Neighborhood apartment complex owners “better get serious” about cleaning up their properties, says Councilwoman Donna Halstead.

“The people who suffer are the people who live in the apartments, and the people who live around them. They deserve better than that,” Halstead says.

Landlords unwilling to police their property and keep living conditions acceptable are welcoming criminal activity to the community, she says.

Virgil Woodard, an inspector with code enforcement’s multi-family division and a former police officer, says he is always on guard when going into an unsecured or deteriorating property. Woodard reminds citizens to direct their complaints about suspected criminal activity to police.

“We can only close down apartments because of code violations – not because of the activity there,” Woodard says.

At the Advocate’s request, Woodard toured Carlton Heights, a 100-unit apartment complex under order by the City’s Urban Rehabilitation Board to make a series of repairs or face $1,000-a-day fines or, ultimately, demolition.

The complex, located at 8206 Bunche Drive near Forest Lane and North Central Expressway, originally was inspected in 1994 – shortly after the Council passed a measure requiring apartment complexes and condominiums to be checked annually for minimum housing standards before a multi-family license can be issued.

Last year, Carlton Heights was cited for numerous violations after an inspection revealed rotting wood, a leaking roof, unstable stairwells, broken windows, and roach-infested living areas.

What Woodard found the day he returned with the Advocate was that Carlton Heights’ out-of-state owner apparently was lagging in efforts to meet a City-imposed repair deadline.

As Woodard drove onto the property, he spotted two men painting the brick exterior of the building bright pink.

“Is Mary Kay coming to visit?” Woodard jokes.

“I like to have fun on my job,” he says, before explaining to the workers they are wasting their time because building codes only require that exposed wood exteriors be painted if they have not been treated.

The men continue to paint, however, because they were told to do so by the apartment’s manager, Nancy Dai, who says the paint will cover the dirty brick and make it look “pretty.”

“Well, you need to be on the inside fixing the problems that matter,” Woodard says.

“The interiors bother me because that’s where the people live.”

The problems were apparent in three of the five apartments visited. Ceilings and floors were cracked, wood was rotted in some of the bathrooms, holes were visible in the walls, roaches and roach eggs were visible on the ceiling and walls, and there was an abundance of water condensation on the windows and bathroom floor due to improper insulation.

After leaving the property, Woodard was blunt: “This isn’t good enough for me. Apparently, they haven’t gotten to the inside of the apartments.”

“We’re going to have to shake this owner out of his tree. I would default him in a heartbeat.”

On Dec. 5, the owner was given an extra 90 days to complete the repairs or face $2,000-a-day fines.

“We won’t drop the bomb on them until March 5,” Woodard says.

Despite the conditions, over 80 of the buildings’ 100 units are rented for $450 a month. All of the renters are Hispanic or black, Dai says.

Woodard says most of the tenants won’t complain because they have lived in places where the conditions are worse. Quite often, they haven’t gained legal citizenship and are afraid they will blow their cover by complaining, Woodard says.

“I’ll be happy when I know everything’s up to code and that people are going to get to live in a healthy and safe environment.”

Woodard says he welcomes neighborhood “watch dogs” who complain because they are genuinely concerned about residents’ living conditions.

“But if they’re complaining because they don’t want a person of a certain race living in their neighborhood, then we don’t need them.”

Like Halstead, Woodard says he feels for the people who rent from so-called “slum lords.”

“This is what I’m in the job for – looking out for people,” Woodard says.

“If we’ve got someone with a legitimate complaint about a landlord doing them wrong, then I begin to take it personally.”