No one could envy Jo Bozeman as she walked into a packed meeting room at the Hilton by St. Louis International Airport on Thursday night.
Bozeman is the president of the Heritage House Corporation Board of Directors. The board owns the Heritage House Apartments, the 18-story high-rise at 2800 Olive Street that's stood vacant since January 14, when frozen pipes burst, flooding the 11th floor and basement and scattering nearly 200 residents — most elderly and disabled — to temporary shelters across the St. Louis area.
And now here was Bozeman, picking her way through a packed crowd of nearly 100 people, many in wheelchairs or with walkers and canes leaning against chairs and tables. The audience gazed at Bozeman — staring at her, hard, with the skepticism and anxiety natural to disaster survivors when someone in charge collects them in a group and tells them things are going to be OK.
Like an acrobat trying to cross a swinging tightrope, Bozeman had a nearly impossible task: mollify the tenants and prepare them for the next step — finding a new home — while also keeping a tight lid on years of pent-up complaints about Heritage House's poor track record on plumbing, heating and water issues.
And Bozeman tried. Good God, she tried.
Several audience members asked what will happen to their major possessions, such as furniture. As one tenant pointed out, the building's freight elevator has been out for a month, and the former residents are allowed only 15-minute stretches to retrieve their stuff.
Another audience member pointed out that a moving company quoted her a cost of $1,500 to move her possessions out of the high-rise.
“To get all this done within the time permitted is impossible,” the audience member said. “Especially if I have to work every day.”
Bozeman took a reassuring tone, telling the crowd that no deadline has been set for removing items from the building, which is condemned and will be closed for at least a year while repairs are made.
“As long as you are here, your things will be OK at Heritage House,” Bozeman said.
But James Island was having none of it.
Island noted that Heritage House's owners and property manager Sansone Group have agreed only to refund January rent and security deposits, in addition to allowing tenants to stay at the Hilton on Heritage House's dime until February 6.
But that wasn't enough — not nearly enough.
“Sansone is getting off the hook, big time,” Island said, noting that if any of the tenants had broken their lease they'd be facing a raft of financial penalties.
But Heritage House and Sansone?
“We're not breaking the lease,” Island said. “They're breaking the lease.”
Janice Lee, 64, who moves with the help of a wheelchair because her right leg is amputated below the knee, called the tenants' situation “inhumane” and asked, “How in the hell are we supposed to find housing in this short time? I am truly pissed. I need answers.”
Sansone stated that the Heritage House Corporation Board of Directors had previously arranged to put residents up at the Hilton and was paying for their stay. But the company sent a letter to the evacuees on Monday, January 23, informing them the financial support will only last until January 30. They could stay at the Hilton — but only at their own expense.
Many tenants were relieved to learn yesterday that their Hilton stay will now be paid for until February 6, but the bigger problem — finding permanent housing — still has not been addressed.
Sansone representatives did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Local churches and community groups have been stepping up to help the evacuees. Action St. Louis, a racial justice organization active with tenants rights, has been conducting wellness checks on the displaced tenants. The Urban League and St. Louis Area Agency on Aging are collaborating on a two-day housing fair set for next week to match tenants with new rental units.
Still, some Heritage House tenants could not let go of a crucial idea: accountability.
JoAnne Adams was one of them.
Adams stood up near the end of the meeting and reeled off a long list of problems that she endured at Heritage House during her four years living there.
“If they're giving us a month's rent and a security deposit, they're getting away with murder,” Adams said. “I lost a new job because of two issues with the plumbing. How stupid do you think we are?”
Others voiced similar complaints.
Finally, Bozeman had had enough.
“It's a big gripe session now,” she said.
“It's not a gripe session,” another woman replied.
A neighbor interjected: “It's not their fault. They're here to help us.”
Regardless of who bore the blame, a woman at a nearby table summed up the mood for everyone.
“This is trauma.”
Mike Fitzgerald can be reached at [email protected]