD rules. The agency only lists two other privately owned affordable housing developments like this in the city. The Jeffersonville Housing Authority publicly owns five of its own.

For Claysburg Tower residents who have other options, though, the opportunity to leave is becoming more appealing.

“No one on the planet should have to live this way,” said one.

Maybe they won't have to for long.

NEW OWNERSHIP

Claysburg Tower has been sold.

The new owner is Treetop Development, a New Jersey company with a website full of photos of attractive apartment buildings in New York and other east coast cities. Treetop specializes in the redevelopment of residential buildings, including affordable housing developments, according to the same website.

Their purchase was confirmed by Priscilla Massey, the acting property manager for Claysburg Tower. Massey, who worked for the building under its old leadership, provided limited comment to the News and Tribune, saying she did not have explicit permission to talk to the media. Joe Chajmovicz, a regional manager for Treetop Development who Massey reports to, was not in the office on Monday.

Treetop Development's takeover marks the end of Claysburg Tower's 17 years of troubled ownership under Claysburg II Towers Ltd. and SGF Management, Inc, two companies based out of the same address in Canton, Ohio.

Evansville's Grandview Towers and South Bend's Karl King Riverbend Tower, two residential buildings that, on the outside, look almost identical to Claysburg Tower, are also owned by SGF Management — a fact confirmed by Karen Lisenko, the registered agent for Claysburg II Towers Ltd.

Claysburg II Towers is owned by George Seanor, Richard Farmer and, as of 2015 at least, Paul Gulling. Gulling is also the registered agent for SGF Management.

Lisenko said on Monday that she could not comment on Claysburg Tower, instead referring questions to SGF Management's corporate office. Staff there did not respond to two calls and two emails for comment.

With new ownership, comes new hope for change at Claysburg Tower — for residents, community members and its current office staff.

"I mean, I want to help these people just as much as they want help," said Massey. "And hopefully under the new management I'll be able to."

Massey hasn't been told yet if she'll keep her job under Treetop's ownership.

When Claysburg Tower first opened, its gated balconies and promise of expansive Jeffersonville views were the envy of seniors across the city, said Anderson.

As time went on, conditions seemed to worsen within the building. Anderson remembers the excitement that one of her elderly friends felt upon moving into the towers soon morphing into a sense of foreboding for her safety.

Claysburg Tower's size could have contributed to its downfall. High-density low-income housing developments like Claysburg, with apartments stacked one on top of the other, were popular in the 1960s and '70s, said James Bosley, the President and CEO of New Hope Services, a Jeffersonville-based organization that owns affordable housing developments across the state. Bosley believes that the more housing units located in one place, the more potential for problems.

In the end, though, it's not the number of units that determine if a development is a hellscape or a haven. It's the management, Bosley said.

He believed, as did Carrico and several Claysburg Tower residents, that conditions in the building had taken a nosedive before being bought by Treetop. Most notably, tenants and at least one neighboring business manager had noticed more people loitering around the building.

Bosley, who also owns the building where Carrico works next door to Claysburg Tower, blamed the building's decline on a lack of security. He remembers a time when guards were able to control any shady activity at Claysburg.

Josh Lynch, who has worked as a guard for K4 Security on and off for the past seven to eight years, said that troubles at the tower are still rare when he and his coworkers are on duty. At the request of previous building ownership, though, his company's presence at Claysburg Tower was reduced at the beginning of the year to 25 percent of what it was before — putting their on-duty hours at about 42 per week.

On top of that, Lynch is no longer given a list of residents who live in the building, making it even harder for him to figure out who belongs there and who doesn't. Management never told him the rules for how long visitors were allowed to stay either. (It's only 14 days a year, according to a lease from 2011).

Security is on Treetop Development's list of things to improve at Claysburg Tower. The company is hiring a new provider, which will patrol the building 24/7 once again, Massey said.

Ironically, the impending sale of Claysburg Tower to Treetop Development could have been a reason for its recent decline in quality.

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said that a steady drop-off for a Section 8 housing development is often tied to the financial health of the owner. Sometimes, when the owner has stopped caring for a building, they are in the process of preparing the facility for redevelopment.

Not everyone agrees that Claysburg Tower is worse off than it used to be, though. Alan Martin, a registered environmental health specialist with the Clark County Health Department, believes that management has already taken control of their infestation issues. After some prodding from Martin, they've hired a new pest control company, started spraying the entire building at once instead of apartment-by-apartment and they've begun dropping off informational pamphlets at apartments to educate residents on how to keep bugs away.

Still, Clark County Environmental Supervisor Doug Bentfield believes that Claysburg Tower receives some of the most health department complaints out of any residential development in the area.

Assistant Chief McVoy, though, spoke of positive experiences dealing with Claysburg Tower management, having met with them to discuss solutions to their criminal problems. He hopes to continue working with the building's new ownership.

Anderson's wish is that Claysburg Tower remains affordable housing. She wants the new owners to clean up the building and tighten their control of residents' activities.

“If they have to put people out because they're not following the rules and they're allowing people to come in, then put them out,” she said.

One Claysburg Tower resident has heard whisperings that this could be the case, but she's still hesitant to hope for change. She's suspicious of any company that would want to buy a building like Claysburg.

Massey, though, is excited about the future of the building: "...Pretty much everything is changing," she said.

DESERVING A HOME

Change at Claysburg is something Carrico has wanted for years. Since 2007, she has worked in the shadow of the tower at New Hope Commons.

The building is the headquarters of New Hope Service's local family programs. Visitors to New Hope Commons are often mothers lugging baby carriers or grasping the hands of children.

Carrico has been the administrative assistant at the building from its beginning. She's watched as Claysburg Tower's residents and their groupies have walked onto the building's property and thrown things onto its roof (from cans that made noises like bombs to slices of bread that weren't found until maintenance workers climbed up to look).

Carrico has noticed that people who appear homeless will leave Claysburg Tower en masse in the morning before the building's office opens, only to return in the evening — lingering outside until around 5 or 6 p.m. when management leaves for the day.

But Carrico is also friendly with some tenants. They've confided in her tales of pest infestations, noise and bad management.

One day last year, overwhelmed by Claysburg Tower's problems, Carrico decided to write a letter to the man in charge of public housing across the country: HUD Secretary Ben Carson.

She told him about the issues she saw on a daily basis and the ones residents had told to her about.

Three months later, she received a response from John Hall, the field office director for HUD's Indianapolis operations.

Hall told Carrico that he had contacted Claysburg Tower's ownership. They had responded to her concerns by hiring new security personnel to monitor the building 24/7, he said. They had also started talks with their bug exterminator to improve conditions and hired a new cleaning company to operate on the site five days a week, eight hours a day.

Carrico felt proud when she received the letter. She had seen a problem and voiced her concerns. Now, Claysburg Tower was going to be fixed.

But one year later, “look where we're at,” Carrico said.

She doesn't believe that the previous owners of Claysburg Tower changed what they said they would.

When Carrico wrote her letter, she thought about how different her home was compared to those of her Clasyburg neighbors. Carrico doesn't live far away from the building, but even a mile down the road, she doesn't have to worry for her safety or about strangers invading her property.

“Why can't people in Claysburg expect the same thing?” she thought.

Danielle Grady is the business and economic development reporter at the News and Tribune. Contact her via email at danielle.grady@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2137. Follow her on Twitter: @dgrady1222.

Danielle Grady, a Southern Indiana native and a 2016 Ball State University graduate, is the business and economic development reporter for The News and Tribune. Basically, she writes about your favorite restaurants. Send story tips via email or twitter.

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