Shirley Clarkson is leaving Courthouse Square. Packing boxes are stacked from floor to ceiling in her tenth-floor apartment, along with a few remaining pieces of furniture and a framed print of ancient Pompeii–Clarkson, a retired U-M administrator, is a lover of all things Italian.
As she waits for the movers, Clarkson, seventy-five, crisply recalls the day eleven years ago that she moved into the 116-unit high-rise at the corner of Huron and Fourth Avenue. At the time, the downtown senior housing complex seemed like the perfect retirement home for a self-described “urban dweller.”
“I don’t drive,” Clarkson explains. “I needed to find a place where I could manage my life. The bank, post office, Kerrytown–you could walk to them. It was inexpensive, relatively speaking, and [the rent included] the heating and cooling. The paint was fresh. I made friends.”
But problems soon emerged. Drunks wandered the halls–and some weren’t intruders, but tenants. Residents with mental disorders sometimes shouted at frightened neighbors. A woman was sexually assaulted in the laundry room.
The situation improved for a while, Clarkson recalls. The police cracked down on the worst offenders, and the building’s owners hired a more aggressive manager, who evicted several problem tenants. But within a couple of years, Clarkson says, the manager was replaced by someone less effective, and troubles resumed. This past January, a male tenant and his female visitor stabbed each other in his third-floor apartment. The tenant remains in the building–because, Clarkson and others believe, an advocate from the Housing Bureau for Seniors stymied attempts to evict him. (An HBS social worker says she can’t comment on specific incidents.)
At that point, Clarkson became an unofficial spokeswoman for a group of frustrated tenants. She and two other women wrote to city council to complain of poor maintenance and “problem tenants” who, they wrote, “urinate in the elevators, on the carpets, and especially favor the potted plants. In public areas they are too often drunk, profane, passed out.”
First Ward representative Sabra Briere responded and met with a small group of residents. But Clarkson, sick of the stress, has decided to call it quits. To the regret of her friends in the building, she’s moved out.
Another Courthouse Square apartment has what I’ve come to think of as the “academic” look: Japanese prints. Books that delve into esoteric topics like ancient Greece or psychoanalysis. Classical music plays in the background.
Like most of the building’s residents, the resident of this apartment is single again. After her husband died, she moved from another state to be with relatives in town. “I came kicking and screaming,” she says. But she eventually found pleasures here: “I love the liberal feeling of Ann Arbor, the activities of the university.”
Her older neighbor, also a widow, nods understandingly. Lifelong liberals, both women acknowledge their discomfort in speaking about their predicament and refuse to be named. “I believe everyone should have a warm place to be in the winter,” says the younger widow. “I feel very bad when I see people on the street. There should be a safe environment” for them, she says. But she also wants a safe environment for herself.
Both women ask that their names not be used–partly because they fear retaliation, but also because they’re sensitive to the class divisions at Courthouse Square. On one side are retirees like themselves, often from professional backgrounds. On the other are a group of much poorer residents, some with various disabilities, whose rent is paid by social service agencies.
So the women choose their words carefully. “We welcome diversity,” one tells me. “Don’t make us seem elitist!” adds the other. But their egalitarian values are tested when they find themselves sharing an elevator with drunken neighbors–or the friends from the street who party and crash with them. Entering the building, they’ve learned to lock the door quickly behind them to keep people from following them in. When the elevator comes, they check to see who’s already inside before they enter.
They praise the Ann Arbor police officer who lives in the building. “Without Craig Martin, I don’t know what this place would be like,” says one. “He monitors things. He orders trespass violations.” But though Martin patrols the halls, “he can’t be everywhere,” says her friend.
The widows frequently lapse into social services jargon, saying that their troubled and troublesome neighbors need “more help in living independently” than they’re receiving. But, occasionally, residents’ outrage breaks through. Speaking to First Ward council member Sandi Smith, one compared Courthouse Square–unfavorably–to the Delonis Center homeless shelter. Unlike Delonis, she pointed out, no one turns away drunks at Courthouse Square’s canopied entrance. “We’re becoming the ‘wet’ shelter,” she complained.
Another compares Courthouse Square to another downtown residence that was created to house independent people but ended up filled with social services clients before it was demolished. She laments, “We’re the new Y.”
This wasn’t what the city had in mind when it practically gave the building to an out-of-town developer in 1995. The intention, recalls former mayor Ingrid Sheldon, was to provide safe downtown living for seniors with modest incomes. “It wasn’t meant to be a haven for the mentally and emotionally challenged,” she says.
Originally a hotel, the building reverted to the government in the mid-1990s, after its last owner piled up more unpaid taxes than the building was worth. Though developers were interested in converting it to condos, city council voted to sell it to a company called First Centrum. Then based in Lansing and now headquartered in Virginia, First Centrum paid less than $25,000 for the former hotel and then used federal low-income housing tax credits to renovate the building.
Yet the company has had trouble filling the building. Under the terms of the tax credits, it can’t accept anyone whose income is more than 60 percent of the area’s median–yet the rent is too expensive for most people who earn less. (This September, a one-bedroom was advertised at $805, a two-bedroom at $900.)
City council members apparently had been concerned that even the 60 percent limit was too high–they included a clause in the sales agreement allowing the city to subsidize one resident making 50 percent of the median. It turned out they needn’t have worried. To find tenants, First Centrum soon tapped a much deeper pool of subsidies: federal “Section 8” vouchers, which supplement the rent of low-income residents.
Eighteen Courthouse Square residents currently get Section 8 assistance. While some live quietly, others do not–and the retirees believe that most of the troublemakers come straight from the Delonis Center. That’s apparently an exaggeration–shelter director Ellen Schulmeister says in fact only one resident is directly sponsored by the shelter. However, at least a couple of others previously lived in the old YMCA, and Deb Pippins, administrator of the county’s Project Outreach Team, says PORT has helped place several homeless, mentally ill people in Courthouse Square.
While “one or two of our clients have caused some problems,” Pippins says, her staff works to minimize any issues.She stresses the need to support formerly homeless people: “If you don’t give them services, they just become homeless again.”
The retirees agree–but they also say that sharing a building with street people wasn’t what they signed up for when they rented their apartments. One time, a male ex-con allowed a female crack addict to move into his apartment in exchange for sex. (He eventually moved out; whether he was evicted is unclear.)
Still, some residents say the problems are overstated. George Wieland, a retired academic, is writing a history of Ann Arbor’s German population (the September Observer published an excerpt). “Living here, you have to get used to all kinds of people,” Wieland says. But the only “crime” he’s experienced personally was that someone used to swipe his copy of the Ann Arbor News on football Saturdays.
Wieland admits he’s felt “a little scared” sharing elevators with drunks. Mostly, though, he doesn’t worry about the other tenants and enjoys the perks of living downtown, such as the easy walk to the library and the new YMCA. “But I can understand how women would feel different,” says the six-foot-two-inch, solidly built retiree.
Karen Swanagon, though, bristles at any suggestion that Courthouse Square might be a less-than-ideal living place. “Those people telling you that, they’re not minding their own business,” snaps Swanagon, a restaurant worker whose husband, Chuck, organizes musical “jam nights” in the former hotel ballroom. “Don’t listen to them! We love it here.”
Swanagon shrugs off the theft of a floral arrangement she placed in the ballroom. (“It was borrowed and never brought back,” she says.) Another resident found the petty theft more troubling. She tried to turn the lobby into a cozy gallery, with artwork and nice furniture, only to move out, frustrated, after several pieces were stolen.
Before Shirley Clarkson left, she obtained records of 911 calls from Courthouse Square. From June 2007 through May 2008, there were 190 emergency calls. Over the next twelve months, the number of 911 calls rose to a staggering 270–an averge of more than five calls a week.
Though many calls were for medical emergencies and minor problems, the number of those serious enough to result in a police report nearly doubled in the same period, from fourteen to twenty-six. By comparison, Lurie Terrace, a slightly larger senior high-rise on West Huron, generated only thirty-nine emergency calls and nine police reports during the same twelve months.
In August, Courthouse Square had eleven vacant units–prompting management to offer a $500 bounty to any resident who signs up a new tenant. And the vacancies, in turn, may explain why First Centrum is reportedly trying to sell the building.
First Centrum’s resident manager, Deborah Jackson, confirms the vacancies. When asked about the problems, though, she says flatly, “I’m not allowed to talk about that.” A regional manager for the company also declined to talk to the Observer, saying “it’s not in [the company’s] interest” to discuss problems.
Even mayor John Hieftje finds it “very difficult to contact someone who can speak for First Centrum. After several tries I did talk to them once a few years ago and sent them a letter outlining my concerns,” he recalls in an email. “I tried to contact them again a few months ago, but they never called back.”
Jennifer Hall, housing manager of the city’s community development department, says First Centrum representatives sometimes return her calls–but only, she suspects, “because I might be able to give them money.” The department has arranged several long-term loans to fund repairs in the building, including replacing the roof and fixing the elevators. It was Hall’s contact who confirmed that the company is “interested” in selling.
First Centrum can’t sell soon enough for Ruth Darcy, a nine-year resident. Darcy, who uses a wheelchair, had to badger the company for years before they finally put in a power-operated front door for handicapped residents.
An outspoken ex-missionary, Darcy has made herself an unofficial advocate for tenants afraid to confront the management on their own. “My door’s open twenty-four hours,” she says. She blasts First Centrum for many things, starting with failing to screen tenants well enough. “They have people here who are street people,” Darcy complains. “They don’t check their records.”
Apologizing for the “stereotypes,” she says some people would describe the problem tenants as “white trash or black ghetto types–low income, low education” who “make a lot of noise and attack people verbally and some physically. So far, no guns. We do need a guard.”
Darcy also says the building’s managers don’t check in on fragile older residents as often as they should. She says she told them that if someone dies as a result, “You’re murderers.” No wonder, then, that they tried to evict her–an effort Darcy thwarted with help from her son and a lawyer. “I’m staying here until I die or the building dies,” she vows.
The tax credits First Centrum used to renovate the building required the company to own it for fifteen years. That period will be up next year. But even then, it’s not clear that any private company will want it. Under the terms of the original deal, the building must continue to be used as low-income housing for at least another fifteen years after 2010–and it’s almost certainly losing money. The eleven empty apartments translate into an almost 10 percent vacancy rate. Ex-mayor Sheldon says that in her experience, a building catering to moderate- and low-income clients needs to maintain a 97 percent occupancy rate to be profitable.
That leaves a nonprofit as the most likely purchaser. Michael Appel, executive director of Avalon Housing, acknowledges he’s had discussions with “concerned citizens” about the possibility of Avalon getting involved. But while Avalon has a good reputation as a manager of smaller projects, that prospect does not sit well with some residents, who, unfairly or not, associate the nonprofit with a troubled population. “If Avalon runs this, I’m moving,” says one.
Like Ruth Darcy, others are determined to tough it out. “I’m eighty-one, and I don’t plan to go anywhere,” says one of the widows, firmly. A few people in the building are in their nineties, she adds, and the idea of moving traumatizes them.
“We don’t want it to go down!” stresses her younger friend. “We want to continue living in the building.” The departure of Clarkson, whom both respected, upset them. But both also understand that much is beyond their control: both the current problems and the building’s uncertain future.
As I leave the building after talking to the widows, no one accosts me in the elevator or lobby. Pausing to look at the few paintings remaining from the former gallery, I notice a man loitering outside the door. All residents have keys, so I suspect he’s an outsider who hopes to slip into the building as someone leaves. Giving him no such chance, I close the door firmly behind me. As I walk down the street, he curses at me.
This story has been edited since it appeared in the October 2009 Ann Arbor Observer. The name of the social service agency that intervened on behalf of a tenant and the origin of characterizations quoted by Ruth Darcy have been corrected (see comment below).