Lansing resident Angela Bowellan returned home on March 23 to find a red sign on her door indicating she had two days to move out of her apartment. “Unsafe do not enter,” the sign read. If she continued to live in her apartment past the designated time frame, she would face trespassing charges.
Bowellan’s apartment is one of more than 500 residences in the Lansing area that is red-tagged, meaning a property is deemed not safe for occupancy.
Lansing’s dealings with unsafe properties has been considered a “crisis” by city officials since early spring and local officials have been doing what they can to hold landlords accountable and keep citizens safe.
Why properties are red-tagged
Nicholas Montry, Deputy Director of Lansing’s Department of Economic Development and Planning, said there are two main reasons the city will red tag a home: if the home is not up to safety standards code or if the property lacks a rental registration certificate.
“The city has a huge responsibility of making sure that our residents are safe and they’re living in a home that is safe,” he said. “If someone’s missing a hand rail, we’re not going to red tag their home, they are only for the most significant safety concerns.”
Lansing begins prioritizing red-tagged properties
Lansing City Councilmember Ryan Kost said when he first joined the council last January there were around 750 red tags. The public safety commission immediately put red-tagged homes as a priority and looked into making sure ordinances were being followed that would hold landlords accountable, he said.
One of these ordinances were red tag fees, which means that after 90 days of a home being red-tagged, the landlord would face a $150 monthly fee.
“We had issues where people weren’t getting that fee and when you’re not, when your sitting on a red tag for five, six, seven years, it’s not costing you anything to sit on a red tag, it defeats the purpose of getting it fixed, so that was one of the things we addressed,” he said.
Along with enforcing the fees, Kost said the council has been working backward down the red tag list and communicating with landowners to make sure that they clean up the older properties that have been on the list for too long.
Kost said that the main issue contributing to the red-tag crisis is deferred maintenance.
“These mega complexes have just kind of sat for years… as they’ve aged they have not gotten that preventative maintenance that they need and that’s something that we also need to address and have had discussions about,” he said.
Residents of a red-tagged complex share their experience
Bowellan was a resident of Holmes Apartment Complex, a 29-unit housing complex where all remaining residents faced the same fate – a red tag on their door deeming their home unsafe to live in.
Although her apartment didn’t have any noticeable issues, she said other units had caved-in ceilings which prompted a resident to contact the city.
Ashley Ellis, another resident of the Holmes Apartment Complex, had her ceiling cave in both her living room and kitchen and was seeing signs of that occurring in her bathroom as well. She promptly contacted the city following the incident after saying she received no response from her landlords. After further inspection, they officially issued the red tags on March 23.
Ellis said that everything in her apartment had run smoothly until a wind storm struck the area that resulted in a chain of problems within the complex.
She said during the storm, a roof blew off on one of the apartments on the west side of the complex and then apartments started filling with water which ran down to the lower floors.
Following March 23, Bowellan and Ellis were lodged in a motel with four other residents for three months until they were able to be relocated to another apartment complex owned by the same management company.
The complex, Pacific Apartments, was pink-tagged by the city, meaning it did not have a valid certificate of compliance and failed inspection; residents lodged in motels were unable to move in until the complex was up to standard. Bowellan and Ellis now reside at the Pacific complex.
Pushback from the city
The company that owns the Holmes and Pacific Apartment Complex and 19 others properties across Lansing, Simtob Management, reached a settlement in June in a lawsuit with the city.
Lansing Mayor Andy Shor said the lawsuit was a last resort to get the company to fix their properties and also to get money back from paying for some of the relocation costs for tenants.
Under the agreement, Simtob Management will have to cover relocation costs for tenants displaced due to red-tagging and will also have to pay the city back for the previous relocation costs.
Montry said following the lawsuit, other property owners in the Lansing area have been more proactive about reaching out about issues they need help taking care of before they result in a red tag.
In an emailed statement, managing partner of Simtob Management and Investment, Bradley Simtob, said that the reason their properties fell victim to so many red tags is because they bought them in that condition.
“Simtob Management has specialized in acquiring “red-tagged” and “ pink tagged” properties and returning them to safe, clean, affordable housing for Lansing working-class residents,” the statement read.
The statement said the situation at the Holmes complex was the result of a winter weather event earlier that year that created damage to the roof. The statement claimed that the complex had been restored up to city standards before the storm and that the damage to the roof was unable to be immediately repaired due to the inclement weather, leading the damage to affect the entire property.
The statement said the building has since been repaired and that the company tries to respond to messages from tenants within 48 hours.
Looking at the future
Kost said that the council is still working on finding ways to hold landlords more accountable, including raising the red tag fees, so that Lansing citizens no longer have to worry about being displaced from their homes.
“We need to start pushing more of this into the courts and holding these folks accountable,” he said. “You know, they went into business to do this, they’re making money off these folks and at the very minimum they should be providing safe, clean living spaces.”