Coming out of the pandemic, Al Johnson and attorneys like him who work in the nonprofit sector have been worried about the difficulties facing renters in St. Louis. Among a backlog of evictions and rents rapidly increasing amid record inflation, signs are pointing to tough times ahead for financially strapped folks who are looking for a place to live.
“There has been a huge uptick in problematic landlords coming out of the pandemic,” Johnson says. “They jack the rents up and the responsiveness to tenants has been reduced.”
Johnson is the executive director of New Covenant Legal Services, a faith-based nonprofit that represents clients who often have nowhere else to turn.
So it was for Dyamond Bradford. A recent graduate of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the criminal justice major is planning to go to law school. She’s working as a paralegal. She doesn’t make a lot of money, but she lives on her own and sometimes takes care of her 14-year-old brother. Earlier this year, Bradford’s lease was up and she was looking for a new place to stay, one with a monthly rent she could better afford.
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She found a place on North Newstead Avenue, in a building owned by the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. The three-story, brick-and-stone building, known as the Dr. Taylor Apartments, was remodeled in the 1990s with the help of state and federal tax credits from the Missouri Housing Development Commission. It is required to keep at least some of the apartments “affordable” for people with lower incomes. The building is managed for the Urban League by Fox Grove Management.
Bradford signed a lease in March. She paid $1,500 for the security deposit and first month rent. She moved in April. But on the first night, she noticed a problem: bugs, the sort she had never seen before.
She called Fox Grove, and they sprayed two days later, she says. Bradford came back a couple of nights later.
“That was the first night I was bit,” she says.
They were bedbugs, and they were everywhere. She went to the emergency room and was given some Benadryl and cream for the bites. Fox Grove sprayed again. But the bugs were still there. She sent the landlord a video. She talked to other tenants, who said they were getting their units sprayed also.
Finally, she left, knowing most of her possessions were left behind and ruined. Bradford says she asked the landlord to move her to a different apartment in another building, but the manager said she’d have to go through the application process again and come up with another deposit. These days, she’s bouncing between her mom’s house and grandma’s house, as she tries to save enough money for a new place.
In the meantime, Johnson is trying to get Bradford’s money back. In early June, he sent a letter to Fox Grove asking for their help in finding a place for Bradford to live and pay her medical bills. He never heard back from the landlord. So on June 21, he sued the company, alleging the landlord violated Missouri law by renting Bradford an apartment that was uninhabitable.
The lawsuit claims Fox Grove knew that Bradford’s apartment, as well as others, were infested with bedbugs.
“This type of tenant abuse is a long-term pattern for Fox Grove, who has an ‘F’ rating with the Better Business Bureau and many complaints pending,” the suit says.
Fox Grove Management is not a typical landlord. It was created in 2005 by DeSales Community Development, one of the oldest nonprofit community development agencies in the city. DeSales, based primarily in the Fox Park neighborhood, for decades has purchased properties and rehabilitated them, trying to improve neighborhoods and provide affordable housing. Its real estate management spinoff, Fox Grove, has grown into one of the larger landlords in the city, managing more than 1,300 units across St. Louis and University City.
Tom Pickel, the longtime executive director of DeSales, says he didn’t know about the lawsuit until I brought it to his attention. A month after it was filed, Fox Grove still hadn’t responded to it. He denies that the landlord knew about the bedbugs.
“It is entirely without merit,” Pickel says of the lawsuit. “We would never do that. We had no information at all that there were bedbugs in that unit.”
Pickel also says he was unaware of Fox Grove’s “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau. The rating is based in part on having six unresolved complaints in the past year, some about maintenance, others about management.
“It’s distressing to me,” Pickel says.
According to an inspection by the state housing commission in February, the unit Bradford moved into had been vacant for two months. It was rated as “uninhabitable” in the inspection because it lacked a smoke detector. The inspection otherwise rated the building “satisfactory” in most categories. The building was exterminated quarterly and “as needed,” according to the inspection.
Fox Grove plans to fight the lawsuit. On the day I spoke to Pickel, a notice was put on Bradford’s door, demanding more than $2,000 in back rent.
Johnson doesn’t get it. Bradford is a “great tenant,” he says, “but these guys just don’t care.”
Meanwhile, the owner of the building, the Urban League, is taking a different approach. Last week, Patricia Washington, the executive vice president of communication for the organization, emailed me the contact information for the nonprofit’s facilities manager and asked that I share it with Bradford.
Said Washington: “We want to try to help her.”
From City Hall to the Capitol, metro columnist Tony Messenger shines light on what public officials are doing, tells stories of the disaffected, and brings voice to the issues that matter.