BLOOMINGTON — Bed bugs and other pests have been a recurring concern for residents of Phoenix Towers for years, according to inspection records obtained by the Pantagraph via the Freedom of Information Act.
Although the nearly 50-year-old apartment building, which houses senior citizens and residents with disabilities, keeps a regular schedule of spraying for insects, staff are working with a new exterminator in an attempt to identify and eliminate all infestations.
Several Bloomington alderman are raising questions about whether enough is being done to ensure that residents are safe and comfortable after recent WGLT reporting highlighted years of resident complaints about bed bugs and other health issues.
However, representatives of Related Companies, the New York-based real estate firm that owns Phoenix Towers, said 100% compliance from residents is needed to ensure bed bug problems are properly addressed.
"When we have compliance, we’re able to address the problem quickly (but) when some residents don’t comply with these efforts, that makes it difficult," Sarah Wick, senior vice president with Related Midwest, said in an email. "We have a zero-tolerance policy on this issue and have unfortunately had to evict five residents for refusing to comply because otherwise, the bedbugs will spread and we can’t put the other residents through that."
According to a letter sent to residents last week, a 100% unit pest control inspection was to be conducted last weekend. Any unit found to have a pest issue will be placed on a follow-up treatment schedule, according to the notice. Treatments are to be conducted this week and continue until the pests are eradicated.
Phoenix Towers, built in 1979, is a privately owned 12-story building that contains 158 single-bedroom units. According to a 2022 grant application, the building was reported to be 94.3% occupied.
When Related took over the property in 2012, the company received a low-income housing tax credit of $453,669. It also secured $13 million in tax-exempt bonds for planned renovations that included window replacements, roof replacement, painting, energy efficiency upgrades, new kitchen cabinets, appliances, lighting, flooring and other accessories.
Phoenix Towers also is in the final stages of securing a $461,000 limited rehabilitation grant for roof repairs, elevator equipment repairs and upgrades, sprinkler system modifications, hot water tank replacements and parking lot restoration.
"Related and (the Illinois Housing Development Authority) are working through the closing process for this grant," a Phoenix Towers spokesperson said in an email. "When received, this funding will be used for a number of immediate capital improvement projects that will help to enhance the daily lives of residents."
Wick said when the grant application was submitted last year, applicants had to present a specific scope of projects the money would be used for, which didn't include fighting off infestations.
"Bed bugs tend to not be a capital expense," Wick said. "It's just part of our operations."
Because the apartments are government-subsidized, Phoenix Towers must meet certain maintenance standards and undergo regular inspections by state and federal authorities, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It is also subject to the same city inspection process as any other rental property in Bloomington.
As a HUD-funded property, Phoenix Towers is subject to Real Estate Assessment Center, or REAC, inspections, which assess the physical condition of a property.
The property's previous inspection score determines the frequency of its REAC inspections, with those scoring higher than a 90 out of 100 typically inspected every three years.
According to HUD records, Phoenix Towers scored a 93b in 2006, a 96b in 2010 and a 99b in 2015. Results of a Freedom of Information Act request, filed by The Pantagraph in September, show the 2015 inspection was the only REAC inspection performed in the last decade.
Ash Sheriff, deputy assistant secretary for HUD's Real Estate Assessment Center, said HUD has the authority to inspect properties at any point as they may be notified of conditions warranting inspection.
"HUD doesn't want to penalize properties in need of repair," Sheriff said. "While the program offices may take into consideration those inspection scores, the most important thing is the health and safety of the residents living there."
As part of the physical inspection protocol, Sheriff said when inspectors find evidence of bed bugs, it is seen as a defect and deficiency that requires remediation within 30 days.
"Bed bugs are one of those things that's difficult to remediate," Sheriff said. "What we look for at HUD is a comprehensive plan like an integrated pest management plan."
Although staff said they need full compliance from residents to weed out bed bug problems, some tenants have alleged that their units were not treated unless a sprayer could find the bugs.
According to a letter to HUD, a former Phoenix Towers resident said she had discovered a bed bug in the bathroom of her unit the day they moved in. But since the exterminator didn't find any bugs when visiting the apartment a week later, the resident said the unit wasn't treated.
The resident then claimed in the letter that she found more bed bugs weeks later and asked an exterminator to treat the problem but was told no.
"So we had to treat our apartment ourselves because we didn't want to be overrun by bugs," the letter read. "We were bombing our apartment at least twice a month even though that's against the lease policy."
Because Phoenix Towers receives tax credits, the Illinois Housing Development Authority also performs physical inspections to ensure that a property complies with HUD's "uniform physical condition standards." These inspections typically are performed every one to three years.
The most recent IHDA-led inspection, which was performed virtually in September, determined that the site had two health and safety deficiencies and a random sample of 23 units had 14 health and safety deficiencies. However, none of these issues were considered exigent health and safety deficiencies, meaning they threatened the life, health and safety of residents.
The property also received a failing grade on infestation. Bed bugs had been reported in seven units on various floors of Phoenix Towers. Another eight units were not cooperating in preparations to eliminate bed bugs although the IHDA report is unclear whether all of these units had infestations.
The inspection also noted safety hazards and unclean public areas. Someone in a unit on the third floor had broken a glass sprinkler head trying to adjust his antenna, which caused several units on the first three floors to sustain water damage.
City inspections and complaints
Although state and federal inspections have been sporadic over the last decade, city inspections of rental property are scheduled on a routine basis and can be conducted in response to a tenant's complaint.
Between November 2019 and August 2022, 38 complaints on Phoenix Towers were filed with the city, according to results from a Freedom of Information Act request from the Pantagraph. Of the 13 complaints of infestations, only two were determined to be unfounded. All but one of the other cases were closed.
Michael Sinnet, community enhancement division manager for Bloomington said both status designations of "closed" and "unfounded" require a site visit inspection. A closed status means the problem was addressed. An unfounded status designates that after an inspection, the complaint could not be verified.
Alderwoman De Urban, whose ward includes Phoenix Towers, said she has filed many complaints on behalf of residents who contacted her about housing issues at the facility.
"If you FOIA all the complaints for Phoenix Towers, the clerk's office would be quite disturbed because it's a lot and the reason it's a lot is because people like me and other people in the surrounding area are filing those complaints and those residents are absolutely capable of filing complaints as well," Urban said.
Should the city be doing more to force the property owner to better protect residents? Several Bloomington aldermen voiced such concerns at a March 13 city council meeting after WGLT first reported on residents' continued issues.
Some aldermen proposed taking Phoenix Towers to administrative court, which was established via ordinance in 2014 to force owners to fix up their properties.
Bloomington City Manager Tim Gleason said since Phoenix Towers is privately owned, the city is limited by how it can respond.
"At Phoenix Towers, every time we receive a complaint, our inspectors respond to it," Gleason said. "At times it's found unfounded, at times corrective measures are taken and the fact that they have not shown up in administrative court is because problems have in fact been addressed."
Sinnet said all infestation complaints would be handled by a city inspection in conjunction with the extermination professional hired by the property owner. Once the exterminator verified an infestation, it is expected to provide a treatment plan and schedule to the property owner and city inspector.
"Even the property owners, they are providing reports on extermination records that they don't need to just so they can make us aware of the steps they are taking," Gleason said.