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Lansing tenants struggle as officials try to get hundreds of red-tagged housing units fixed

An image of a red tag affixed to a unit at Autumn Ridge Townhomes and Apartments.
Rosalyn Williams
Red tags signify a home is not suitable to live in.

More than 700 housing units in the city of Lansing have been deemed uninhabitable. The city has red tagged these properties to try and get landlords to fix the issues.

But property owners often drag their feet to make repairs, leaving many tenants either forced out of their homes or left to stay in unsafe apartments.

That's left community members worried that the growing number of red tags is putting Lansing renters on the precipice of a housing crisis that the city is ill-equipped to address.

Rosalyn Williams has lived at Autumn Ridge Townhomes and Apartments with her son since 2016. It’s a 618-unit complex in South Lansing operated by RESSCO, a management company operating out of Metro Detroit.

Williams says she had a great experience when she first moved in. But when the management company running the complex changed in 2017, she and her neighbors started running into problems like plumbing issues and pests.

Rosalyn Williams
Rosalyn Williams

"I had a bed bug infestation," she said. "I ended up with mice because the apartment next to me has been vacant for two years, and they haven't cleaned it."

In 2019, when code compliance officers found Autumn Ridge’s apartments weren’t certified rental units, they pink tagged the whole complex. That’s a step that usually occurs before homes are red-tagged and deemed uninhabitable.

Months ago, Williams' furnace shut down, causing her to lose heat in her home. She said the management company didn’t send someone certified to fix it, and attempts to repair the furnace caused a gas leak—one that still hasn’t been fixed.

In February, Consumers Energy shut off her gas line, and code compliance officers stuck a red tag on the outside of her unit—meaning the city said she could not live there until the landlords brought it up to code.

Scott Bean, a spokesperson for Lansing Mayor Andy Schor, said RESSCO has been refusing to make repairs and disputing some of its red-tagged units. He noted it's illegal for the property owner to have residents occupying condemned units until they're in full compliance.

RESSCO did not respond to a request for comment via email.

Williams and her son stayed in a hotel room for nearly two months. She’s currently renting a room at a friend’s house. But some of her neighbors still live in their red-tagged units—something they aren’t supposed to be doing.

"A lot of people don't understand that it's not safe for them to be there. But it's also you know, it's also a place where, you know, people don't have any place to go," she said.

Williams’ situation is not unique, nor is it a new one. Lansing’s Department of Economic Development and Planning says there are hundreds of housing units in the city that have been red tagged and await repairs. One of those properties has been tagged since 2003, and nearly two dozen have been tagged for more than a decade.

Officials like City Councilmember Ryan Kost are well aware of issues with red-tagged housing. He represents Ward 1 and won a special election last year on a campaign to expand Lansing’s housing stock and make it more affordable.

Kost said red tags can be particularly devastating when they aren't addressed in time, forcing the city to demolish a home that can't be salvaged.

He's worried the city won’t have a plan to help people in Williams’ situation if the whole complex is condemned.

"If the city goes in there and red tags the whole thing, flat out like that, we're going to have 1000 people [kicked out of their homes], and we'll have no way to take care of that humanitarian crisis," Kost said. "And I have been putting up the red flag that this day is going to come, and we're going to need a plan in place."

An image of a worn-down garage at Autumn Ridge.
Rosalyn Williams
An image of a worn-down garage at Autumn Ridge

For months, the council has been hearing from residents and questioning members of Mayor Andy Schor’s administration to find out what can be done to bring relief to residents.

The main problem, Kost says, is bad actor landlords who say they’re bringing properties up to code when they aren’t. When they rent out properties that aren’t safe, there’s not much tenants can do.

"If the renter comes forward because there's a red tag issue, there's not a lot of options for them other than they have to pay for a hotel or go into our hotelling program when it's red tagged, and the landlord can just diddle daddle around," Kost said.

"At the end of the day, a red-tagged issue, 90% of the time, is the landlord's fault," he added. "It is structural issues. Tub leaking through the ceiling and the ceiling caving down? That was not the person that lived there's fault. That was deferred maintenance that was never done."

He wants to see officials be more aggressive in charging landlords fees and compelling them to fix their units.

At City Hall, Mayor Andy Schor says his administration is doing what it can to support the affected residents. That includes taking landlords to court and pressuring them to make repairs and pay for displaced tenants.

In March, compliance officers red tagged all 29 rental units of an apartment on Holmes Road. The cityfiled a lawsuit against Simtob Management to force the company to pay for accommodations for the displaced families.

Last month, the courts ruled in the city's favor.

Schor said he wishes the city could be more direct in making property owners take care of their tenants.

"What we want is immediately to be able to say, 'This house is red-tagged. This person has to leave the house, either you're going to put them up somewhere else that is that is up to code, or we're going to we're going to charge you,'" he said.

But the city’s attorney says state law prevents the city from forcing landlords to do that. Until then, the city has to foot the bill upfront.

The mayor added the city council does go through a process to issue "Make Safe or Demolish" orders and tear down properties that isn't being fixed. But he said choosing to demolish a property is no easy decision.

"At what point is it okay for the city to come and knock down your property if you're paying the taxes and you're paying the late fees?" Schor said. "It's a tough question...it's a tough situation to knock down somebody's mom's house or someone's grandma's house that they don't have the money to fix up, but that has been in their family for 100 years."

Rosalyn Williams said she wants to see more accountability from the mayor’s administration. She pointed out only one code enforcement officer is responsible for overseeing the hundreds of units at Autumn Ridge.

"Autumn Ridge has 618 townhouses and apartments, and you have one person doing that unit?" she said. "How is that feasible?"

She wants to see the city hire more enforcement officers and implement a formal evaluation system for city staff, something the city doesn’t currently have.

Even though Williams wishes she could live in her apartment again, she’s more worried for other residents who’ve been displaced by the red tags.

"My concern is not even about Rosalyn," she said. "It's about these other people. Who’s going to help them?"

Schor’s administration and city councilmembers are lobbying the legislature for a change in state law to create what they call a tenants’ bill of rights.

They say that could allow Lansing to force bad actor landlords to pay for the relocation of their tenants and level the playing field for renters.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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