Advocate applauds Cohen bill, says city shouldn’t wait on Congress to fix housing problems

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Workers at the Warren Apartments were loading office supplies to be hauled away, and painting over boarded up windows Wednesday.

The last count from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) showed only five families left at the complex, with three scheduled to move any day.

As brokers market the apartments for sale, Congressman Steve Cohen of Memphis introduced a bill Wednesday aimed at more accountability for landlords of low income housing.

Rep. Cohen told WREG by phone, "It's unfortunate that it's been a process where the property owners are trusted to do right and we've seen they haven't done right."

The bill's introduction comes just one day before Memphis-based Global Ministries Foundation is set to be the focus of a senate subcommittee hearing.

The non-profit is the subject of at least two federal investigations, and is under fire for poor living conditions at several of its affordable housing communities across the country.

The Housing Accountability Act of 2016 would require HUD to conduct tenant surveys twice a year about things like living conditions and management performance.

Landlords who repeatedly fail those surveys could be penalized, Cohen explained, losing up to one percent of federal funding.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio introduced a similar bill earlier this summer.

Brad Watkins of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center said giving tenants a voice, and specifically the ability to speak anonymously and directly to HUD, makes a difference in a system that's often complaint driven.

HUD conducts inspections based on performance in previous inspections. Higher scores mean more time in between inspections.

Tenants can also file complaints with the agency and with the Tennessee Housing Development Agency.

Local code visits are strictly based on complaints.

"I've had tenants who've filed complaints and later had management come back with a copy of the complaint that they sent to HUD or THDA," said Watkins.

However, Watkins said Memphis shouldn't wait on Congress to act.

He said the mayor and council have the authority to strengthen code enforcement and affordable housing in general.

Watkins pointed to a 2014 report, the Memphis Multifamily Housing Strategy, acknowledging residents were living in "unsafe conditions" with "violations of housing and safety codes".

WREG previously obtained a copy of the report through an open records request.

The report, which was prepared for the City of Memphis Department of Housing and Community Development, also listed recommendations to fix the problems.

Those recommendations included:

  • Implement a routine/annual code enforcement process for apartment buildings
  • Notify tenants if their building does not pass inspection
  • Enhance coordination between code enforcement agencies

No word on why the city didn't follow those recommendations, but Watkins said, "There's nothing stopping that from happening today."

In relation to what the city has done to address problem landlords, Mayor Jim Strickland said in an emailed statement, "The city, through our code enforcement department, has been citing Global Ministries’ properties for violations for a couple of years now. We’ve repeatedly taken the owner to Environmental Court to drive it to compliance."

The mayor also added his administration has been in constant communication with HUD and lawmakers like Rep. Steve Cohen, and Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander.

He also said he's spoken with Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry about how they've handled respective problems in their cities.