MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It’s been a rough year for residents at Serenity Towers. Seniors at the taxpayer-funded high rise have, at times, not had working elevators, hot water, or air conditioning.
Just this week, WREG learned the heat isn’t working and a bed bug infestation is back.
As first reported by WREG, funding for a major renovation project to address some of those issues fell apart and Millennia just announced Serenity is one of more than 30 properties that will be sold.
Meanwhile, in a year-long investigation, WREG uncovered a pattern of problems and details about how taxpayer dollars are being spent.
On November 9, 2021, a resident at Serenity Towers made a desperate call for help. Dispatchers struggled to communicate with the man who said he was stuck with three others on the seventh floor of the complex.
WREG obtained the audio from that 911 call. Below is a transcript of how part of it played out:
“Memphis 911 Emergency do you need police, fire, or ambulance?”
“We’re stuck in the elevator.”
“You’re stuck in the elevator? Ok, Stay on the line, I’m gonna transfer you to the fire department.”
Fire dispatcher: “Okay, tell me exactly what happened.”
First dispatcher: “He’s stuck in an elevator.”
Caller: “I don’t know the elevator, it just stopped.”
Records show firefighters rescued a wheelchair-bound man stuck just below the 7th floor and found only one of the property’s four elevators working.
In a written report, firefighters called it a “huge fire and health risk for tenants and fire responders.”
That concern and subsequent code violation would send the owners to Shelby County Environmental Court, where they’d be for the same problems and many others for the next three years.
It’s August of 2023 and another brutally hot day in Memphis.
“Air conditioning out, elevators out, 20 floors, we ain’t got elevators on either side. I done got kind of use to it, I have to put me a towel up,” Serenity resident Henry Smith told WREG.
When the WREG Investigators ran into Smith, he was sitting outside Serenity under a tree with that towel around his neck. Even on a hot summer day, he’d found relief outside since the air conditioner inside his apartment was out again.
It’s a problem Smith pointed out was nothing new.
“Cause that’s the way it is round here, five years, six years now,” Smith said.
The 69-year-old also walked down from his third-floor unit because all of the elevators were out of service. Serenity has an east and west tower with 10 floors each and there are two elevators in each tower.
“I feel my health is being threatened,” said Smith.
A month prior, in July, fire investigators took a picture of an elevator blocked off by yellow tape. WREG found it in public records along with notes where inspectors said 40 disabled residents, out of the more than 200 seniors living there, would need help getting out.
By early September, when the elevators still weren’t working, fire investigators demanded the owners relocate disabled and special needs residents so the department wouldn’t have to “tie up valuable resources” to move people.
However, a month later, that’s exactly what firefighters did. They explained during an Environmental Court hearing that they had to carry residents down the stairs on a weekend call when all four elevators were out.
Smith told WREG, “It’s just one big [expletive] up. I’m just frustrated. Everybody telling me to calm down. For what? I’m sick, I’m tired. Sick and tired of being sick and tired! Investigate these folks!”
The WREG Investigators have pressed for answers for the past year. We’ve also followed fifteen months of court proceedings and a paper trail dating back years revealing the company in charge, Ohio-based Millennia, has repeatedly broken the law, leaving vulnerable seniors in danger.
The WREG Investigators uncovered complaints about the air conditioning dating back to 2020, including one to a federal housing hotline in June of that year, logged as “life-threatening”. A tenant said the AC was out in the “entire building” and then called back the following day to say a resident died.
Records reveal Daniel Sullivan was the former employee who called 911.
WREG asked Sullivan, “Is it possible this woman could have been in a unit where there was no air?”
Sullivan responded, “I’m almost positive that she was in the unit with no air. I don’t know if that was the cause of the situation, I’m not going to insinuate that because I’m not a doctor. But it was uncomfortable.”
Sullivan said seeing residents suffering takes a toll.
“You don’t know if someone that you develop a relationship with is going to be there tomorrow because of the conditions of the facility,” said Sullivan.
State Representative Antonio Parkinson saw those conditions firsthand when he visited Serenity Towers last year.
Parkinson said, “These are not these are not minor issues. These are actually egregious issues that are happening at these apartments!”
The WREG Investigators asked Rep. Parkinson, “Do you think we have a system that’s allowed these owners to accept federal taxpayer dollars and not hold up their end of the bargain?”
Parkinson responded, “Yeah, it’s obvious. You know, if you look at this situation and the fact that this is still going on, it’s obvious, that we have a situation like that.”
Of the nearly 400 units at Serenity Towers, roughly half are subsidized. Seniors like Henry Smith pay a portion of their rent.
“Government needs to investigate these folks,” Smith said. “Somebody ain’t putting money where it’s supposed to be.”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development signed a new, 20-year contract with Serenity Towers’ owners last September, not long after the property barely passed federal inspection and received an “unsatisfactory” rating in a review from state housing regulators.
The WREG Investigators uncovered records that show the owners received more than $950,000 for housing assistance payments last year.
“Where is the money going, ’cause it sure ain’t coming in here?” Smith said.
HUD denied WREG’s request for receipts, financial records, and details about how payments are distributed. However, we have learned more about who says they aren’t getting paid.
“Why would you repair an industrial-size air conditioner for free? You’re not,” said Sullivan.
Sullivan told WREG that when he worked at Serenity, he’d frequently have to deal with frustrated vendors demanding their money.
WREG was the first to tell you an unpaid bill is why the elevators have been out for months this year. The vendor, Otis, confirmed it had suspended service due to payment delays.
WREG asked Smith, “What needs to happen?”
“Millennium [sic], the upper management need to be held accountable for this,” said Smith.
Millennia still hasn’t responded to WREG’S multiple interview requests or questions about those unpaid bills and how they plan to keep residents safe.
On Thursday, a Millennia executive dodged questions from the WREG Investigators and tenants after a meeting of the Memphis Health, Educational, and Housing Facility Board. The board provides tax incentives at several Millennia properties in Memphis.
Attorneys for Serenity are due back in court on November 14th. All of the elevators are supposed to be working by the end of the month. There’s no word on when the property will be sold.
A HUD spokesperson said the property had been listed with a broker for sale. The spokesperson also said, “HUD will continue to monitor the property for compliance with its HAP Contract.”
In an earlier statement regarding ongoing maintenance and safety concerns HUD told WREG it is concerned the property is “clean, safe and sanitary”. The agency also said it had required Millennia to provide some additional financial reporting.
HUD conducted an inspection at Serenity Towers last month. There’s no word yet on whether the property passed or failed. The score hasn’t been released.