Elderly couple pushed out of rental worry they’re stuck

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News

Detroit — New owners in the Harbortown complex are forcing renters with expiring leases out of their riverfront apartments for a condo conversion, but one elderly couple says they fear intermittent outages of the building’s lone working elevator will leave them stuck.

Except for a handful of trips, the sporadically working freight elevator has confined Terry Calloway’s husband Thomas, an 81-year-old double leg amputee, in their fifth-floor apartment since June. The passenger elevator has been inoperable since the fall, she said.

Like many renters who find themselves bounced out of the competitive housing market in parts of Detroit, the Calloways are distraught.

Terry Calloway's husband Thomas Calloway, a double leg amputee, sits by the window amongst the piles of packed boxes and bags as they wait to move out of their apartment after they found out it was becoming condominiums.

The couple need to leave their unit of eight years in the 15-story Harbortown Great Lakes Tower on Friday to secure a new apartment. But Calloway’s husband, a diabetic with congestive heart failure, can barely walk even with a cane.

She’s worried that she’ll have to get him down the stairs and wonders how the movers will work if the freight elevator goes down again, which it was as recently as Sunday.

“I will have to call 911,” said Terry Calloway, on getting her husband down the stairs. “As someone who has always paid rent on time, why should we suffer like this?

“It’s enough to give you a stroke.”

The new owners, Harbortown-Great Lakes LLC, acknowledged that the freight elevator at the Jefferson Avenue building didn’t work as recently as Sunday but said it’s now working.

For many renters, it might as well not be. It is sometimes in a restricted mode that “gives residents the impression it is not in service” as people use it to move out of the building, according to a company statement sent to The Detroit News. The company said it is working to fix the other elevator.

“If the elevator has an issue Friday it will be addressed by management,” the statement reads.

The city has issued 16 tickets and $19,500 in fines at the location in the last month. That includes four tickets Wednesday related to the non-working elevators and the lack of a Certificate of Compliance, city officials said. Harbortown-Great Lakes’ statement said the tickets are being handled by the company’s attorneys.

Two months ago, the Calloways got a letter from the building’s new owners saying they would be renovating units to sell as a condos when leases expired. The Calloways’ lease ends at the end of July.

“This is truly a great indication of the strength and growth ahead in Detroit as we can once again offer high-quality home ownership opportunities to the community,” the letter to Calloway reads.

Calloway, who pays $1,121 a month for her two-bedroom unit, said she cried when she got the letter and has been anxious about the move ever since, compounded by problems with the air conditioning and the elevator. WDIV-TV (Channel 4) broadcast a story in June detailing some of the residents’ complaints.

The new owners said they’ve worked to accommodate the Calloways, extending their lease until Aug. 30. The couple also was given the chance to buy the unit with potential rebates for past rent, according to the statement.

The Calloways, however, have found a new unit to rent and must move in by Friday. Movers are hired to get their belongings on Tuesday.

The Harbor Towers complex is a gated 1980s development that inspired new hope for Detroit’s riverfront at the time. Over the years many condo units were rented out by owners. Harbortown-Great Lakes owns 94 rented units that the investors now want to sell. The average price of a one-bedroom unit is $175,000 and $250,000 for a two-bedroom

Calloway said she’s frustrated that, with the new owners, there is now money for renovations, but the elevators haven’t been fixed sooner.

She recalled how after a quick trip out in June the couple were trapped in the lobby for six hours because the elevator had stopped working. Her husband’s doctor, who does house calls, hasn’t been able to visit because of the elevator problems, she said, noting the doctor has bad knees.

A neighbor, Elaine Blocker, said walking the stairs has been difficult for her as well because she wears a boot while suffering a foot condition. Her pastor lives on the 13th floor and he got so fed up last weekend he stayed in a hotel.

“It’s terrible,” Blocker said. “We are paying our money and doing our duty.”

Situations like the Calloways are on the rise for Detroit seniors, said Tam Perry, an assistant professor at Wayne State’s School of Social Work. She’s also the research director for Senior Housing Preservation Detroit.

There is a lot of housing demand in downtown, Midtown and the surrounding areas, which are areas that seniors have lived long-term in Detroit.

“We hear from people it is very stressful and confusing to understand the letters and information flow,” Perry said. “We don’t want to create ... a city where older people don’t feel they have a place in it or are actively being pushed out.”

Recent partnerships with local developers and Mayor Mike Duggan’s office have included guarantees to preserve affordable housing.

But Terry Calloway said she feels pushed out, after being a loyal resident her whole life.

“It’s like you’re eliminated from the enjoyment of what is happening in the city,” she said.