A Maine company that owns an affordable housing complex at the center of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, doesn’t plan to make drastic changes to the way it manages Northwinds or any of its low-income properties around the country.
However, Laura Burns, the CEO of South Portland-based Eagle Point Partners, said events in Ferguson will likely spawn a conversation in the national affordable housing industry over safety and crime.
“The feelings are not unique to this community, but I’m sure it will cause a debate. At this point, our heads are all focused on bringing it to a conclusion,” Burns said. “We just hope the protests become resolved and the people are able to go back to normal lives.”
Eagle Point Partners owns the 438-unit Northwinds apartment complex, which is near where Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old African American, was fatally shot six times by a white police officer on Aug. 9. The shooting has sparked national outrage and violent protests in the neighborhood, prompting the arrival Monday of National Guard troops at the request of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.
Brown was reportedly walking to his grandmother’s apartment in the Northwinds complex when the altercation with police occurred on Canfield Drive. Burns confirmed that Brown’s grandmother lives in the Northwinds community.
Northwinds and the adjacent Canfield Green apartments, where Brown lived, have become an assembly area for protesters before they head west to West Florissant Avenue, the major thoroughfare that has become the center of the riots. Despite the foot traffic from protesters, Burns said the property has not suffered any significant damage. She’s in constant contact with her 10-person staff in Ferguson as events unfold.
“On Monday and Tuesday nights, fires were set in dumpsters, but other than that we’re picking up debris and trash,” Burns said. “But there’s been no damage.”
Northwinds is one of 31 affordable housing complexes in eight states owned by Eagle Point Partners, which was founded in 2002. It acquired the Northwinds complex in 2005 for about $22 million, and then poured $12.5 million into renovating the 438 apartments, which are contained in 110 buildings spread over 90 acres, Burns said.
“We have a high commitment to affordable housing and being able to provide safe, decent affordable housing, which is what I think Northwinds was a little over a week ago,” she says. “There are a lot of valid reasons for the protests that are occurring, but we’re hopeful things settle down soon.”
Many news reports coming out of Ferguson have addressed the amount of crime in the neighborhood where Brown was shot. But Burns said Eagle Point has had no major problems with crime at Northwinds, although there have been instances of domestic violence. The on-site property manager receives a weekly police report on criminal activity in the area, and is diligent about making sure its residents are safe and not criminals, she said.
“If there had been a crime committed by one of our residents, we would move to evict right away,” she said, adding that the company evicts a resident four or five times a year as a result of police reports.
To be eligible to live in Northwinds, residents must earn less than 60 percent of the area’s median income.
“We rarely turn someone away because they make too much money. The bulk of applicants in this community would be eligible,” she said.
However, the company screens applicants, including credit and criminal background checks, which leads it to reject between 30 percent and 40 percent of applicants, Burns said. But even with those efforts, she acknowledges the company can’t control everyone who comes and goes from the apartment complex.
“It’s entirely possible that a visitor or family member comes to visit and causes problems,” she said. “Sometimes crime comes along with those communities, which is why as a management company we need to be very vigilant and partner with police to make sure we know of any activity so we can address it right away.”
Eagle Point does pay for a private, unarmed security guard to patrol Northwinds for about 120 hours a week. However, the police department has asked the company not to use private security as long as the protests continue.
“Since these events took place, the police felt it’s best not to have folks with badges,” walking around the neighborhood, Burns said.
Crime data show that the area east of West Florissant, which includes the Northwinds and Canfield Green apartments, is a major source of criminal activity in the town of 21,000, according to an investigation by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The area accounted for 28 percent of all burglaries, 28 percent of all aggravated assaults, 30 percent of all motor vehicle thefts and 40 percent of all robberies reported in Ferguson between 2010 and August 2012, according to the Post-Dispatch.
While the events in Ferguson won’t result in any immediate changes to how Eagle Point manages its affordable housing properties, the “tragic set of events” do highlight the need for property managers to have open communication with the police department, said Burns, who is on the board of the National Leased Housing Association.
“(Affordable housing) works best when it’s a true partnership of the community, police department, city leaders and service providers,” she said.