At the St. Regis, living cheap comes at a steep price 

A group of neighbors met Paul Bolder at his door as he was coming home from church on Sunday, January 25, 2009. They handed Bolder a Truman Medical Center wristband printed with the name of a recently discharged patient: Christopher Scott. The 51-year-old man had been found that morning, frozen to death, on the front lawn of a house near 31st Street and Monroe.

Scott was a lifelong friend of Bolder's. A brain injury had left the former handyman incapable of working for Bolder's construction business, as he had often done in the past. Eight months earlier, Bolder had helped move Scott into the St. Regis Apartments, a building for low-income residents at the northeast corner of Linwood and the Paseo. Rents there are heavily subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Bolder helped his friend sign up for Social Security checks and open a bank account, then filled his cabinets at the St. Regis with food donated by Metropolitan Lutheran Ministries.

A caseworker from MLM tells The Pitch that he knew Scott needed more supervision than the St. Regis could offer as an independent living facility. But Scott liked the St. Regis, so the caseworker stopped trying to move him elsewhere. It isn't his job to manage clients long-term, he says. When Scott moved into Apartment 310 of the St. Regis in May 2008, the MLM caseworker closed his file.

The Friday before his death, Scott dropped by Bolder's home, near 29th Street and Norton. He told Bolder that he'd been kicked out of the St. Regis and had his keys confiscated. He didn't understand why. He asked Bolder to go with him the following Monday to talk with Michelle McCray, the building's manager. At the very least, Scott figured, he could try to retrieve his belongings. Everything he owned was still locked inside 310.

Bolder agreed to accompany his friend. Meanwhile, he knew that Scott had stayed before with a friend in the neighborhood around the St. Regis, so he wasn't worried. "I always thought he was coming back," Bolder says.

But neighbors discovered Scott's frozen body early Sunday morning. "It was bitter cold," Bolder recalls. "He had warm clothes on, but it was well below zero for three days."

Scott's cause of death was ruled as "environmental hypothermia" by the Jackson County Medical Examiner. His body lay unclaimed in the morgue for nearly a month as workers there attempted to find his relatives. The hospital ID bracelet that he was wearing when he died was from a recent visit that Scott had made to get treatment for an infected cut on his hand.

Bolder has kept copies of Scott's lease agreement from Knudson Housing Partners XXIII Ltd., the HUD-contracted manager of the St. Regis, that was signed by McCray. On it, Scott had clearly printed Bolder's name and phone number for his emergency contact. But Bolder says no one from the St. Regis ever called him. The agreement states that a tenant can't be kicked out "except for a violation of the lease or other good cause," and that the manager must provide a tenant with written notice of the violation before terminating the lease. Bolder says Scott never received such a notice. HUD's records show that as of August 2008, the St. Regis classified him as a "move out." There is no record of his eviction at the Jackson County Courthouse.

"You kick him out in the cold — that's an emergency," Bolder says. "I never did get an explanation. He was in a home of his own. He should have never ended up on the street. She [McCray] shouldn't run a dog kennel, let alone someplace where people need assistance."

Robert Wise, the attorney for Knudson Housing Partners who answered The Pitch's questions on behalf of the building's management, says Scott left without notice because he was "in homeless mode." Wise denies that the building's management took Scott's keys.

The St. Regis is a 10-story red-brick building with a stately, white-columned front porch. Residents swipe a key card across a sensor to open the front door. The manager's office is immediately to the left, across from a sunny common area furnished with couches and coffee tables. The first floor is so clean, a visitor might never guess that the upper floors have been plagued by roaches, as HUD inspectors noted in a report from their most recent visit in January 2009.

In the building's elevator, two middle-aged tenants happily greet a tenant they call the Candyman. The elderly fellow pretends that his pockets are empty, but the couple aren't fooled. They cup their outstretched hands, and the Candyman gives each a fistful of cellophane-wrapped gumballs and hard candy.

When the elevator doors open again, it becomes apparent that bumping into the Candyman might be the brightest part of these residents' day. The building has 85 units, and the door to each is painted an institutional gray and marked with dull brass numbers. A black streak runs the length of this floor's dingy hallway carpet where something — furniture? leaking garbage bags? — had been dragged down the hall.

The couple live together, and HUD pays 90 percent of their rent. St. Regis tenants don't pay for their utilities. In the 11 years they've lived in the St. Regis, they've accumulated a steady list of grievances, few of which any manager there has ever addressed. For one thing, they say, the apartments rarely undergo maintenance, let alone improvements. The couple's floor is blanketed with a patchwork of smaller rugs, a failed attempt to cover carpet stains that were there when they moved in. They've been without a working refrigerator for weeks. They've called HUD to complain, but HUD's people could only advise them to call the Council Bluffs, Iowa, offices of Knudson Housing Partners, which has managed the building since 1994. Knudson hired McCray in 2003. The couple say she hasn't posted Knudson's correct number anywhere in the building.

All of the current St. Regis tenants interviewed for this story asked The Pitch not to print their names. They're afraid that speaking on the record will attract McCray's vindictiveness. In order to move to another HUD-assisted building in the city, they would need a letter of recommendation from the management of their former residence. One resident says, "God help you if you want a recommendation from Michelle."

Most of the people living at the St. Regis already feel pretty forsaken. Residents find their way here through a case manager working with a public or a private agency, such as a homeless shelter, a ministry, a food pantry or a mental-health provider.

The most desirable Section 8 buildings are also the most selective and can have a waiting list that's three or four years long. Several local case managers say they depend on the St. Regis because it's one of the rare complexes that will accept their toughest clients — those with criminal records, mental-health issues or spotty rental histories.

"I can tell you for sure that I know many people who would be on the streets without Michelle," says a case manager who asked not to be named. (Many agencies instruct their employees to turn down interviews.) "She [McCray] will listen to me when I say, 'I know this guy has been kicked out before, but he's turned his life around and he needs a chance.' That's the other side of the story."

But another caseworker in the metro says she hates sending clients to the St. Regis because she knows McCray very well. "She always has rooms. That's the sad thing," the caseworker says. "It's not the condition of the building that is the problem. It's her. I think she has the wool pulled over everyone's eyes."

"She's vicious," says one tenant of McCray's who's terrified enough of the building's manager to speak to a reporter only through a closed door. "She'll put you out for anything. If she has to make up a reason, it's her word against ours. And it's too cold out there for me to be walking around with nothing but a shopping cart."

An elderly resident describes a handwritten sign she says used to be displayed in McCray's office: "Keep your fucking hands off my desk."

Another tenant's door opens to reveal an older woman's sparsely furnished apartment. A piece of clothing is draped over the room's smoke detector — otherwise, she says, it would go off every time she cooks. The woman describes how McCray once threatened to send her to the City Union Mission.

"I didn't know managers had the authority to do that," the woman says. "But that's what she told me."

A disabled woman in her 70s says she has lived here for "three miserable years." She says she has seen neighbors attempt to buy their way out of eviction. Some residents have lent McCray their food-stamp cards in exchange for cash, she says.

What frightens this tenant most is the thought that she could die in her apartment and no one would know. Months back, she became alarmed when she didn't hear her neighbor's television for several days. She told McCray that she was worried and asked that she check on the man. But the manager took no action.

"He had to start stinking before Michelle would come from behind that desk to see about this man," she says. "It took them six days to get this man's body out of here, and that was only because his caregiver stopped by."

If living at the St. Regis is so awful, why doesn't she complain to Knudson Housing Partners?

"I would have to get that number," she admits. "But anyone listening to my voice is going to say, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. It ain't gonna get done.'"

"To be blunt, it's not assisted living," building attorney Wise tells The Pitch. "It's not the manager's job to check on tenants every day."

Living at the St. Regis is cheap, but government aid has its price. HUD's Section 8 Lease Agreement spells out the indignities to which a renter must submit — and leaves plenty of room for a building's manager to bend those rules as he or she pleases. Managers may conduct surprise unit inspections "at all reasonable hours." Prying into a tenant's private life is fair game to ensure that no one is sneaking off to a side job that provides undisclosed income. A manager may ask who spent the night or check to see that visitors actually hit the bricks, lest their names be added to the lease.

"When you're getting a subsidy from the government, you have to jump through all of their hoops," says Wise, who files eviction notices in Jackson County Court on behalf of Knudson Housing Partners and the St. Regis. "Obviously people resent having to talk about those things because they are personal, but at the same time, the management has to keep records for the government and follow HUD rules and regulations."

Most of the grounds that HUD considers good cause for eviction are obvious — for example, domestic violence or drugs.

"If you have evidence of drugs on a property, you can file suit the next day with no notice," Wise says. As a tenant, "you're then served with a summons, or it's posted on your door, notifying you when your court date is. You can take whatever action you want, whether you contest it, let it go by default or move out on your own."

Section 8 tenants rarely challenge an eviction order in court. "My practice is almost 100 percent landlord-tenant law," Wise says, "and in that, you find that a vast majority of the people don't even bother to show up." But without money for a lawyer and lacking reliable transportation — not to mention the limits of age and infirmity — how would they?

Eugene Cargyle is 61 and uses a motorized wheelchair. In December 2007, he was served with an eviction notice from the St. Regis, his home for two years. McCray had come to his door with two Kansas City police officers — not standard procedure for surprise inspections, according to HUD sources — and declared that a pile of ash on a tray was marijuana. Cargyle says the ash was from incense.

The eviction went into effect January 24, 2008. It was a Thursday. Cargyle begged McCray to let him stay through the weekend. McCray told him to leave before the Jackson County Sheriff's Department removed him by force. Cargyle departed the St. Regis in his wheelchair, leaving his possessions with a neighbor. He had nowhere to go.

Cargyle's friend and fellow St. Regis resident, 54-year-old Joseph Arrington, says he watched as McCray kicked Cargyle out into the snow. Arrington protested. He says McCray replied, "Nigger, I'll kick you out, too." (Arrington and McCray are both black.)

Cargyle lived on the street for two months, sleeping in city parks and homeless shelters. A niece eventually let him stay with her temporarily.

Now Cargyle, who lives on disability payments, rents a non-HUD East Side apartment for $375 a month, about three times what he paid to live at the St. Regis. His room is on the second floor, which is a challenge to navigate in a wheelchair.

"I'm a survivor," Cargyle says.

In May 2008, McCray forced Arrington out of the building. He says she falsely accused him of selling drugs.

"She had the police in my house," Arrington says. "They didn't find no drugs, but she evicted me anyway. She told me, 'I don't need no proof. I can do what I want to do here.' I had three days to move out. She didn't give me nothing on paper, nothing."

Wise says Arrington was evicted for failing to pay his rent. "We did deal with him," he says. "We gave him an extra 30 days to stay, which is longer than is required by law."

Court records show that Arrington was ordered to leave the St. Regis by May 29, 2008. Prior to being kicked out, Arrington says he had lived in the building for four years and had never received a warning from the manager. He has no criminal record of selling drugs.

"I'm glad I'm out of there," he says.

Bonita Jones worked at the St. Regis from the spring of 2008 until February 2009. Her job as social coordinator was to connect residents with services available to them in the community. For example, the rooms in the St. Regis have no central air conditioning, so Jones helped her clients get window units from Bishop Sullivan's emergency-assistance program.

HUD encourages owners of buildings like the St. Regis to apply for the grant that pays a social coordinator's salary, but it's not required. Jones' one-year contract was paid through a HUD grant to Knudson Housing Partners. In her role, Jones took the complaints of her clients seriously, which is why she thinks McCray told her out-of-state boss at Knudson, Pat O'Dowd, not to renew the grant after it expired.

Jones confirms the stories that the St. Regis residents told The Pitch, and then some. She says she saw McCray curse, humiliate and nearly come to blows with her tenants. Jones says she saw what might have been financial abuses as well.

A prospective tenant can't move into the St. Regis if he or she owns another residence. This rule initially prevented an elderly woman named Lillie Hayes from moving in. Hayes, a widow, owned a home at 2444 Prospect, but it was in bad shape, and Hayes couldn't afford the upkeep. McCray offered to buy Hayes' home. Jackson County property records show that in 2005, the home's assessed value was $6,355. On November 8, 2005, Hayes sold the home to Michelle White for $1,000. (At that time, McCray went by White, the name of her first husband; she has since divorced and remarried.) On the deed, Hayes' address is listed as the St. Regis, Apartment 301.

Dale Gray, public communications officer with HUD, says the agency has no rules preventing a building manager from buying a tenant's property. But Hayes' complaint, sources say, was that McCray never paid her the $1,000. (Hayes moved from the St. Regis into a nursing home on April 21, 2008.)

If Hayes never received her $1,000 from McCray for the house, Wise says, "Ask her to file suit for the money, and we'll establish that, I guess .... If she hasn't received her money yet, this is the first we've heard of that."

Jackson County records show that McCray sold the house on Prospect to an individual named Elfonda Lennox. The records don't show the sale price; Wise says Lennox paid McCray "around $6,000." Six days later, Lennox took out an adjustable-rate loan on the property for $63,000, from Flatirons Financial Inc., of Olathe. Records indicate that the loan went into default in 2007. Wise says McCray's sale of the property to Lennox was a "total arm's-length transaction" and that McCray and Lennox are "not friends, not acquaintances, not relatives or anything."

McCray's authoritarian rule extends to maintenance at the St. Regis. She hired an old Southwest High School classmate of hers, Orlando Gaines, to do general upkeep in 2008. Gaines says McCray disrespected her tenants. "I was like, man, this girl here, she got major issues. But she was a friend, you know?"

When Gaines made it clear that he didn't approve of McCray's treatment of her tenants, plum projects stopped coming his way. "I just had to do regular maintenance because I didn't fit into the scenario," he says.

Around the same time, Gaines says, a tenant died in an apartment, and his body went undiscovered for several days. After medical personnel removed the body, a pool of feces and blood remained on the apartment floor. Rather than replace the carpet, Gaines says, McCray ordered him to get a mop and clean it. His refusal angered McCray.

"They wasn't paying me enough to play in blood. Just that simple," Gaines says.

McCray's loyal, full-time maintenance man — the tenants know him as "Mike" — cleaned the room instead. "He went up there as if it was nothing, as if he'd done it before," Gaines says with a little laugh. "If you ain't really had too much of nothin', you know, a lot of people will do a lot of things."

Jones says she brought these and other issues to O'Dowd, at Knudson. "She went right back and told her [McCray] what I said, so the next thing I knew, my position was being deleted," Jones says. "Only — how did she say it? That they weren't going to renew my grant."

Jones also voiced her concerns to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, which contacted HUD. The "comments" section of HUD's record of the complaint reads, "Senior Services sent a letter talking about some concerns of the residents. Mgt answered the accusations and invited Ms. [redacted] to come and speak with her if she wishes." The matter was filed "closed" the same month.

Jones now works for a local nonprofit as an employment specialist. She knows McCray will likely view her complaints as sour grapes from a former employee. "She might say, 'Oh, she's doing this because she's mad at me.' No, I'm doing it because she's still doing these things to these people — treating them like dogs."

McCray agreed to an interview with The Pitch but canceled it on the day it was scheduled. McCray's boss, O'Dowd, sent an e-mail the following day, which reads: "Per your communications with Ms. McCray, she has been advised by Kansas City Police/Detectives not to discuss some specific issues pertaining to St. Regis Apartments do [sic] to ongoing investigations, and because of this, I have also advised Ms. McCray not to meet with you. I'm sure you understand our position."

During one brief phone conversation, McCray seemed to remember her former tenant, Christopher Scott. "A guy dies who doesn't live here, hasn't lived here for months," she said. "What does that have to do with me?"

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