Unattended death raises questions about mismanagement at taxpayer-subsidized housing project
FARMINGTON — Local and federal lawmakers are requesting that the New Mexico Attorney General's Office investigate a taxpayer-subsidized apartment complex in Farmington after a 64-year-old man's death there went unnoticed for at least two weeks.
Farmington police and firefighters were dispatched on Sept. 29 to Apple Ridge Apartments, 1600 Cliffside Drive in Farmington, after resident John Hall was discovered dead in unit No. 122.
Farmington police spokeswoman Georgette Allen said a maintenance man was at the apartment to change an air filter when he discovered the body. Based on its state of decomposition, police believe Hall had been dead for approximately two weeks.
"No one had seen him coming or going for a while," Allen said.
Several residents of the apartment complex said they were upset that Hall's absence went unnoticed by employees of Dunlap & Magee, the Phoenix-based company that manages the 81-unit complex.
Phyillis Newlon, 74, said the management company mistakenly thinks “all they need is an email account and a warm body on the ground. They just don’t know what’s going on.”
Christine Shipley, vice president of operations for Dunlap & Magee, disputed that assertion.
"While management does their best to be aware of the residents' wellness, our property is not an assisted living facility or nursing home, where tracking the day-to-day welfare of each resident is provided," Shipley said.
Knife fights and mold
Newlon and another resident, Linda Blakesley, 66, said Hall's death was only the most recent evidence that management provides little oversight at the property.
They said rain leaks into apartments, and black mold has bloomed across ceilings and walls. Refrigerators drip, cracked bathroom piping flooded floors and walls bowed from the moisture, they said.
They said crime was also a major problem at the complex.
They say they’ve seen drug deals outside their homes, and Blakesley said she missed a knife fight in the parking lot by minutes. Because of the incident, she said she doesn’t attend evening church anymore.
Other Apple Ridge residents at told The Daily Times they had similar concerns, but, fearing eviction, they refused to speak on the record.
Newlon and Blakesley said the problems started in 2013, when property owners Yes Housing, Inc. contracted with Dunlap & Magee to manage the property.
Newlon and Blakesley formed a tenants association in 2012. They have lodged complaints with Farmington city Councilors Mary Fisher and Gayla McCulloch, as well as U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., which have resulted in some problems being fixed. But they say other issues remain.
“We exist here to pay rent, and that’s about it,” said Blakesley. “They don’t care about us as human beings.”
Lawmaker asks for an investigation
Since Hall's body was found, Luján spokesman Andrew Stoddard said his office contacted the office of New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas asking him to review the issue. Balderas’ spokesman, James Hallinan, confirmed the contact but said his office hasn’t yet received a formal letter from Luján.
Stoddard said Luján has been concerned about the residents’ safety since Fischer first told him about the conditions in 2014. In June of that year, his office contacted the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which subsidizes the apartments, and has since met with department and apartment officials, he said.
This prompted many of the repairs Newlon and Blakesley mentioned.
“These were important steps forward,” Luján said in an Oct. 9 email, “but it is clear that more must be done.”
HUD spokeswoman Patricia Campbell confirmed that department officials met with lawmakers at Apple Ridge in 2014 to tour the complex.
At that point, Campbell said HUD requested that Yes Housing, Inc. replace the roof on the building that housed apartments No. 133 to 144.
The federal department also requested that apartment skylights be sealed and exterior lighting be upgraded at the ends of five buildings.
Those repairs have been completed, Campbell said.
Campbell said HUD officials met again with Fisher, local police and Shipley, with Dunlap & Magee, on Aug. 26.
“We believe there have been major improvements to the property,” Campbell said. “Everyone is willing to work together to have open communication.”
Campbell said Yes Housing has agreed to install exterior lighting on four more buildings at Apple Ridge by next spring. The city of Farmington will also install two dusk-to-dawn parking lot lights in December.
Stoddard said Luján's office has continued receiving complaints that roofs are leaking, lighting is inadequate, light fixtures need repairing and smoke alarms need replacing.
Fischer said the apartments used to be the nicest complex for seniors in the city, but they are not safe anymore. McCulloch said she also worries for the residents' safety.
“It’s a place that elderly people should feel very comfortable living,” Fischer said. “And it’s not.”
Yes Housing, Inc. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established in 1990 in Albuquerque to provide subsidized housing to poor and disenfranchised families, according to the company’s website. The company owns properties throughout New Mexico and Arizona.
Apple Ridge is an apartment complex for seniors age 62 and older and the disabled. HUD provides rent subsidies for tenants in the complex.
Rose Silva-Smith, vice president of asset management for Yes Housing, said she has worked closely with residents, lawmakers, and HUD officials since 2014 to improve living conditions at Apple Ridge.
“I have physically been out there probably more this year than ever before, to do unit inspections and talk to residents,” Silva-Smith said.
Silva-Smith said her company does an annual review of capital projects for each of its facilities and made several improvements at Apple Ridge in the past year.
Shipley said management meets monthly with Apple Ridge residents. Fischer attended their Sept. 23 meeting and “expressed satisfaction” with conditions at the complex, according to Shipley. However, Fischer, in a recent interview, was critical of the conditions at the facility.
Calls for police assistance
Allen, the police spokeswoman, said the department’s community policing unit has been working with residents and management since the spring to reduce crime in the area.
According to statistics provided by the Farmington Police Department, residents called police requesting assistance 119 times in 2010. In 2014, there were 187 calls for service.
As of Aug. 24, there have been 155 calls for service in 2015, the majority of which were for minor issues, including suspicious activity, animals, parking violations, loud noises and general welfare checks.
However, there were also five calls for larceny, two for drug use, two for burglary and seven calls for harassment, according to the statistics. There were also calls for domestic fights, vandalism and prowlers.
Allen said a Neighborhood Watch program was implemented at the property to encourage reporting of suspicious activity and management has implemented a screening process that includes background checks for criminal histories.
Allen said one woman, who was suspected of engaging in criminal activity at her apartment in the complex, agreed to move out in August to avoid eviction.
According to police records, officers were dispatched to apartment No. 161 at midnight last Nov. 26 after receiving reports of loud music, records state. An officer entered the residence and found a digital scale, a gun and two brass knuckles in a bedroom.
Darrel Robert Turner, a 51-year-old guest at the woman's residence, reportedly admitted the gun belonged to him and he was arrested and charged with possession of a firearm by a felon, according to the records.
Police later found methamphetamine in a coat allegedly belonging to Turner, records state. Two syringes loaded with a brown liquid, which later tested positive for heroin, were also found at the residence, according to records.
Looking for solutions
Silva-Smith said Hall’s death was “very unfortunate.”
She said Yes Housing Inc. is conducting an internal investigation to determine what measures can be taken by management staff to ensure a similar situation does not occur in the future.
“We can list all the ratings and inspections, but at the end of the day, we are talking about a gentleman’s life,” she said. “It’s awful that his body wasn’t discovered for a lengthy period of time. We know that. That has caused us to question our management company. What could have been done?”
Hall's daughter, Sharla Spencer, told The Daily Times she and her siblings were estranged from their father. He was a lifelong cowboy who herded cattle throughout the Southwest, but also a "terrible alcoholic."
"In the last few years, he had changed his life and become a better person, but we didn't know that," Spencer said. "I wish we did."
Hall said her father went to San Juan Regional Medical Center on Sept. 8, but was apparently not admitted. She believes he died on Sept. 9.
"It’s a bad situation and no one should have laid there for 20 days without somebody noticing," Spencer said.
Hall said her father was buried Saturday in a small town on the Texas-New Mexico border.
Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.
Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606.