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Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011 05:21 pm

MacArthur Park’s Slumdog Millionaire

While Springfield’s notorious housing complex rots, its owner lives in luxury

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Built in 1969, MacArthur Park has seen better days and is now under scrutiny for building code violations.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

Linda Sexton knows about promises.
Promises to replace her Brady-Bunch-era kitchen cabinets. Promises for a new living room carpet. Promises for a backyard patio behind her apartment, one of more than 170 units just off MacArthur Boulevard, next to Jerome.

“They told me six months ago they ordered my windows,” Sexton says.

After nearly 13 years of living in a MacArthur Park apartment amid buildings recently placarded with unfit-for-human-habitation stickers, Sexton has learned to do things for herself. Instead of a patio, a relative made a poor-man’s deck, eight inches high, out of pallets and plywood. Sexton, 68, says that she weeds her own yard, and that she, not management, installed the ceiling fan that circulates air in her living room.

Duct tape bridges gaps between windows and frames. More duct tape covers more gaps between the bottom of Sexton’s living-room wall and the floor, with tape extending around her front-door frame. Unseen, Sexton says, is “foamy stuff” she bought from a dollar store and stuffed into cracks between the floor and wall, then covered and secured with the silver fixes-all tape.

“There was air coming from under the house,” she explains. “I’ve been looking for another place, one that we can afford.”

Management did secure her back door about six months ago after burglars kicked it open. Her landlord screwed the broken door frame back in place, installed metal brackets on either side of the entryway and gave Sexton a two-by-four to place in the brackets, spanning the door horizontally, to prevent a repeat. For added measure, she jams a metal shower rod between the door and the bottom stair of a flight leading to her upper-floor bedroom.

MacArthur Park can be a dicey place, judging by police records that show more than 840 calls for officers since 2006, including more than 150 this year for such events as fights, a sexual assault, drug violations, shots fired, loud parties and burglary.

Sexton isn’t complaining about burglars. If she had her way, they wouldn’t go to jail, but would instead be sentenced to church every Sunday for a month. The Lord, truly, is Sexton’s shepherd, evidenced by prints of The Last Supper, Jesus with a flock of lambs and Mary with holy child on walls throughout her apartment, overlooking ashes of her beloved poodle Sam, who died in January, kept on an end table in a mahogany box – Sam was too precious to put in tin, she says.

“The druggies are my angels out here – they would never hurt me,” she says. “Some of it I hear, some of it I don’t. I’m telling you right now: I’m not a dog, and neither are these people.”

Sexton says that she worries about the children who meander in the potholed-parking lot, without swing sets, slides or decent grass to play on.

“They don’t have no play area,” Sexton says. “What about where the pool used to be? Oh, no, no – insurance would be too high. That’s all I ever heard.”

In the parking lot sits Sexton’s 1992 Buick Century, not far from a rusting 1991 Plymouth Voyager van owned by her roommate-cum-soulmate Harmon “Buzzy” Sours. A Springfield cop, she says, came by a day or two ago, telling her that the van where she’s been storing her lawnmower must go – never mind that it has new tires and current tags, albeit a dead battery and questionable transmission.

“They sent me a notice that I have so many days to have it out,” Sexton says.

Never mind the welcome mat, angel figurines and American flag outside Sexton’s front door, which sports a neighborhood-watch sticker. Who cares that her oven is spotless, and the drip pans on her stove show nary a drop?

So far as the city of Springfield is concerned, Sexton is part of the problem – she needs to either get that van running or get it out of here.

James Green, general partner in the company that owns MacArthur Park, lives in this Belleville mansion built by the brother of tennis great Jimmy Connors, according to St. Clair County records.
PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON



A landlord lives in luxury

“Buzzy!”

So Sexton calls the man in her life.

Sours, 70, comes down from upstairs. They can’t recall whether they’ve been a couple for 18 years or just 16. Whichever, Sexton and Sours are together for the long haul, talking openly about their love for one another in front of a stranger who knocked on their door a half-hour ago, asking about what it is like to live here. They are interested in seeing photographs of their landlord’s house that the stranger has brought.

“He has no kids?” asks Sexton as she gazes at pictures of the 28,000-square-foot Belleville mansion that is owned by James Green, who lives in the home with his wife, Catherine, according to records in the St. Clair County Building and Zoning Department.

Green is a general partner of Granite Investment Company, which owns MacArthur Park. He has been a player in real estate since the 1960s, renting hundreds upon hundreds of apartments, mostly in Madison and St. Clair counties. Rex Carr, an East St. Louis lawyer and a partner in Granite Investment, says that MacArthur Park, built in 1969, is one of several apartment complexes that the partnership has owned since the 1970s.

Sexton gazes at one photo after another of Green’s house – the gate across the driveway, the entrance framed by Romanesque columns, the swimming pool. The mansion was built in 1995 at a cost of $4 million by John T. Connors, a former casino magnate and brother of erstwhile tennis star Jimmy Connors. Green acquired the property after Connors declared bankruptcy in 1999.

Sexton says that Green should have to live in MacArthur Park for a year.

“Maybe even longer,” Sexton says. “Why hasn’t he been checking up on things? I’d like to know that – why, instead of leaving it up to someone else? Unless he doesn’t give a darn.”

Linda Sexton has brightened her front door with an American flag, plastic flowers and angel figurines.
PHOTO BY STEIN DESIGN



Problems elsewhere

MacArthur Park isn’t the only apartment complex associated with Green where tenants say they’ve suffered from lack of maintenance and repairs.

In 2006, a tenant in a Collinsville complex who fell through the floor of her apartment sued James Green Enterprises, Green’s property management firm, and Residential Marketing Systems, a leasing company that has Green listed as president in Illinois Secretary of State records. The woman suffered injuries that required more than $33,000 in medical care, according to Madison County Circuit Court documents.

The tenant claimed that the property manager had been told that the floor needed repairs, yet did nothing. Green’s lawyer said that the tenant was at fault because she didn’t exercise sufficient care when walking. The case was settled out of court, files show.

In 2008, a couple who lived in a Bethalto complex sued James Green Management and Residential Marketing Systems, saying that their apartment was nearly uninhabitable. Water cascaded down their walls due to a defective roof, the couple claimed in Madison County court documents, and chunks of drywall had fallen onto their floor, where carpet had grown moldy. The bathroom floor was rotted, the shower faucet worked only with the aid of pliers, faulty wiring caused shocks to anyone who used the kitchen sink and they lived amid rats and roaches, according to the couple who said that they stopped paying rent after five years of complaints.

The claims were buttressed by a notice of code violations issued by Rich Mersinger, Bethalto zoning administrator, who declared the apartment unfit for human occupancy. Electrical outlets were dangerous, wiring was exposed under a sink and in a utility closet, holes were present in walls, plumbing was held together with duct tape, the roof was leaking through the kitchen and part of the ceiling collapsed while inspectors were on the premises.

“If my memory serves me right, there was a sewer leak between the first and second level, dripping down the drywall,” Mersinger says. “We’ve had all kinds of problems out there. That checklist you have in front of you, that probably applied to a multitude of units out there.”

Saying that they had paid more than $28,200 in rent at the rate of $495 a month for a place they figured was worth no more than $200 a month, the couple demanded a refund of $16,815. The defendants countered that the couple had caused $1,710 in damage to the apartment. The case was settled out of court, with no money changing hands, according to a copy of the settlement agreement.

James Green this year sued a couple in Madison County, claiming that they owe him more than $763,000. Jack Carey, the couple’s lawyer, says in court documents that Green induced his clients into signing a “bogus promissory note.”


An aerial view of Green’s home shows a swimming pool complete with diving board.
IMAGE BY GOOGLE EARTH, SEPTEMBER 13, 2011



In an interview, Carey, former president of the Illinois State Bar Association, said that the litigation is new enough that he hasn’t learned all the details, but the promissory note involved a real-estate project.

“They don’t have $750,000, never did have, never would have – Green knew this,” Carey said. “Essentially, he told my clients that this is just a formality in order to keep these projects going. … My clients were just duped. They should not have signed a note which they could never have repaid.”

Carey knows Carr – they were once law partners – and he says that he also knows Green, whom he describes as “a nodding acquaintance” he hasn’t seen in two decades.

“Would I ever go into business with Jim Green?” Carey says. “Not on your life. There was always something mysterious. He’s a wheeler dealer.”


A crumbling complex

Granite Investments acquired MacArthur Park shortly after the apartments were built in 1969. What the complex is worth today depends on the piece of paper one looks at.

According to Sangamon County property records, the apartments have a fair-market value of nearly $4.5 million. Records in the recorder’s office show that Reliance Bank based in the St. Louis metro area gave Granite Investments an $8 million mortgage on the property in 2008; Carr, however, says that the mortgage also covers eight complexes in Madison County.

The $8 million note is one of a series of loans of as much as $10 million that have been made on Green’s properties over the past 18 years, with MacArthur Park assigned a value of slightly more than $2.4 million in loan documents issued in 1998. Under terms of the current mortgage, Green must maintain the property in a rentable condition and promptly perform repairs and maintenance to preserve its value.

However, records of code violations dating back five years include citations for garbage, missing smoke detectors, roach infestations, soft spots in floors, exposed wiring, odors of urine and feces, holes in walls, faulty plumbing, broken ventilation systems, mold and sinks that don’t drain.

Consider Apartment 40.

On March 27, 2007, the city deemed the apartment unfit for human habitation. The front door was wide open, the ceiling had collapsed from water damage, the walls were covered with mold and mildew, plumbing was incomplete and smoke detectors were missing.


Duct tape keeps air from outside from entering Sexton’s apartment.
PHOTO BY STEIN DESIGN



Time and again over the next four years, inspectors returned to find code violations unabated. Just how many times is not clear. Records reflect as many as 40 follow-up visits, with the most recent one on July 13. But John Sadowski, plans examiner in the city’s building and zoning department, said that he believes inspectors returned three or four times after the initial inspection.

“What happened here was, they cleaned out the unit, then closed the unit so that it was not open to trespass,” Sadowski said. “This, I think, was an unusual occurrence.”

On Aug. 5, the city served a search warrant at MacArthur Park – city officials said that management would not allow inspectors on the premises without one. Apartment 40 was in no better condition than in 2007, according to inspectors who said the apartment had been gutted, with all plumbing removed and graffiti appearing on the outside. Every other unit in the four-plex was also uninhabitable, the city found.

Apartment 40 was one of 28 units in seven abandoned four-plexes that city officials placarded last month. Mayor Mike Houston says that he knows the complex had code violations prior to him taking office this year, but he doesn’t know the number or any details. Houston says that he has developed a strategy for MacArthur Park with the help of corporation counsel Mark Cullen and Bill Logan, a top aide, but he won’t give specifics.

“That’s between us to know and others to figure out as we go along,” the mayor says. “We have a number of things in our tool kit. They begin with ordinance violations and fines.”

While the mayor talks tough, the city did not use the full power of the search warrant, which gave the city the right to look inside every unit at MacArthur Park over the course of four days. The city only spent a few hours looking at seven buildings that had clearly been abandoned, despite a documented history of management not providing such essentials as smoke detectors and proper plumbing in apartments where people live.

Why?

“We did not want to invade the privacy of individual tenants or create problems for tenants that are out there,” the mayor answers.

That’s not acceptable, said Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson, who has long called for stronger city action against derelict properties in her own ward and says that she is watching how the city deals with MacArthur Park.

“The judge gave you carte blanche, and you only went into seven unoccupied buildings?” Simpson says. “That doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s not about privacy, it’s about living conditions. It’s about making sure those individuals who are living there have a quality of life.”

After burglars kicked in Sexton’s back door, management gave her a two-by-four to keep criminals out.
PHOTO BY STEIN DESIGN



Inspection redux

On Sept. 2, city inspectors went through eleven occupied apartments in seven buildings, giving residents 24 hours’ notice. Unlike Houston, Cullen says that the city hadn’t inspected occupied units in August because the city didn’t have enough inspectors.

This time, inspectors who looked through occupied units found roach infestations, missing or faulty smoke detectors, a lack of fire extinguishers, exposed wiring, missing guardrails on staircases and holes in walls. Inspectors also discovered a natural-gas leak in an unoccupied unit deemed unfit for human habitation.

“Did not enter due to smell being so bad,” inspectors wrote about a unit they placarded as unfit for human habitation, one of nine apartments placarded that day. Seven apartments went uninspected in the buildings visited by inspectors – inspection records indicate that no one was home in those units.

Management didn’t try stopping inspectors this time.

“If they want to inspect them, we’re going to let them inspect them,” says Gerald Clark, a property manager. “We’ve got nothing to hide.”

Clark, however, would not allow a photographer to take pictures of work underway on buildings placarded by the city, although he said that the owners will obey the city’s demands to fix things.

“We’ve got plumbers and electricians over there,” Clark said. “We’re complying with what the city wants. You look around – this can’t be the worst complex in the city of Springfield.”

Although Carr is Green’s partner in Granite Investments, he says that he’s not responsible for conditions at MacArthur Park.

“I’m a partner in the entity that owns MacArthur Park, I have nothing to do with the operation of the partnership,” says Carr, who blames tenants for damage.

“We’re required to basically let anyone in who wants to go in – people are going in there and tearing up the property,” Carr says. “The problem is, you have to make apartments available to anybody who qualifies under HUD.”

That’s not true, according to Jackie Newman, executive director of the Springfield Housing Authority that administers the Section 8 program for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

If rules are applied evenly to Section 8 voucher holders and everyone else, then landlords can be as picky as they like, Newman says.

“There is no mandate from HUD or the housing authority,” Newman says. “But you can’t discriminate against someone because they’re a voucher holder.”

Sexton, not Uncle Sam, pays the rent on her apartment. But she is patient.
“As long as they’re fixing up the apartments around here, I don’t even care if they get to mine,” she says.

Reach Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.