City investigates apartment complex's tax status as court delays code violation hearing

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - A court referee postponed a judgment hearing against one of Memphis's most notorious apartment complexes for maintenance failures, while a city agency threatened to pull the complex's property tax benefit.

Shelby County Environmental Court Referee John Cameron continued a scheduled hearing Monday against Eden at Watersedge apartment complex, located at 2774 S. Mendenhall Road, to 10:30 a.m. this Wednesday. Just like last Friday, neither the complex's local managers nor its attorney, Bruce Feldbaum, were present at Monday's 1:30 p.m. hearing.

"Our office has been in contact with (Memphis) Code Enforcement and understands 68 air conditioning units have been repaired or replaced, and the property management maintenance engineer team has stated they will not leave the property until every unit is fully operational," said Martin Edwards, executive director of the Health, Educational and Housing Facility Board of Memphis (HEHF).

The WMC Action News 5 Investigators have been unable to locate a phone number or email contact for Eden at Watersedge's owner, New Life Core Willow Lake LLC of Bloomington, Minnesota.

"We regularly work with Memphis Code Enforcement, but do not have a record of contact for this property," said Lauren Magallanes, HEHF spokesperson. According to Shelby County property assessor records, the Minnesota-based owner is enrolled in HEHF's PILOT (Payment In Lieu of Taxes) program. It's a financial incentive program that allows qualifying out-of-state property companies to obtain a low-cost lease, then title the property in the board's name. "Based on your inquiry, we have reviewed our current report for the property, and the tenant benefits were listed as being up to date, but some deferred maintenance items were noted (and) reported to (New Life Core Willow Lake LLC)," said Magallanes. "We will immediately review this matter with a view toward determining if provisions of the PILOT lease have been violated, in which case a Notice of Default will be issued."

"Additionally, our staff has requested our compliance monitoring vendor to conduct a full property inspection as soon as is possible," Edwards said. "Said report will be reviewed in accordance with our existing compliance standards to see if further action will be required to meet the existing tenant benefits of the PILOT agreement."

Citing a "revolving door" of air conditioning failures, mounting health concerns and inept maintenance staff, Cameron handed down 15 judgments against the apartment complex last Friday. Each judgment was for perpetual air conditioning failures. During Friday's hearing, a team of city code inspectors rifled through the property's complaint file.

"It's almost unmanageable," said Memphis City Code Enforcement Supervisor Anthony Muhammad.

Muhammad testified Eden at Watersedge's maintenance staff has managed to whittle 75 apartments out of air conditioning -- nine percent of its more than 800 units -- down to 15. But he said code enforcement is receiving 15 to 20 new complaints a day, some from tenants whose air conditioning was just serviced and was supposed to be working. "We're asking the court to make sure that they use reputable, licensed contractors to make sure this is done properly," testified Muhammad.

"Clearly, in this case, someone's not doing their job," said Cameron. "If they can't take care of it, they're going to have to start moving people out and move them into places where they can have air conditioning."

Memphis City Spokesperson Arlenia Cole had said 78 of Eden at Watersedge's apartments were without working air conditioners. Memphis Public Works Director Robert Knecht said 30 of its units had already been cited for various building code violations, including structural, plumbing and air conditioning failures.

Monday, tenant Brittany Jackson said a maintenance worker told her that her air conditioning was next on the list. She said she's been without central air since the first week of May, despite paying nearly $700 a month on a month-to-month lease. When we interviewed her, the apartment's thermostat read 85 degrees. "Which makes my living conditions kind of unbearable," she said. "I've had to make adjustments."

Tenant Antwaun Williams's 3-year-old boy Chase has a congenital heart defect. A doctor's letter Williams provided, written and verified by Chase's pediatrician, alerted Eden at Watersedge's management that Chase "...should not be subjected to an unhealthy environment" and "...his home should be air-conditioned." Yet Williams is paying nearly $600 a month for an apartment with a thermostat registering 90 degrees. "And my son has a heart defect, so how am I supposed to live?" he asked.

In addition to remaining on the front-burners of Memphis code enforcement and Shelby County Environmental Court, Eden at Watersedge's owner is in trouble with the Better Business Bureau of the Mid-South. The bureau has given the company a F rating for 44 complaints regarding maintenance and neglect of its properties and tenants. "Toilets overflowing, mold and mildew, air conditioning not working," said bureau President Randy Hutchinson. "We've even asked them to address what we thought was a pattern of complaints, and they didn't do that."

On July 19, after employees locked the leasing office door and shut the blinds as we approached, an unidentified representative of the complex opened an adjacent door. He requested that we leave the premises. "We're doing everything, and we're trying to get everything done in a timely manner," he said before shutting the door.

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