Tuesday, August 06, 2002

Landlord faces audit of tax funds

By Randy Tucker rtucker@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune's quest to learn what happened to millions of tax dollars that were to be used to renovate the Huntington Meadows apartment complex in Bond Hill is gaining momentum.

        Although the board of commissioners has not formally intervened, Mr. Portune said Commissioner John Dowlin has joined him in calling for an audit and accounting of how the money was spent.

        The two commissioners also have contacted the Hamilton County prosecutor's office to intervene on behalf of the complex's remaining tenants, who have been threatened with eviction if they don't agree to move by Sept. 3.

        The 1,200-unit complex is in such poor condition and plagued by so many health violations that about half of the units have already been vacated, depleting rent income to the point where its landlord says it can no longer afford to operate or make needed repairs.

        That never should have happened to a complex whose owners received $17.5 million in economic development bonds from the county in 1997 and about $4 million in block grants administered by the city of Cincinnati for renovations, Mr. Portune said.

        “At least you have two commissioners who have asked the prosecutor's office to look at the documents,” he said. “We want to know if the money was spent in a proper fashion, and also provide for a more equitable approach in dealing with residents.”

        Late last month, Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Thomas Crush signed off on a settlement agreement that allows the landlord - Maryland-based Habitat America - to terminate leases, provided it offers financial relocation assistance.

        Residents have been offered $500, rent-free living this month and a refund of their security deposits if they sign waivers agreeing to move by Sept. 3.

        If not, Habitat has promised to take immediate action to evict.

        Mr. Portune described the relocation package as “inadequate” in a letter to his fellow county commissioners, Mr. Dowlin and Tom Neyer Jr.

        In the letter, Mr. Portune asked for their support in asking Hamilton County prosecutors to seek a stay on the enforcement of the court-ordered settlement.

        “Most of the residents are facing immediate deadlines whereby they are giving up many legal rights without any legal representation,” Mr. Portune wrote.

        He said commissioners have the authority to make such requests and conduct such an investigation because of the terms of the financing agreement the county entered into with the owners.

        The owners - a group of investors incorporated as Huntington Meadows Limited Partnership LTD - filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June last year after failing to submit two consecutive monthly payments to the mortgage holder, Fannie Mae.

        Fannie Mae - a government-chartered corporation and the nation's biggest mortgage lender - had filed to foreclose on the property in Hamilton County Common Pleas court a month earlier.

        Habitat was appointed by the court to take charge of the property while the foreclosure is pending.

        When Habitat took control, the complex was in such disrepair that thousands of burned out lights, broken windows and some roofs had to be repaired or replaced.

        Vice Mayor Alicia Reece, who began her own investigation of the property in June after receiving numerous complaints from residents about the living conditions, has also joined the fight for accountability and a better deal for Huntington Meadows tenants.

        Monday, she submitted a motion before City Council to appropriate $50,000 from the city's relocation fund to help tenants move


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