‘I don’t want to live in a slum’: Little help yet for residents of troubled Camden senior housing

April Saul | August 18, 2021 | Housing, Social
Recent meetings between lawmakers and property managers have done little to allay residents’ fears
Credit: (April Saul for WHYY)
Aug. 6, 2021: Antioch Manor resident Don Brown stands at the window in his apartment; from it, he watched a murder take place earlier this year.

Don Brown, 49, moved to Camden’s Antioch Manor last October.

One morning that first month, Brown, who has a heart condition, recalled trying to calm a naked woman he had heard screaming “Help me, help me!” in Antioch’s parking lot. Brown said she seemed to be high on drugs, and that someone appeared to have been trying to rape her.

In December, Brown said 52 bullets were fired behind the senior housing complex, about 10 feet from his first-floor apartment, apparently from one gun, according to police.

Then, in February of this year, Brown watched from his window as Philadelphia resident Alex Fernandez, 21, was robbed and shot on the street behind Antioch Manor. He saw the dying man’s car crash into a telephone pole, a stone’s throw from his window.

“It was like a movie,” Brown said.

Credit: (April Saul for WHYY)
A bullet hole in a fence that surrounds Antioch Manor from a shooting incident.

Earlier this summer, Brown said he did not fight the man who demanded his wallet when, unable to sleep, Brown stepped just outside Antioch’s front door for a cigarette at 2 a.m.

Packages mailed to Brown and his wife are often stolen. The couple only allows their granddaughter to visit in the daytime.

“I am afraid for my life,” he said.

Brown’s chilling experience in senior housing is not unique in Camden — and recent meetings between lawmakers and property managers have done little to allay residents’ fears.

After a recent WHYY News report on security issues at several senior housing complexes in the city, Mayor Vic Carstarphen, city council members Sheila Davis and Chris Collins, and representatives from the Camden County Police Department held meetings with management at the Ferry Manor and Ferry Station senior buildings and at Antioch Manor to address safety concerns.

Credit: (April Saul for WHYY)
At Ferry Station in Camden, residents Sarah Rogers (left) and Regina Sease sit outside the front door.

At the meeting with Antioch management on Aug. 9, no agreements were reached on measures like hiring security guards, but more discussions were planned. Representatives of Ingerman Management Company, which owns Antioch and its sister building, Birchwood at Parker Hall, did not respond to requests for comment.

Residents at the Ferry Manor and Ferry Station senior buildings got better results after activists brought attention to security issues at those properties last month. The meeting there resulted in new security cameras and one overnight guard for the two large buildings. Spokesperson Kate Griffin of Conifer Realty, which owns the property, said the guard has been installed for a 90-day period; after that, she said Conifer would review the situation.

‘I had no idea these things were happening’

Camden County Police Community Safety Commander Lt. Terrell Watkins, who grew up in the city and attended the meetings, was “appalled” by some of what he’s heard about the two complexes.

“I was so naïve,” he said. “I had no idea these things were happening.”

At the Ferry properties, residents said broken entrance doors helped allow entry to non-residents who used drugs, defecated, and urinated in common areas, and rattled their doorknobs in the middle of the night.

Credit: (April Saul for WHYY)
Aug. 6, 2021: Residents said this Antioch Manor gate had been broken for months.

At Antioch, multiple tenants said they are forced to share their building with six or seven non-resident drug dealers every night. WHYY News agreed to withhold their names because they are afraid of retaliation.

Residents said that after 6:30 or 7 p.m., the back of the first floor — including a laundry room with a trash area and an indoor stairwell -— is taken over by the dealers, who, they said, actually take bags of outgoing garbage out of tenants’ hands to keep them out of that area.

The dealers do a brisk business at Antioch, according to the residents. They can be “very friendly,” said one tenant, and “do little chores to try to stay on our good side.” Residents said their customers roam the hallways, leaving needles and other drug paraphernalia behind, sleeping in the stairwells and laundry room, and walking up to the second and third floors at the back of the building.

Michele Lewis, who lives in a back apartment on the third floor, gave up trying to decorate the outside of her unit when her plants, their stands, and a wreath on her door were all stolen. “So it doesn’t feel like home to me,” she said.

Credit: (April Saul for WHYY)
Aug. 6, 2021: Antioch Manor resident Michele Lewis in her second-floor apartment. Plants, their stands, and a wreath she had placed on her door were all stolen.

Lt. Watkins said the solutions required “empowerment of the residents,” and he was encouraged by the discussions he attended. He said meetings between management and tenants in both complexes would also be key to addressing the issues.

But even though managers at the Antioch and Ferry properties met with city lawmakers, nobody could remember the last time managers met with residents at either complex.

Longtime Antioch tenant Jack Branch said he recalled monthly meetings with property managers ending roughly a decade ago. George Streater, another Antioch resident, said the community room had been closed for two years before the COVID-19 pandemic began, “so we’re not allowed to have a tenant meeting.”

Credit: (April Saul for WHYY)
July 29, 2021: Antioch Manor residents show pictures they took of the community room that they said is off-limits to them and is being used for storage.

A planned sit-down between lawmakers, property managers, and residents has still not happened at the Ferry buildings.

“The mayor and council members expressed the desire to meet with our residents,” Griffin said, but “while we encourage and support those conversations,” Conifer was not involved with scheduling them.

‘Slums are not built’

Though The Branches at Centerville, a Michaels Corporation property at 1700 S. 9th Street, is not specifically a senior building, many of its tenants are and have also suffered because of security issues. The lack of a senior designation, said vice-president of the residents’ council Aaliyah Brown, is problematic; Brown estimates most residents are older people and that roughly 20 of them are unable to walk without assistance, but there are no ramps or other accommodations for them.

WHYY News reported in July that common areas were closed off or made uncomfortable by a lack of air conditioning. Windows in those areas and outside patios were locked and furniture had been removed from resident lounge areas “to discourage uninvited guests from gaining access to the building,” said Marc Getson, Vice President of Management at Michaels.

Credit: (April Saul for WHYY)
July 14, 2021: Branches at Centerville tenant Cynthia Muse stands in a common area on the second floor where management removed furniture to discourage non-residents from spending time in the building. The two windows in the picture were locked shut at the time, and have since been opened, but the furniture is still gone.

Resident Carmen Mendez said when firefighters responded to a “stove fire” in The Branches apartment next to hers late last month, a Michaels representative immediately unbolted the windows and turned the air conditioning back on in the hallways. Michaels spokesperson Laura Zaner characterized the incident as a smoke detector going off, not an actual fire. Zaner said the air conditioning had been on in common areas the whole time, but the spaces felt hot because residents had opened windows in those areas.

New Jersey fire code mandates that windows be “easily operable.” These had been screwed shut, an apparent violation.

Credit: (April Saul for WHYY)
Aug. 6, 2021: Branches at Centerville resident Carmen Mendez in her kitchen.

During an Aug. 11 visit, WHYY News found the windows had been opened, though the holes where they had been screwed closed were still visible. Outside patios were still off-limits and furniture had not been returned to lobby areas. A community room on the first floor was locked, with a sign that said it would be open for eight hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. As at Antioch Manor, the modifications in the name of better security made it nearly impossible for residents to use these areas to meet or socialize.

On the afternoon of Aug. 13, a handful of non-residents entered The Branches and ran through hallways, spraying the building’s fire extinguishers everywhere.

Brown said the intruders were “pre-teens” who get in as residents are entering and race out the back door after creating havoc.

“People thought the building was on fire,” said Brown, “that’s how smoky it was. There was yellow film everywhere.”

Then, on the night of Aug. 15, residents were forced to evacuate after someone pulled a fire alarm.

“It’s terrible because it’s hard for me to get out of bed,” said resident Denise Davis, who uses a wheelchair to get around.

In the spring, Brown said residents had been promised a security guard, but one never materialized.

“Michaels is a professional management company with more than 400 communities in our nationwide portfolio. We are continually monitoring what happens at our communities, where the comfort of our residents and the quality of their living experience with us, is our highest priority,” said the Michaels Organization in a statement. “If new procedures or protocols or other measures are needed at any of our properties, we take those steps as needed.”

Along with security issues, residents at the Ferry and Antioch buildings had numerous complaints about repairs, from badly-stained carpets to leaky ceilings to broken air conditioners. Streater said he requested a new fluorescent bulb for a bathroom light that burned out four years ago and stopped asking after five unanswered requests.

Credit: (April Saul for WHYY)
Aug. 11, 2021: In Camden, Antioch Manor resident George Streater stands in the lobby, where he donated many of the furnishings, including the mirror on the left and the table behind him.

Last month, Tasha Humphrey, whose grandmother Louvenia Jones lives at Antioch, sent an email to Ingerman asking that the company make “positive changes” in terms of security and repairs after her grandmother’s air conditioning broke and management offered “one small dirty fan.”

“My grandmother is 85 years old and deserves to live out her twilight years comfortably,” Humphrey wrote. “Years ago, Antioch Manor was a perfect match. There was a strong sense of community. Due to the steady decline of the facility, we are faced with the possibility of uprooting our grandmother and relocating her.” Humphrey said she did not hear back from Ingerman, and forwarded the letter to state and local authorities.

Inspections at these properties seem to have been few and far between: Griffin said the Ferry properties missed their 2020 physical inspections by the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency because of the pandemic and another had yet to be scheduled. WHYY News spoke to three people with knowledge of the situation who said both city and county inspectors showed up at Antioch in July to investigate and gave management a list of repairs that needed to be made.

Tenants at Antioch recalled a time not so long ago when the building was “beautiful” and felt safe. Streater, who said he used some of his own furniture to brighten up the Antioch lobby, recalled cooking many meals for neighbors — and often for the property manager — in the community room. He said fellow tenants still ask him when he might start cooking again, and doesn’t believe residents are to blame for the problems.

As at the Ferry properties, where residents said a few tenants have allowed interlopers into the building, Antioch tenants said some of their neighbors, people who use the drugs the dealers sell, are problematic.

“But it doesn’t take away management’s responsibility to keep other tenants safe,” said Streater. “How do they screen people? … I just want seniors to have a place to have a nice time. I don’t want to live in a slum.

“Slums are not built,” he said. “They’re created by irresponsible people.”

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