“Truly Awful” – Needles on the Floor, a Nightmare Condition at Metrowide Apartments

Washington Place, Metrowide Apartments. Photo courtesy of the author.

Author’s note: This is the first article in a series called “Slumlord City: How New Orleans Rentals are Failing Working Families.” This article is about Metrowide Apartments, a group of rental units and complexes owned by Joshua Bruno.

When Devin Shelley moved into the apartment complex called Washington Place, they weren’t expecting to have to move back to their mom’s house. (Devin is nonbinary and uses “they/them” pronouns.)

But that’s where Devin has had to live for the past two months. 

The Washington Place complex touted on-site laundry facilities, and it advertises WiFi internet capabilities. The latter was particularly appealing to Devin, who is an undergraduate student at the University of New Orleans and needs internet access to complete coursework.

All of Devin’s classes are being held online. Devin had been assured by Metrowide that they provided free internet to tenants, and after signing a year long lease, Devin found out the truth:

Washington Place never actually had internet access at all. 

“[Washington Place] hasn’t had internet for a year,” one tenant, whose name was withheld for his protection, said. 

Devin tried to have private internet installed. But when the cable employees came to install their internet, they were unable to do so because the building’s wiring was faulty.

“Cox said there hadn’t been service to that address any time recently,” Devin said. 

For Devin, this was just one of many issues that made living at Washington Place impossible.

Devin has an eight year old child, which requires a lot of laundry. But about one month before the coronavirus pandemic hit, someone broke into the unsecured laundry facilities at Washington Place, and Metrowide never repaired the machines. 

Severely damaged laundry units found in April at Washington Place Apartments. Photo courtesy of the author.

Big Easy Magazine visited the complex in April to verify the claim about the washing machines. What we saw was much worse: garbage and debris were strewn across the floor of the laundry facilities. Flies filled the air; they had probably infested the open-air room. The disassembled laundry machines were thrown about haphazardly, as if the room had been broken into yesterday – not two months ago.

Even more severely damaged laundry units found in April at Washington Place Apartments. Photos courtesy of the author.
A vandalized coin slot on top of another badly broken washing machine at Washington Place Apartments. Photo courtesy of the author.

Perhaps most distressingly: There were needles on the floor, likely used for injecting drugs. 

A needle found on the floor of the Washington Place laundry room. Photo courtesy of the author.
More needles on the floor at Washington Place Apartments. The orange caps shown are discarded needle covers, indicating likely drug use. Photo courtesy of the author.

When they first signed the lease, Devin did not know how bad the apartment would be. But as soon as Devin signed the lease, serious problems arose. Devin told Metrowide that they have arthritis and Graves’ disease, so Devin needed an apartment on the first floor. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, landlords are required to provide “reasonable accommodations” to tenants who have medical conditions or disabilities.

Despite the federal disability law, Metrowide gave Devin a second-floor apartment.

As a result, Devin now has to ask their neighbors for help carrying groceries and taking out the trash. “Climbing [the stairs] myself leaves me in pain and out of breath.” 

Between having no internet access, no laundry facilities, and a daily struggle to climb the stairs at Washington Place, Devin is paying $700 a month to lease a unit that they cannot even use. On top of that, they told me that each year, the rent increases automatically; Metrowide recently asked Devin to pay $735 a month if the lease is renewed. 

Last week, Devin returned to the unit at Washington Place apartment to check on things. Devin found a “pay or vacate” notice at the door, alleging that Devin owed back rent. “You are hereby given notice to vacate the dwelling on or before midnight of the 3rd day of this notice,” the paper read. 

As to the money owed: “I paid that in full, back in February,” Devin said. 

The “Pay or Vacate” notice received by Devin Shelley. Photo courtesy of Devin Shelley.

Less than one month earlier, Metrowide had made national headlines for a similar indiscretion. On March 18, management circulated a letter to dozens of tenants stating that evictions would continue, despite the fact that Governor John Bel Edwards suspended all residential evictions across the state. Joshua Bruno quickly apologized and informed the media that he was fixing the issue.  Despite Mr. Bruno’s apology, the behavior continued the next month.

As noted in the first article in the “Slumlord City” series, these “pay or vacate” letters were sent out to tenants, some of whom Metrowide had told could wait to pay their rent until their unemployment checks came in. At Metrowide Apartments, promises are often broken if they are inconvenient to the staff. 

“They completely gaslit me every time I’ve called in to Metrowide,” Devin said. For Devin, work requests are ignored, and then the staff denies that the issue exists.

To those familiar with issues of substandard housing in New Orleans, it was no surprise that Metrowide and Joshua Bruno were again the subject of controversy. Metrowide Apartments is notorious for maintaining decrepit living conditions, failing to make repairs and provide promised amenities, and providing unsafe rental units. Metrowide once allowed the Sewerage and Water Board to shut off the water for an entire apartment complex because Mr. Bruno decided to not pay the bill

As a result of this continued malfeasance, numerous housing agencies have refused to house their clients in Metrowide facilities. 

“Both Unity [of Greater New Orleans] and the state will no longer work with Metrowide due to the poor conditions of their housing,” a permanent supportive housing case manager told me, on the condition of anonymity. These were some of these conditions that she alleged to Big Easy Magazine:

  • Excessive flooding during rains,
  • “Serious mold issues” that were merely covered up,
  • Significant roach infestation,
  • “Taking forever” to repair tenants’ heat and air conditioning, and 
  • Untoward behavior toward female tenants by maintenance staff

“Maintenance staff would just let themselves into apartments without warning and would play favorites about what issues to fix based on the people they liked best,” she said. And “one client’s apartment would flood a couple of inches of water every time it rained,” she added. 

A window unit at Washington Place Apartments. Photo courtesy of the author.
Another window unit at Washington Place Apartments. Photo courtesy of the author.

A housing case manager at Covenant House who spoke on the condition of anonymity also confirmed that they no longer work with Metrowide “as a rule.” 

However, Covenant House only stopped referring clients to Mr. Bruno’s properties in 2018. A few weeks ago, the case manager received an email from a former client who had lived at a Metrowide property. The client was recently alerted that Mr. Bruno was accusing him of owing a large sum from 2018.

In the middle of a pandemic and economic crisis, Mr. Bruno turned this amount over to collections. The client has no knowledge of how Mr. Bruno could have arrived at this amount, and Mr. Bruno has not provided the case manager with an actual accounting of these funds. “It’s very on-brand for this company to exploit their tenants,” she said. 

Trash piled up outside of a broken dumpster at Washington Place Apartments. Photo courtesy of the author.
A window unit at Washington Place Apartments. Photo courtesy of the author.

It would be easy, and perhaps reasonable, to conclude that Devin’s issues were unique – that they had a hostile relationship with Mr. Bruno that is uncharacteristic of other tenants. 

Big Easy Magazine, in an effort to do due diligence, asked for other tenants to tell their stories about Metrowide. “Bea” lives at another Metrowide complex. 

According to Bea, she paid her first month’s rent in cash; because the leasing office did not have change for her $10 bill, they told her to just add the outstanding five dollars to next month’s rent. Two days after she moved in and paid her rent, she also received a “pay or vacate” notice at her door – for the very five dollars that they deferred. This was another inconvenient promise for Metrowide. 

Bea was one of the many tenants who also received another “pay or vacate” notice last month, at the peak of the coronavirus crisis. Bea had permission from the office to pay later in April. 

Additionally, Bea’s gutters are severely damaged, and the refrigerator and oven are broken. “I know now … they aren’t going to fix it,” she said.

The siding and front outside of Bea’s apartment is split due to age and nails. “I almost break my neck daily tripping over the splitting threshold.”

One does not need to look hard to find harrowing stories from Metrowide tenants. Another resident put it more bluntly: “This is the projects.”

A broken security gate at Washington Place Apartments. Photo courtesy of the author.

New Orleans once had “projects,” but they were demolished after Katrina and replaced with a housing stock that was vastly inadequate to accommodate the number of residents in need of housing assistance. When advocates and former residents protested City Hall, police attacked them with tasers and pepper spray

Stacy Head, a City Councilmember at the time, mockingly blew kisses to the protesters.

Perhaps the city still has “projects,” but today they are run by wealthy businessmen like Joshua Bruno. Now individuals make a living off of maintaining decrepit living conditions, and the law does not adequately discourage them from doing so. For Mr. Bruno, Metrowide Apartments has rewarded him handsomely.

Big Easy Magazine forwarded the photos of Washington Place to Mayor Cantrell, who instructed the city’s code enforcement office to investigate the situation. But that was just one building, in a city replete with dilapidated houses.

There is one obvious solution for the city to take. Recently, the Committee for a Better New Orleans pushed a “rental registry” ordinance. This law would require all landlords to have their rentals inspected for code violations. Despite having this clear solution with widespread support, the Council killed the measure after one realty company told tenants to call City Council, threatening to raise their rent if it passed. 

New Orleans is a majority-renter city, with 53.6 percent of the city’s houses occupied by tenants. Of this majority, another majority – 61 percent of tenants – are considered “rent burdened.” They pay close to half of their disposable income to the landlord each month, but when the landlord provides substandard housing, tenants have no recourse.

When faced with the question of whether working people in New Orleans deserve the basic necessities of shelter, City Council has, time and time again, looked the other way.

Until they change their minds, local landlords like Joshua Bruno will be there – to turn neglect and callous disregard into a booming business model. 

Note (4/28/20, 7:25 p.m.): This story has been edited to remove potentially identifying information about tenants.

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