Land and Apartments

There Goes the Neighborhood

Residents of this apartment building in Richmond Heights were threatened with eviction during the pandemic after reporting the property owner’s illegal activities, which had caused them to be potentially exposed to asbestos during the renovation of the building.

When a new landlord purchased an apartment building in Richmond Heights this summer, none of its tenants knew their lives would be upended. Nor could they anticipate municipal and county officials would turn a blind eye to threats posed to their health and safety. 

Passersby often take the art-deco gem for granted as they walk their dogs or wheel baby carriages down the sidewalk. That’s because the brick apartment building blends seamlessly into the fabric of the neighborhood. It has, after all, been here a long time.

The landmark has anchored the corner of Wise And Moorelands Avenues in Richmond Heights since 1938. Its ocre-colored facade and opaque windows project the elegance of a grande dame, adding a sense of timelessness to the leafy intersection. From the outside, nothing appears amiss. The exterior of the two-story, L-shaped building remains largely the same as when it was built during the Great Depression.

Scene of the crime.

But this semblance of normalcy belies the upheaval that has recently beset those who lived here.

Laws have been violated on these premises. Health regulations flouted. Permits and inspections skirted. The police have been called to the address. Local, state and federal officials have been informed. But nothing yet has been done to clamp down on the lawbreakers. They continue to operate with impunity.

This would be bad enough, but the violations are occurring in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic.

The troubles began this summer, when building owner John Carnasiotis sold the property to James R. Redlingshafer Sr. and James R. Redlingshafer Jr. — owners of Artemis Holdings LLC., — for an estimated $600,000. After the purchase, Artemis then handed over the management of their acquisition to Land and Apartments LLC, a firm operated by Connor O’Leary, who has an office at 1051 S. Big Bend Blvd in Richmond Heights. According to Missouri Secretary of State’s Office records, Land and Apartments registered to do business in the state on October 9, 2020 — after it had already started managing the property.

This may seem like a relatively minor issue, but there are other regulatory anomalies.

The litany of infractions stem from the recent demolition of one of the six apartments, which is part of an overall plan to rehab the entire building, oust the current residents and double the  monthly rents to $1,400.

With no advanced notice, the new owner hired a contractor to gut apartment 1E on Sept. 30 — without first securing the required building permit from the city of Richmond Heights. This allowed the rehabbers to also sidestep a mandatory asbestos inspection. Asbestos, which has long been outlawed, was commonly used in the past as a fire retardant in building materials. The hazardous material causes respiratory diseases and is a well-known human carcinogen that is strictly regulated under federal environmental law.

But those nettlesome details didn’t stop Artemis Holdings from forging ahead.

For three days, the work continued uninterrupted until a tenant called Richmond Heights City Hall and discovered the owner had not applied for the building permit. During this time, residents observed that no safety or mitigation procedures were being followed by Flex Construction, the contractor. Moreover, none of the construction crew wore N-95 masks or other protective equipment. Dust and debris were dispersed throughout the building. Truckloads of debris were removed. After a complaint was filed with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Diego Utrera, the construction owner, told the OSHA official that the remodeling work was limited to “cosmetic maintenance.”

Debris being removed at 7701 Wise Ave. on Oct. 1.

Richmond Heights issued a stop work order on the construction project Oct. 2. But the next day the contractor showed up at the site to continue the demolition inside the occupied building. This prompted one of the residents to call the police, as she had been instructed to do by the city of Richmond Heights.

After law enforcement officers arrived, the immigrant workers refused to leave the building for approximately 45 minutes. The impasse ended when the building manager arrived at the scene and negotiated with the police. The workers left without further incident.

Two days later, two tenants were issued eviction notices by the manager in apparent retaliation. Both tenants had paid their rent, however, and the notices to vacate were against state law. The eviction notices also violated a St. Louis County order that prohibits evictions during the pandemic.

On Oct. 5, Alison Carrick, a longtime resident of the building, appealed to the Richmond Heights City Council to intervene to protect the health and safety of the occupants. After she spoke to the council meeting via Zoom, Richmond Heights Mayor Jim Thomson vowed to look into the situation and advised building residents to contact Building Commissioner James Benedick about their concerns.

James Benedict described the full demolition of the apartment as “a little painting.”

Benedick, however, dismissed the tenants concerns, mischaracterizing the demolition project and the spewing of potentially toxic materials, as “a little painting.”

A week later, construction work resumed after the city belatedly issued a building permit. As required by law, an asbestos inspection was also conducted by a private environmental firm. The questionable activities associated with the project did not abate, however. Instead, the obfuscation escalated because both the building permit and asbestos inspection contained false information.

In comments presented to the St. Louis County Council on Oct. 13, Carrick pointed out multiple discrepancies contained in the building permit. The contractor, for instance, was listed as “unknown.” The permit also contained a fake phone number (314-123-4567). Moreover, the permit misidentified the owner of Artemis Holdings as being the building manager. The misinformation in the permit described the renovation as being limited to the “remodeling of the kitchen and bath,” and pegged the estimated total cost at $500. In reality, the entire interior of the apartment had been gutted.

When Benedick was notified of the underestimate, the amount listed on the permit was increased by ten times to $5,000, but that amount is still less than what such a project actually costs, according to a retired building inspector consulted for this story. When later confronted about this discrepancy, Benedick admitted that low-balling the estimated cost could result in reduced revenue from municipal building permit fees and county property taxes.

In short, the project appears to have possibly received a de facto subsidy from the Richmond Heights and St. Louis County.

Richmond Heights Building and Zoning Administrator James Benedick

After the owner was cited for not getting the requisite asbestos testing done, Artemis Holdings was compelled to hire Wellington Environmental Consulting and Construction Inc. to perform the asbestos inspection. On Oct. 7, Patrick Harper, a Wellington executive, conducted a “walk through” inspection of the apartment. Harper signed off on the inspection, claiming no asbestos was present, and submitted his findings to the St. Louis County Health Department. But there was more than one hitch to his stamp of approval. To begin with, Harper is not a licensed asbestos inspector. On top of that, he also failed to send any samples to a qualified laboratory for testing.

Harper’s cursory inspection failed to meet the sniff test of air pollution control specialist Ari Yarovinski of the St. Louis County Health Department, who rejected the inspection because Harper lacked the required Missouri Department of Natural Resources license to conduct asbestos inspections. His expertise lies elsewhere. Harper is identified as the clean-up company’s executive in charge of “corporate growth” at Wellington Environmental’s website.

After Yarovinski rejected the first asbestos inspection, Artemis Holdings had Wellington re-inspect the property. This time the environmental clean-up firm managed to assign a licensed inspector to conduct the inspection. By then, however, the the asbestos-contaminated kitchen floor tiles had already been removed and dumped by the contractor. Old floor tiles are generally acknowledged within the real estate industry and construction trade as the building materials most commonly contaminated with asbestos. Instead of testing floor tiles, the second inspector took samples from the kitchen walls. Those samples did not contain asbestos.

At her own expense, Carrick then took samples of the same floor tiles used throughout the apartment building to the St. Louis County Health Department laboratory in Berkley, Mo. for testing.

The St. Louis County Environmental Laboratory discovered asbestos in the samples of the floor tiles in the building.

The test results — conducted by the county’s own lab — showed the presence of asbestos.

Despite this evidence, Richmond Heights allowed Artemis Holdings to continue its rehab project with tenants living in the building. The noise, dirt and fumes from the subsequent demolition and construction work caused an 82-year-old resident, who has multiple sclerosis, to seek medical attention for heart palpitations. Other tenants, who were working at home due to the pandemic, found it next to impossible to do their jobs.

Related Article: Indifference: The new owners of an apartment building in Richmond Heights didn’t factor in the human costs of dislocating residents during the pandemic.