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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.
For Paraquad, whose mission has been to encourage disabled people to live full, independent, productive lives in the community, the Boulevard Apartments was the first and last real-estate venture of its kind. And Paraquad founder Max Starkloff concedes that the notion of concentrating disabled people in a single building conflicts with the organization's own philosophy. "Segregation is something we don't like," he says. Paraquad's board of directors includes Ray Hartmann, founder and editorial chairman of The Riverfront Times.
Starkloff says little housing was available for disabled people who wanted to live independently in the late 1970s, and the Boulevard Apartments met that need. "The sad part is that for many people in the late '70s, this was the only choice. Twenty years later, there isn't much more." He says that more than anything, the dilemma faced by Boulevard Apartments tenants underscores how little progress the St. Louis metro area has made in terms of providing integrated, accessible housing for the disabled. When HUD and Paraquad first began discussing closing the building, both made attempts to find alternative living arrangements and found that little was available.
Money generated by rental income from the Boulevard Apartments, after the project pays its bills, is supposed to go into a residual account that can pay for improvements to the building. Paraquad officials say HUD has raised questions about the amount of money that has been placed in that account over time, but Callow says the dispute is over "a few tens of thousands of dollars" over the course of 30 years. HUD officials say that because the agency is in negotiations with Paraquad over the building's fate, it "would not be appropriate to get into" the financial questions that have been raised by the federal agency about the Boulevard Apartments.
Starkloff says the building never generated enough money to make substantial improvements, and, for the past 10 years, Paraquad has tried to find a way to get additional funding to improve the outdoor catwalks -- leftovers from the building's days as a motel -- so they would not be slick in bad weather. "We have not been able to get the money," he says. "We have worked hard to maintain the building with very little money, to keep it running and to keep it safe. That building is not the kind of building that should be in this kind of climate."
Callow estimates it would cost $3 million-$5 million to do the type of gut rehab HUD has suggested is needed to upgrade the Boulevard Apartments and says Paraquad does not have that kind of money to invest in the building. In 1999, the Boulevard Apartments brought in about $600,000 in revenue; Paraquad financial records indicate $545,000 was spent on mortgage interest, utilities, management fees and other costs. The same year, Paraquad had $1.8 million outstanding on its 38-year mortgage loan from HUD.
The tenants wish someone would step in and sort through the mess and somehow find a way to let them remain in their homes. Lewis says she and others in the association "like Paraquad, but it seems like they contradict what they say. They say one thing and then they say something else, so we really don't know where they stand.... What if they could sell the building to another company that can still operate the apartments? Whether or not they want to keep holding onto the building is their choice, but for us, to move out is wrong." Callow says Paraquad would be willing to sell to someone interested in operating the apartments, but the buyer would have to be another nonprofit acceptable to HUD or someone with the means to buy out the mortgage. And he adds: "The challenge the other organization or group would face would be the same we face, and HUD faces, which is the cost of rehab."
The tenants do wonder whether their building's prime location is at least partly fueling the push to move them out. The building is across the street from Barnes-Jewish Hospital. "We are sitting at a choice location at the corner of Forest Park and Euclid," Lewis says.
BJC Health System, which owns the hospital, says it hasn't expressed an interest in buying the building. Callow agrees the property is valuable but dismisses any notion that Paraquad has an underlying motive for closing the Boulevard Apartments. "Nobody has expressed an interest in using the property for anything else," he says. "It is sitting in the looming shadow of BJC, so people on the street draw their own conclusions. But the reality is, if we weren't being pressed by the institution that holds our mortgage, HUD, we would still be struggling to make due. We're not real-estate developers or speculators."