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In the late 1970s, the nonprofit organization Paraquad bought a vacant motel in the Central West End and, using a loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, spent $2.5 million to convert the three-story building into an 83-unit apartment complex for low-income residents with disabilities. Today, the neighborhood surrounding the Boulevard Apartments, 4545 Forest Park Ave., is bustling, and residents say the presence of the apartment house has created an atmosphere in which they can easily shop for groceries, dine at restaurants or visit the doctor -- all within a short walk, or wheelchair ride, from their front door.
But although the area near Barnes- Jewish Hospital and Euclid Avenue has steadily improved in the past two decades, the condition of the Boulevard Apartments has deteriorated.
Even Paraquad Inc., an advocacy group for people with disabilities, concedes it has spent little, if anything, to upgrade or improve the building since 1978, other than routine maintenance. HUD officials say the property no longer meets HUD standards and poses safety concerns. The federal agency has proposed moving the residents from the Boulevard Apartments to two Midtown high-rises, Council House and Council Tower, at 300 and 310 S. Grand Blvd., respectively -- buildings that currently lack both sprinkler systems and handicapped-accessible units.
The residents of the Boulevard Apartments, who have banded together to form a tenants' association, say they don't want to move from one well-located but flawed building into a poorly located and flawed building.
And they say they are puzzled by HUD's actions -- and by the lack of answers. It appears likely they will have to move. What's unclear is who is to blame for the residents' predicament. That apparently is the topic of negotiations between HUD and Paraquad, as is the subject of precisely where the residents will be moved. But so far, the residents are out of the loop.
"Something's up," says Kathy Lewis, president of the Boulevard Apartments tenants' association. "We're not getting the full answer from anybody. We, as residents, are sticking with each other and trying to fight."
But fight whom?The tenants, as well as Paraquad, have, for the most part, suggested HUD is the heavy. Paraquad says it is trying to represent the interests of its 57 disabled residents by negotiating with HUD and making demands about the quality of the replacement apartments for its Boulevard tenants. At the same time, Paraquad agrees with HUD that its building has serious problems and ought to be closed. "We've come to accept their view that making the Boulevard Apartments safe and accessible by 21st-century standards is probably cost-prohibitive," says Richard Callow, spokesman for Paraquad.
In its defense, HUD says it won't pay to house anyone in substandard housing, and the vast majority of Paraquad's rental income on the Boulevard Apartments, some $600,000 last year, came from HUD subsidies. Residents of the apartments pay no more than 30 percent of their income in rent; HUD pays the rest. "We have concerns about fire safety and the condition of the property," says Lemar Wooley, a HUD spokesman in Washington, D.C. "We subsidize decent, safe, sanitary housing, and anytime we question that, we take a hard look at the situation, and that's what we're doing now.... The building was built in 1950 as a motel, and repairs necessary to extend the life of the building now go far beyond the repairs that the owner has performed over the years."
Since controversy about the proposed move erupted last week, with residents staging a protest and taking their cause to TV stations and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, HUD seems to be backpedaling a bit. Wooley says nothing has been officially decided on whether the tenants will be moved, or where. "We're weighing our options," he says. "The bottom line on the whole thing is that no decision has been made."
HUD officials have provided little public explanation for many of their actions. After a visit in February 1999, HUD began raising concerns about the safety of the Boulevard Apartments, particularly as to whether the building poses a fire hazard. But neither Wooley nor anyone else at HUD has provided tenants at the Boulevard Apartments, or The Riverfront Times, with specific problems with the building, and tenants are quick to note that the building did pass a fire inspection by the city of St. Louis in March. Ironically, one of the buildings HUD has proposed moving the disabled residents to -- the 27-story Council Tower building -- caught fire in 1998, resulting in serious injury to a city firefighter and requiring the evacuation of some 160 mostly elderly residents. Built in the late 1960s, neither Council Tower nor Council House, an adjacent high-rise, has a sprinkler system. Both buildings do, however, provide subsidized housing.
Wooley says Council Tower and Council House would need to be upgraded to make them handicapped-accessible and suited to the special needs of the residents of the Boulevard Apartments. How would the costs of making those changes compare with the cost of upgrading Boulevard Apartments? Wooley does not know. "That's still being reviewed," he says.
Safety issues aside, Boulevard residents say the high-rises on Grand simply would not meet their needs. Lewis, president of the tenants' association, says the greatest assets of the Boulevard Apartments are the complex's location and accessibility. "We have sprinkler systems, emergency cards, a fire alarm, ramps throughout the building, easy access in and out, a hospital across the street, Schnucks and Walgreens. It is easy for us to get to the grocery store; we have restaurants we can drive into (in wheelchairs). We want able-bodied people to imagine living in a wheelchair. They are offering us a 27-story building. This is a three-story building. That one is not accessible for us. It would be so out-of-the-way. It would be very hard to get on the bus. The things they are offering us aren't better than what we have." There is little in the way of shops and restaurants near the buildings on Grand, Lewis notes.
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