Years of documented maintenance issues in Serenity at Highland came to a head as the first heatwave of summer descended on Memphis.
Recent inspections by code enforcement have shed more light on the extent of the repairs needed at the seniors’ residence – throughout the week of triple-digit heat indexes, dozens of residents had no no working air conditioning in their units. Others have reported mold and bedbugs in their accommodation. The lack of constant hot water was also a problem.
And with dozens of seniors out of the building and unable to answer questions from code inspectors, the actual number of units without cooling or hot water is unclear.
The city’s inspection report described the condition of the building as “very poor”.
“The building is extremely hot and poses a health risk to the residence,” the inspection report said, adding that there was also a musty smell in the building.
Despite the unsanitary condition of the building and the life-threatening combination of high temperatures and elderly residents, no entity requires the management company to provide temporary housing for residents.
But on Thursday, Cleveland-based Millennia Housing Management Ltd said there were no plans to relocate residents while repairs are underway.
No relocation requirement from HUD
Millennia Housing is a recipient of federal funding through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, better known as HUD.
In exchange for rental subsidies, Millennia Housing – which recently bought Serenity through an associated entity – is liable for a set of maintenance standards.
“HUD requires landlords to provide decent, safe, and sanitary housing for all residents. Additionally, in properties with air conditioning, HUD requires that it be operational, and if not, the landlord must act urgently to make repairs to restore air conditioning,” a HUD spokesperson said.
While HUD has the power to force Millennia to relocate its residents to affected units, there is no indication that the federal entity is about to do so.
When Shelby County Environmental Court Judge Patrick Dandridge, who was unhappy with the pace of repairs, proposed the idea in court on Tuesday, an attorney representing Millennia pushed back.
There were no other openings in Memphis HUD-subsidized housing, attorney Ben Sissman told the judge.
“They all have a waiting list, they all have rules, and we can’t take someone from Serenity Towers and move them if there are empty units,” Sissman said.
In the absence of an Environmental Court order, Millennia is under no obligation to seek temporary alternatives for its residents through hotel vouchers or other means.
Dandridge fined the company $5,000 after viewing the latest code inspection report which identified 90 residents without hot water and 85 residents without air conditioning.
Serenity repairs are underway, if slow
According to Valérie Jerome, Marketing and Communications Director of Millennia Housing, Millennia has a plan to extensively rehabilitate the long-struggling building.
“The Millennia development team expects to submit the application for the low-income housing tax credits and then close the preservation transaction in 2023. The timing of this transaction is affected by market conditions, among other things. At closing, construction of the major rehabilitation will begin,” says Jerome.
The overhaul plan is at least a year away, and interim repairs to the building have been hampered by supply chain issues in addition to a seasonal need for heating and air conditioning parts.
But the technicians have made progress, says Jérôme.
The building’s air conditioner “chiller” is now operational, following the repair of a crack, the replacement of seals and the addition of 750 pounds of Freon. Problems with faulty thermostats and fans in individual units now make up the bulk of the heat problem.
“The maintenance team is working diligently to diagnose the issue and replace necessary equipment in these units. Additionally, additional staff have been assigned to the community to expedite HVAC repairs to the units,” said Jerome.
Repair work is also underway for the building’s boiler.
Jérôme described the pace of repairs as efficient, with additional air conditioning units brought online by air. Millennia also set up a cooling station in the building and staff members carried out wellness checks on residents.
An unscientific sign of progress is evident in the number of elderly residents sitting outside the building late at night, in an attempt to escape the temperatures inside. On Tuesday, two dozen residents sat on the porch of the building, on Thursday their number had dropped to eight.
Whether the repair rate described by Jerome will be considered effective will be decided by Dandridge on Friday, when Millennia is due back in court.
Micaela Watts is the Equity and Access reporter for The Commercial Appeal. She can be contacted at [email protected]
Reporting partner WMC Action News 5 contributed to this report.