Mayor Keith Gaskin stood on the grounds of Cypress Park Apartments on Aug. 1, a Sunday, waiting for good news. It wasn’t forthcoming.
Residents at the 144-unit complex on South Lehmberg Road had been without water service since the prior evening due to a pipe leak on the side of the line that was the property owner’s responsibility to repair. Maintenance workers had asked Columbus Light and Water to cut off service while they fixed the leak, but in nearly 24 hours since, they had failed.
Ultimately, CLW declared the break a public safety emergency and repaired it, restoring water service to the scores of residents living in the apartments. But while Gaskin waited on-site for the work to be complete, he began to look around.
“I saw mold on walls that could easily be removed,” he told The Dispatch. “Outside lighting wasn’t working. There were beer bottles lying around everywhere. It was a mess.”
What he saw lined up with the messages he had received from “desperate” residents who had contacted him for weeks about conditions at Cypress Park — from poor living conditions to worse communication. How the property managers handled the water line break was the last straw.
“(Residents have) had a lot to deal with for quite some time,” Gaskin said. “… (On July 31 and Aug. 1), they were upset because the maintenance crew couldn’t get the pipe fixed, and no one was communicating with them. People were leaving messages on my phone crying. They were pleading for help. That’s unacceptable, and of course we (the city) are going to step in.”
Since that weekend, the city has issued a “red flag” order for the complex, which gives the building codes department the authority to regularly inspect apartment units on the premises.
While CLW supplies water to the site, 4-County Electric Power Association supplies its electricity, building codes director Kenny Wiegel said. With the red flag order, the city must inspect and approve any unit where the electric service is changing hands — either from an outgoing tenant to the complex’s management company or from the management company to a new tenant.
4-County has agreed to the arrangement, city officials said.
“Basically, that gives us a chance to get eyeballs on a lot of these units,” Wiegel told The Dispatch.
Already, Wiegel’s office has inspected 20 Cypress Park units, finding in all of them at least minor issues — water spots on ceilings from apparent leaking or HVAC filters that haven’t been changed often enough — to issues he deemed “not so minor.”
“Some have evidence of electrical issues, like burnt outlets, things like that,” Wiegel said.
Of the 20 the city has inspected, he said, 11 must address issues for a second inspection before power can be turned back on. The city is not charging for the inspections, and Wiegel said the city might consider lifting the red flag order if those inspections yield no issues.
Red flag orders aren’t common, but the city has issued them for at least two apartment complexes in the past, Wiegel said. Cypress Park is the only complex currently under a red flag order.
Lowndes County tax records show Cypress Park LLC, care of Real Property Group LLC, both based in Brooklyn, New York, has owned the complex since February 2020. Michigan-based Beztak Properties manages it.
City leaders met with Beztak representatives, including regional manager Lillian Granderson, last week to discuss the red flag order. Both Wiegel and Gaskin said Beztak expressed willingness to work with the city’s expectations but noted Granderson and the maintenance supervisor were new to the job — Granderson told The Dispatch on Tuesday she had been in her role at Beztak for “a week and a half” — and they had “inherited a mess” from their predecessors within the same company.
For example, under Beztak’s watch, CLW cut water service to the complex briefly in January because payments were “substantially” behind. Residents pay utilities as part of their rent and Beztak wasn’t forwarding the water payments to CLW.
Granderson asked the city to refer Cypress Park residents to her for complaints about the property, rather than call Gaskin. Public Information Officer Joe Dillon posted as much on the mayor’s official Facebook page with Granderson’s cell phone number as the contact. He later changed it to her email address at Granderson’s request.
In a comment on the post, Gaskin made it clear citizens are still welcome to contact him about issues, as well.
“The last thing the city wants to do is step into a situation like this, but we definitely will,” Gaskin said. “We’re taking them on good faith that they will do better. But we’re also going to keep an eye on it. It’s clear they have not had a good record.”
When reached by The Dispatch, Granderson declined to comment. Instead she referred the newspaper to Beztak’s corporate office, no one from which responded by press time.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.