Fair housing panel sees complex improvements

STEUBENVILLE – Members of the city’s Fair Housing Practices Commission said Monday night they saw improvements at the Fort Steuben Apartment building nine months after city officials requested a federal investigation into the Section 8 rental property.

“”It looks a lot better here. The security seems better. The place is cleaner and the residents sound like they are trying to work together to make the building a better place,” said commission Chairwoman Gloria Crossland following an hour-long meeting at the apartment building on North Fourth Street.

“From what I have heard tonight things have gotten better here since the last time we were here,” added commission member Dave Chester.

A fair housing meeting at the former hotel nearly one year ago prompted a physical inspection of the 88-unit building and a management and occupancy review by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in August.

Steubenville Mayor Domenick Mucci sent a letter to U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan in April 2012 stating residents of the Fort Steuben Apartments “are living in fear.”

“Residents said the 88-unit apartment building is overrun with criminal activity and that they are living in fear. They said management does little or nothing to screen applicants for housing, offering almost anyone who applies a unit in spite of extensive criminal histories. Our local police department has verified this stating that while many landlords contact them for free assistance regarding tenant criminal background checks, they have never been contacted by Fort Steuben Management,” stated Mucci in the letter.

“We have also asked for HUD to meet with the residents on site so concerns can be heard and for an inspection of the facility to determine if the building and site complies with HUD standards,” according to Mucci’s letter.

“The residents stated that security cameras were not working, doors were left unlocked and there were no security guards physically present at the building. Several residents of the building are convicted felons with extensive criminal records well known to the police department,” Mucci said in his letter.

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, announced in August the federal investigators were at the former hotel building.

“This physical inspection will specifically seek to address many of the issues brought to my attention by the community regarding safety and security issues relating to these taxpayer subsidized issues. The secretary of HUD has advised that he will continue to keep me posted as to the results and findings of this inspection,” Johnson said in a prepared statement.

“This investigation is the first step. We got a commitment from Secretary Donovan to take this issue very seriously. HUD will be looking at the Fort Steuben Apartments,” Johnson said in August.

Seven residents and the apartment building assistant manager attended the Monday night meeting and said security has improved in the former hotel building.

“I have been here seven years and the only problem I have had is my rent. So I keep all my receipts and all my paperwork,” cited a resident who identified himself as Tim.

Another resident who said her name was Anna noted security has improved, “but there are still some people who let nonresidents into the building.”

And Don said, “some hall security doors are broken. You don’t need a key to get into some hallways.”

The group of residents also cited broken washing machines.

“I advise you to go to the Southeastern Ohio Legal Services office. Landlords have a certain amount of time to correct issues. If there are tenant-landlord issues, you should seek legal advice,” stated commission member John Barnes.

And commission member David Chester urged the residents “to get people together to address your issues. There is strength in numbers.”

“Anything you tell us can’t be used against you. That would be retaliation and that can’t be used against you,” said commission member Mattie Patterson.

Urban Projects Director Chris Petrossi explained federal and state fair housing laws and urged anyone who, “even thinks they may have been discriminated against, should contact us.”

In other business, the commission re-elected Crossland as chairwoman and Barnes as vice chairman.