Saturday, April 17, 2010

Bed Bugs Force Closure of Fort Worth Apartment Building

FORT WORTH -- The Fort Worth Housing Authority is closing Hunter Plaza because of a chronic problem with bedbugs, forcing residents of the 11-story downtown apartments for the elderly and disabled to find new homes.

Housing authority officials also cited needed utility improvements.

People started moving out March 22, and officials hope to relocate all 219 residents by May, said Alice Sykes, a housing authority spokeswoman. Most are receiving Section 8 housing vouchers to move into apartments.

"First and foremost, our concern is for the health and welfare of the residents," Sykes said. "We're letting them tell us where they want to go. We are helping them locate facilities with vacancies and providing them assistance."

Some residents said they're unhappy with the decision to close. "I feel like all along they had led us to believe this was a temporary relocation. Then we find out it looks permanent," said Mary Siering, a Hunter Plaza resident for four years. "It's not that easy for some of us to go find another place to live."

Sykes said officials have communicated openly with residents throughout the process.

Hunter Plaza sits at 605 W. First St. in a building that once housed the Fortune Arms Hotel.

Constructed in 1951, it was bought by the housing authority in 1972 and residents moved in two years later.

Today, it has 234 units and mental-health services on-site, according to the housing authority Web site.

Councilman Joel Burns, whose district includes Hunter Plaza, said he was aware that the closure would separate many longtime neighbors and friends.

However, "the housing authority has been careful and deliberate in taking every action possible to eliminate the problems at this facility," Burns said in a statement. "The housing authority has assured me that every resident will be placed in a new apartment in a respectful manner."

Uncertain future

Housing authority officials say they have tried to eradicate the bedbugs since they became aware of the problem last spring. Residents were furnished with mattress encasements and free laundry service, according to a housing authority report.

In May, exterminators were paid $27,000 to use a steam treatment on the entire building, the report said. In December, $90,000 was spent to replace carpet with tile. But the bugs remained.

In some cases, management observed bugs on residents' bodies, the report said.

Bedbugs are small, flat, brown and difficult to kill because they hide in the cracks and crevices of beds, box springs and bed frames. They are commonly found in hotels and shelters.

This year, housing authority officials contracted with a pest control company for fumigation services that had proved effective elsewhere, according to a statement. The process requires that the building be cleared and sealed.

"Due to the age of the building and the need to install all-new electrical, water and utility systems; FWHA has determined that this is the only feasible way to eliminate the problem," the statement said.

Sykes said there are no plans to reopen the center after it is fumigated. The housing authority will work with the Housing and Urban Development Department to determine a future use for the building, Sykes said.

"It's too early to say what will happen," she said

Some skepticism

Housing authority staffers are helping residents identify apartments where they would like to live, said Doris Haywood, a Hunter Plaza social worker. After a unit is secured, steps are taken to ensure that residents don't contaminate their new homes.

The night before residents move, movers pack everything in their room and take it to a decontamination chamber set up outside the building. Residents keep some personal possessions, like medications or inhalers, in a plastic bag that is decontaminated separately.

All of their food is thrown away, and the resident is given a $200 food voucher.

Before leaving, each resident bathes in portable showers in the parking lot behind the building.

"We want to make sure they move into their new homes and don't have to worry about this problem following them," Haywood said.

Some residents, though, don't like the process.

"They've got us showering out in the public," said Mardio Mason, 55. "The whole thing is real hard on the older folks. I don't know that closing was the only way to handle the problem."

Others shared suspicion that the apartments' location downtown was a bigger factor than bedbugs or needed repairs. "It makes you wonder if people just don't want us here taking up this spot," resident Angela Watson said.

Updates sent to city

Sykes said many residents have lived in Hunter Plaza for years, so it's understandable that some are unhappy.

"It's their home," she said. "We're trying to communicate with them that this ultimately benefits their safety and well-being."

The housing authority has consulted with Fort Worth's Consumer Health Department to ensure that it is handling the problem properly, she said. Officials are also sending weekly updates on the move-out to Mayor Mike Moncrief.

As of Friday, 21 residents have moved out of Hunter Plaza and most report being happy, she said.

One of them is Duane J. Richardson, 51, who lived in Hunter Plaza for four months before moving into a south Fort Worth apartment last week. He said the housing authority made the move easy.

"They packed my stuff, transported me to my new place, and it was easy," he said.

Richardson said that he has spoken to a few residents who have moved out and that most made the transition well.

"I like it here. It's quiet; there are no bugs," he said. "I think this is what had to be done."

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