Missouri landlords took COVID relief funds but left tenants high and dry: 'Where’d the money go?'
Missouri landlords were found to cash in on the State Assistance for Housing Relief program — sometimes for upwards of $1 million — even as they failed to provide tenants basic maintenance and upkeep.
Nine years ago, Ferguson’s Canfield Green Apartments gained international attention as the site where Michael Brown Jr. was killed.
But more recently, the complex — now named Pleasant View Gardens Apartments — has become Exhibit A in a different story, this one about federal COVID-19 relief funds.
Aria Legacy Group of Lakewood, New Jersey, bought the complex of 414 apartments in April 2021. Big changes soon followed.
That August, the U.S. Supreme Court ended the federal COVID-19 eviction moratorium.
A few weeks later, the new owners began taping notices to the doors of 80 tenants, informing them they had just three days to move out. The eviction notices touched off a scramble among Ferguson city officials and nonprofit groups to keep roofs over tenants’ heads.
While that crisis was eventually averted, Aria Legacy Group wound up filing 265 eviction cases between September 2021 and the autumn of 2023, St. Louis County court records show.
Yet those actions did not prevent the owners from raking in big money through a state-controlled, federally funded $600 million COVID-19 relief program called State Assistance For Housing Relief, or SAFHR.
SAFHR provided financial aid for rent and utilities to tenants hurt financially by the pandemic. The Missouri Housing Development Commission, which oversaw SAFHR, estimates the program prevented the evictions of at least 86,000 Missourians.
In most cases, SAFHR funds to help tenants went directly to landlords.
Aria Legacy Group, through its Pleasant View subsidiary, received $1,140,065 in SAFHR funding — making it No. 5 on the list of top 10 SAFHR recipients, according to Missouri Housing Development Commission records.
Larresha Henderson was on the SAFHR program until it ran out in January. She can’t believe Pleasant View Gardens received $1.1 million in federal tax dollars through SAFHR because none of it — at least from what she can tell — was put back into the apartment complex.
“Nobody came to fix anything,” she recalls, citing a clogged sink and a hallway light that’s remained broken for months.
“There was a lot of stuff going on there that didn’t add up,” she says. “Where’d the money go?”
The idea that a landlord could get federal funds to house tenants and then not only do nothing to improve living conditions, but also soon file to evict those tenants, may seem appalling. But it was all legal under Missouri’s administration of the SAFHR program.
As the River City Journalism Fund previously reported, four of the St. Louis area’s five biggest evictors received significant SAFHR funds from the state. Nothing in the rules barred them from kicking tenants out or even using assembly-line-style tactics to do so.
That was true even during the supposed eviction “moratorium,” which applied only to tenants who could show they were harmed directly by the COVID-19 pandemic (either too sick to work or affected by the slowing economy). Unlike Minnesota and other states, Missouri never imposed a statewide eviction ban. And after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the eviction freeze in August 2021, the pace of evictions only accelerated.
The River City Journalism Fund has continued to press the state for more records from the SAFHR program, using the state’s Sunshine Law to request lists, respectively, of the top 10 SAFHR funding recipients and the top 100 SAFHR funding recipients, broken out by name, address and ZIP code.
Those records revealed that, technically, three of the top 10 overall SAFHR recipients were utilities: Spire, which received nearly $3.44 million; and Ameren Energy Assistance, which received almost $3.3 million, both of St. Louis; and Evergy, an electric utility based in Kansas City, which received $2.75 million, commission records show.
Those companies did not apply directly for SAFHR funds, nor did they receive them directly from the government. Instead, as Spire’s spokesman Jason Merrill explains, “Local community agencies enter into agreements with the government to qualify people for the assistance, and those agencies then pledge dollars toward the customers’ utility bill, following up by sending in a payment on behalf of the customer.” Ameren’s spokesman issued a similar statement.
If you take the utilities out, nine of the top ten recipients of SAFHR funds are privately owned property managers or landlords located in St. Louis County or the City of St. Louis. The tenth is located in St. Charles County, commission records show.
The top housing recipients were St. Louis Leasing Co., which received $1.56 million, and BBW Homes LLC, which received $1.2 million. Both firms are based in St. Louis County and both specialize in handling rentals for single-family homes.
Pleasant View Gardens — despite now-former owner Aria Legacy Group’s well-documented maintenance problems — is No. 4 on the list of SAFHR recipients.
The funds that Aria Legacy Group received for Pleasant View were not the only money the company got through the SAFHR program. Aria received another nearly $417,000 through the subsidiary that owns the Fountains at Carondelet in south city, another notorious apartment complex that had for years, under Aria’s control, been the target of complaints about overly aggressive evictions and poor maintenance and repairs.
This past June, ArchCity Defenders filed suit against Fountains Apartment Homes LLC, which bought the complex from Aria Legacy four months earlier.
The new owners filed 44 rent and possession eviction cases over a five-week span, resulting in 36 eviction judgments, the lawsuit says, while an estimated 200 other residents lived in fear of being unlawfully removed from their homes.
Aria Legacy Group’s success at attracting SAFHR funding illustrates one of the biggest flaws with the program: the fact that funds were awarded with almost zero strings attached, including no provisions to ensure that funded properties provided adequate living conditions.
Since the program was voluntary, and the idea was to distribute it as quickly as possible, SAFHR's federal and state supervisors attached hardly any strings, according to Elad Gross, an attorney who works with tenants facing eviction through the St. Louis Mediation Project.
“So effectively, I think you saw people handed free money,” says Gross. “And that became a big problem.”
The lack of accountability in federal housing programs is an issue that goes beyond SAFHR, Gross says.
It’s a problem when landlords are taking money, and “they are not applying it to make sure the area is habitable,” he says, “that they’re not upholding their end of the bargain.”
In one appalling example, the Riverfront Times recently reported that even a slumlord being sued by the city for running a series of “illegal rooming houses” was able to receive SAFHR funding, despite the fact the units she rented out were in condemned buildings.
Brian Vollenweider, an MHDC spokesman, declined to respond directly to criticisms of the program.
“The SAFHR program was a federal emergency rental assistance program by U.S. Treasury to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Vollenweider wrote in an email to the River City Journalism Fund. “The program was administered according to federal guidelines as determined by the U.S. Treasury including eligible uses and program requirements.”
A lack of accountability
A review of MHDC records show that it awarded SAFHR dollars in a way that lopsidedly favored St. Louis-area landlords. In addition to boasting all of the top 10 SAFHR recipients, 65 of the top 100 are located in the St. Louis metro area.
This funding disparity became the topic of a Missouri House Appropriations subcommittee hearing in early December on MHDC’s budget for the upcoming year.
Representative Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City, asked Kip Stetzler, MHDC’s executive director, to explain why St. Louis received so much in SAFHR funding while Kansas City had not.
“Can you explain why St. Louis area got ... a disproportionate amount of those funds?” Burnett asked. “It seems like St. Louis got a good majority, if not more.”
“If you look at a report and you attempt to determine how much money, how much of this funding went into St. Louis and went into Kansas City by the address of the landlord recipient, it is going to weigh heavily in favor of St. Louis,” Stetzler acknowledged.
“Because the landlords live in St. Louis, but the property is somewhere else in the state?” Burnett asked.
“Exactly right,” Stetzler said. “That’s exactly right.”
But MHDC’s records show that Stetzler’s explanation is not true.
SAFHR funds were disbursed according to the location of the apartment complex, not the address of the company that owned it, commission records show. So Pleasant View, for example, is listed in Ferguson even though its owners at the time were based in New Jersey.
Stetzler declined to respond to questions about this matter.
Vollenweider, the MHDC spokesman, has also declined to answer questions about SAFHR’s geographical disparities.
The disparities could perhaps be partly explained in terms of population differences.
St. Louis County, with nearly 1 million residents, is the largest Missouri county. Combined with the 300,000 people in the City of St. Louis, the St. Louis region is the largest-population region in the entire state, comprising more than 20% of the total.
In contrast, Jackson County, where Kansas City is located, has only 700,000 residents.
Even so, Glenn Burleigh, a housing specialist with the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, calls the distribution of SAFHR funds “odd.” He attributes the pattern at least in part to St. Louis County setting up “a pipeline they sort of worked out with landlords to expedite filing on some things.”
Kennard Williams, the organizing manager for Action St. Louis, one of the region’s leading tenant rights groups, says some of St. Louis landlords’ success getting funds from the program could be credited to door-to-door outreach conducted by his group in apartment complexes where large numbers of people faced eviction.
“We were doing outreach to the doors of people getting evicted,” Williams says. “So we followed up. And we were like, ‘Did you get rental assistance?’ And a large number of people did not.”
As for Gross, he blames the geographic disparities on the fact that SAFHR funding decisions were not part of a centralized process and did not feature a uniform navigation system to help tenants apply for help. Even though SAFHR money went to the landlords, tenants were responsible for starting the process by filling out online applications and providing supporting documents, such as lease agreements.
“Each region was essentially dependent on whatever individual nonprofits signed up,” Gross says. “You may have, as a result of that setup, have different geographical results than you would expect.”
Nonetheless, a big flaw in the SAFHR program was the lack of accountability in 2020 and 2021, at the height of the pandemic, according to Williams.
“And the way they did it,” Williams says, “it left room for super discriminatory practices that were not investigated or followed up on because everybody was facing eviction at that point. And that’s what they were focused on.”
Burnett said after the hearing that she doesn’t believe that Stetzler gave the whole story about SAFHR funding.
“I don’t think we’re going to get a straight answer,” Burnett said. “I don’t know that there was an accountability structure in place that went to the end use. … From their perspective, they’re done at their end. They’re not responsible for the rest.”
For Missouri Representative Bill Owen, R-Springfield, the disparity in access to high-speed Internet helps explain why SAFHR recipients in urban areas like St. Louis fared better than rural Missouri landlords and tenants.
“Let’s face it, when you’re having to [fill out SAFHR applications] on the internet, you basically ruled out a big chunk of outstate Missouri,” Owen says. “Because there’s no internet service.”
Another big problem with SAFHR was a lack of flexibility, Owen says.
Owen recalls the plight of a disabled woman who lives in a duplex apartment that he owns. The woman suffered from severe health issues and was confined to a Stryker bed, Owen says.
Owen says he tried to help the woman apply for a SAFHR grant, but hit a wall when he called the MHDC help line to try to ask how to submit requested documents.
Owen asked if he could fax the documents. “We don’t have a fax,” came the reply.
“Do you have someone who can go out to her residence and take the application in person?”
“No, we don’t have that,” came the reply. “But she can come down to one of our affiliates.”
“I go, ‘She’s in a frickin’ Stryker bed,’” Owens recalls.
Owen says he believes state leaders should convene a meeting regarding the future of emergency housing aid, with the aim of discussing, in his words, “Who is it that we’re trying to serve here, and what are their needs, and what do we need to make arrangements for to make sure these people can access this program?”
Next, Owen says, state leaders should figure out how to make sure the distribution of programs like SAFHR are “spread out through the state and just aren’t allowed to be concentrated in Kansas City and St. Louis.”
'We just can’t up and move'
Even before Michael Brown’s death put what is now Pleasant View Gardens in the national spotlight, repairs and upkeep at the complex had been a problem. But both went noticeably downhill during Aria’s two years of ownership, according to tenants.
Back in 2021, Aria Managing Principal Joseph Novoseller had told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch his company had intended to invest $2 million into the apartment complex, with plans to rehab up to 150 units and to spend “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on new roofs.
Those ambitious plans, however, never came to fruition over the next two years, as even the most basic work orders were met with silence.
Gary Jones, 62, has lived in a Pleasant View ground floor apartment for the past 13 years. He suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems.
Jones says his health problems have only gotten worse in recent years, and he blames the vacant apartment next door, which is marred by standing water and what appears to be black mold, while a foul sewer stench is impossible to escape.
“They won’t clean it up and they won’t do nothing,” Jones says.
Angelene Morgan, who lives with Jones, cites water leaks from their apartment tub and underneath the bathroom sink, as well as mold around parts of the floor and ceiling.
“She goes to the office to put in work orders,” Jones says of Morgan, “and it’s like in one ear and out the other.”
With monthly rent set to rise to more than $700, Jones and Morgan would like a healthier place to live.
“But we just can’t up and move,” he says. “We need money to move. The first and last month’s rent. We need help moving. We don’t drive.”
Yet despite those poor living conditions, Pleasant View’s owners have been quick to file evictions. Among those it sought to remove from the complex was Henderson, who was approved for SAFHR funds to subsidize her $640 monthly rent and was on the program until it ran out last January.
Many tenants have told the River City Journalism Fund that they were confused by program rules and encountered problems complying with the application process, which some struggled to navigate on their cell phones. Once approved, they had a hard time keeping track of what the program paid for and what they were still obligated to pay as part of their lease agreements, according to tenants.
That was the case for Henderson as well. She admits to being confused by the program and says she believes she was forced to overpay her rent.
In September 2023, Pleasant View filed an eviction notice against Henderson seeking $1,700 in unpaid rent and other fees. They dismissed the case nearly two months later, St. Louis County court records show.
Many of her neighbors weren’t so lucky. By the time Aria Legacy Group sold the apartment complex to a new owner in August 2023, at least 190 of 414 units were vacant — the result of aggressive eviction tactics and poor maintenance that forced many tenants to leave.
(Novoseller, Aria’s managing principal, defended his company’s stewardship of the apartment complex during its two years of ownership. “I think the property was maintained very well when we owned it,” he said. “We fixed any issues that came up.”)
But Gerard Gips says a new day is dawning for Pleasant View Gardens’ beleaguered tenants. Gips is the regional manager of 2974 Coppercreek Road LLC, the New Jersey-based firm that bought the complex in August. He promises to turn the apartment complex around as part of a massive renovation worth at least several million dollars. Plans call for the installation of new floors, toilets, countertops, water heaters, kitchen appliances and other amenities. As many as eight crews at a time are rehabbing the complex, according to Gips.
“We’re pumping in our own equity,” Gips says. “Our goal is really to make it a safer and more enjoyable place for the residents.”
Gips declined to comment on Aria Legacy’s management of Pleasant View, but he acknowledges the apartment complex was in rough shape when his company took over in August.
“We’ve been essentially turning units that were down-to-the-studs vacant, that were in terrible condition,” he says.
Yet maintenance and repair problems still persist, despite the new ownership group’s promises.
In December, the apartment complex’s owners replaced a toilet in Gary Jones’ ground floor apartment. One month later, the stench from the vacant apartment next door continues to permeate their apartment, while nothing’s been done about the bathroom sink that’s been leaking for more than a month, Turner says.
“They haven’t done nothing except come in and put that toilet in,” he says. “That was it.”
Work crews have tried to fix the standing water and stench problem in the apartment, says Gips.
“It may have returned,” Gips said to a reporter a month after their initial conversation in early December. “At one point after our conversation it was definitely handled.”
Gips says up to 20 workers a day are trying to repair things at Pleasant View and are making progress.
“But we’re dealing with so many fires to put out.”
For more on the River City Journalism Fund, which provided funding for this story and seeks to advance local journalism in St. Louis, please see rcjf.org.
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