Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

TOP STORY > >Apartments given a new lease on life

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader editor-in-chief

The Jacksonville apartment building whose owners let the building go to hell — broken windows just about everywhere and utilities shut off because the owners wouldn’t pay their electric and water bills — is under new management and is getting a new lease on life.

Fannie Mae, the federal mortgage lender, which foreclosed on the Manor House Apartments on Redmond Road when its owners went bust, has freed up funds to make necessary repairs and keep the utilities on for the dozen or so apartments that are still occupied.

It looks like Manor House will make it with Fannie Mae’s help. City officials want someone to buy it so they don’t have another eyesore on their hands.

It was touch and go there for a while. The manager at the Manor House Apartments told us after Christmas, “We’ll know in the next two weeks if we’ll stay open.”

Fannie Mae became aware of the problems at Manor House a couple of months ago, when it received reports that tenants had no electricity, heat or running water, a clear violation of the loan agreement with PB and Associates, which bought the property two years ago and is owned by Benjamin Cameron and Peter Thern, who are said to be serving in the military overseas and may not even know that Manor House is in receivership.

They had borrowed $980,000 through FEMA, but in today’s economy, someone could buy the apartments for a fraction of that amount.

“We became aware of maintenance issues in mid-November,” Jon Searles, a FEMA spokesman in Bethesda, Md., said Tuesday.

“We don’t want to displace tenants if at all possible, especially during the holidays.”

The Leader ran an article last month about Manor House residents who found their utilities were cut off even though they were supposed to be included in their rent.

Their problem was they couldn’t have afforded the security deposit if they went elsewhere — usually two months rent.

While several residents had moved out when the apartments became pretty much uninhabitable, those who stayed finally had their electricity and heat turned back on when temperatures plummeted into the 20s around Christmas. Code violations were fixed, broken windows replaced and squatters were forced out.

The city council offered to help find homes for those residents if they were left out in the cold, and there are several other individuals who made the holidays more tolerable for the tenants. The property-management firm that’s taken temporary custody of the apartments until a new owner is found has made significant improvements.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said John Chiver, the property manager with First Capital Residential Management, referring to the help he has received from city officials who reached out to his tenants.

“The city has been generous with its help,” he added.

Chiver’s company is managing the apartments while they’re in receivership. He has secured funds from Fannie Mae to fix up the building and make sure the utilities stay on.

The building has had its share of bad luck over the years — a young woman was murdered there by the apartment manager — but Chiver says it’s in a good location near the freeway.

Although occupancy is down to 25 percent, he thinks the apartments could be fully occupied after additional improvements are made.

Sadly, there’s nothing unusual about real estate investments that turn sour — there are some 60,000 apartment buildings in foreclosure across the country — but this story is different.

Despite hard times, Chiver is convinced Manor House is a good investment for somebody.

He had praise for city officials who made sure Manor House tenants had a decent place to live and cared enough to make sure the utilties weren’t cut off and squatters weren’t moving into empty apartments.

Chiver singled out Jacksonville city administrator Jay Whisker and city planner Chip McCulley, who understood the tenants’ predicament and let them know help was on the way.

Whisker and McCulley had reached out to tenants while temperatures were freezing outside. They say they were just doing their job.

They were often on the scene, along with Chiver, assuring tenants they didn’t have to move out if they had nowhere else to go.

“We’re grateful it worked out,” Chiver told us.