Detroit’s veteran housing residents: ‘We deserve better than this.’

Broken locks, flooded hallways and loose safety precautions are just some of the concerns residents have raised with management.

Henry Bell, Army veteran and Piquette Square resident.

Henry Bell, Army veteran and Piquette Square resident.

It was Christmas Day of last year. Four in the morning. Henry Bell woke up to the sound of rushing water in his first-floor apartment.

“I go to use the bathroom and my feet are in water,” Bell recalled.

Bell is a 57-year-old veteran who prides himself on the 28 years he spent in the U.S. Army. In 2010 he found himself living out of his car after experiencing the loss of his mother and eventually his home. He heard about Piquette Square, a 150-unit apartment complex in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood, and moved in shortly after it opened.

Bell and other veterans say the Christmas flood, and what precipitated it, are emblematic of problems that plague a building that was “a dream” when they first moved in.

Residents interviewed for this story said they were informed that the cause of the flood was a burst pipe on the fourth floor. They said the building manager told them a window was left open to “air out the smell” after a resident was found in his apartment several days after he died. The frigid temperatures that hit Detroit on Christmas Eve of last year swept into the room, causing the pipes to burst and flood all four floors of the north side of the complex.

Southwest Solutions, which owns and manages the complex, confirmed this chain of events.

We interviewed seven residents for this story who said this was not the first major flood in the building. And flooding is not their only concern. Many said the building is not as safe as they need it to be. And they said the services they were promised are no longer regular or easily accessible.

A warm, welcoming environment

Piquette Square was established in 2010 to provide permanent housing for homeless veterans in the Detroit area. During the time of its development, the lack of affordable housing for veterans was a major problem in the city. The 150-unit complex one of the largest housing developments of its kind in the country.

“Piquette fosters a warm, welcoming environment where tenants can choose from an array of mental health, rehabilitation, recreational and social programs to regain their footing in life. A dynamic calendar of regular classes, special events, and social programs fuels this vision,” a fact sheet from 2010 reads.

Southwest Solutions is a Detroit-based social service non-profit organization. The annual budget of the non-profit is more than $30 million. Veteran services makes up a small part of their work.

When Piquette first opened, Bell said, the complex lived up to its promise. He said the building staff was focused on helping veterans live better lives.

Piquette Sqaure

“They were more in touch, more personal. More ‘Hey, I’m gonna get you this job at Ford. Hey, I’m gonna get you this job at GM. Hey, I’m gonna do this for you. I’m gonna do that for you. What do you need?’”

It was similar for Robert Vinson.

Vinson is a 66-year-old father, grandfather and Army veteran of the Vietnam War. He was experiencing homelessness back in 2010 when Piquette first opened. The building offered him a stable place to live.

“We had counselors, we had services. You could get anything you need. All you had to do was come downstairs and ask. You know, the building was so much better,” Vinson said.

I can count like five times where it flooded all the hallways. – Henry Ball, Piquette Square resident

The Christmas Day flood damaged more than 40 apartments. Three months later, the walls were still soft from the drenched drywall, the hallways still had exposed wires and plumbing hanging from the ceiling, and water stains ran all over the walls.

“I can count like five times where it flooded all the hallways, you know, on the north and the south end. And one time in the middle of the building on the Brush Street side,” says Henry Bell.

In March, residents said they had another major flood. This time, the building manager told residents a sprinkler system exploded in an apartment on the fourth floor, resulting in water damage to all four floors on the south side of the building.

A few weeks later, Bell said the building manager finally addressed the flooding complaints and plans for repair during a town hall meeting.

This was days after residents reported going two weekends in March without hot water.

Listen: Detroit veteran residents demand better building conditions

Southwest Solutions’ CEO Sean de Four admits the building has water issues, blaming many of the floods on faulty PEX plumbing. He said after a few years of leaks, Southwest Solutions had the pipes tested.

“Ultimately, we had a chemist who reviewed the material that was used when those hot water tubes were created and there was something defective in the material that was used,” de Four said, adding that “unfortunately it’s a matter of waiting for a line to fail.”

During the town hall meeting on March 20, Southwest Solutions gave residents a six- to nine-month timeframe for cosmetic repairs to all the flood-damaged apartments.

This is a photo of the second floor of Piquette Square. The floor is currently being renovated after flood damage from Christmas 2022.
This is a photo of the second floor of Piquette Square. The floor is currently being renovated after flood damage from Christmas 2022.

Residents said management told them they would be temporarily moved to other units while remodeling happens. De Four said that is typical procedure.

Usually what we’ll do is we’ll move residents from one building to another, one of our other buildings or reserve units that we can move them to while the construction happens. And then they’re assured they’re placed back in their building once the renovation is complete,” he said.

Some residents have expressed concerns about the disruption, saying the noise especially would negatively affect their mental health. Meanwhile, repairs to the plumbing will not be fully addressed for at least another three years, when Southwest Solutions said it will be eligible for low-income housing tax credits.

“The problem is, as we’ve assessed how we can address this permanently, the only way would be to replace all of the piping in the building, which would be about a $10 million cost, which is about half of what it cost to build the building in the first place,” de Four said.

Unlocked doors and loose safety precautions

Piquette Square residents say the issues with the building are not limited to the flooding and water problems. They say the building is not secure.

“The most important thing for me is the security and safety of the building,” said Robert Vinson.

In interviews, residents said there are often people who do not live at Piquette roaming the halls or hanging around in the building. They said there are often people drunk or passed out in the hallways due to substance use. (During a visit to the complex in February, this reporter witnessed several individuals openly drinking and stumbling on the first floor.)

Vinson said the building’s exterior doors have been broken on and off for years. He also noted that some areas of the building have a key card system that does not work, the camera system is frequently under repair, and there are not enough security guards on each shift to properly protect the building.

Vinson said as a veteran at a time when mass shootings and anti-government demonstrations have become normalized, his biggest fear is someone walking into Piquette Square and opening fire.

“That’s my main thing,” he said. “The security of this building…I know that it can happen, that somebody can walk up in here because those doors just open up.”

CEO Sean de Four confirmed that there are problems with the door locks.

“We have had some back and forth issues with the keys, swipe, access to the building and to the rooms. It went on for so long that we actually ended up going back to hard keys, which unfortunately is quite expensive and it’s a very slow manual process, but it was the most efficient solution that we could come up with,” he said.

At the time of this story’s publication, the security camera system has been repaired but the door locks remain broken.

“It’s not as though we have the ability to do, you know, pat downs or checks willy nilly…. We certainly allow people to bring things in that are legal,” said CEO de Four. “If you walk through some of the hallways, you’ll pick up the scent of marijuana or you may get somebody who is clearly, you know, intoxicated in the middle of the day.”

Balancing independent living with supportive services

When Henry Bell first moved into Piquette Square, the building had just opened. At that time, the complex was run by a former Navy SEAL — and Bell said residents felt valued, seen, and cared for.

When management changed in here, it changed the whole dynamic of this building,” Bell said. “This building, to me, is a regular apartment building” now.

One thing Bell misses are the weekly wellness checks that used to be a part of the culture in the building. Bell and other residents say management instructed building security and floor leaders to stop performing checks on tenants in 2019.

Robert Vinson is the head of the building’s memorial committee, which hung a plaque on the first floor recognizing the 54 veterans who died while residents of Piquette.

He partly blames the abandonment of wellness checks on the fact that at least two residents – the man who died shortly before Christmas, and another resident who died in 2021 — went days before their bodies were discovered. Vinson said he was friends with the resident who died in 2021. They lived on the same floor, and he’d gone unseen for several days.

“He used to call me every day,” said Vinson. “I would take him to the VA hospital. I would, you know, run errands for him, cut his hair and things like that. So this particular day, he didn’t call. I tried to call him. No answer. Next day, same thing. No answer. I went downstairs and told this particular counselor.”

He said a wellness check was not performed until days after he reported his friend missing. The resident was found dead in his apartment by his counselor.

Southwest Solutions disputed Vinson’s account, saying he must have misremembered what happened. In an email response, they said weekly wellness checks are conducted for residents on a “watch list” who haven’t been seen for seven days, and that “wellness checks outside of case management are considered a violation of privacy rights.”

“This is an independent living kind of setting, right?” said de Four. “This is essentially an apartment building where tenants live and they pay rent and they want their privacy and they want to be able to live as a free person lives,” said de Four.

Services moved offsite

The vision for Piquette Square when it opened included wraparound services as well as housing.

“Permanent supportive housing for veterans effectively breaks the tragic cycle from streets to shelters to emergency rooms and even jails,” reads Southwest Solutions’ FAQ for the project.

And by Southwest Solutions’ own measure, it has succeeded. De Four says about 90% of Piquette Square residents achieve housing stability, “which is pretty good because the standard across the nation is usually somewhere around 75 to 80%. So we’re pretty high compared to the national average.”

But several residents interviewed for this story say they’re no longer receiving the level of support they once did.

“In the beginning when this building first opened it was so perfect,” said resident Robert Vinson. “Everybody had counselors. You know, you could come down, you could talk to them. But that’s no longer the case now.”

Residents now have to travel off-site for many of the supportive services once provided in the building — something Vinson said does not work for this population, which often distrusts “civilians.”

Veterans, they don’t trust people because they’ve been misused and abused for so long. So it’s hard to get them to even open up,” he said. “They need counselors here. They need people to talk to veterans.”

Southwest Solutions said moving certain services off-site, like rehabilitation supports, was something the organization’s leadership decided due to low participation.

“I think originally the concept was we would bring all these services in to the residents,” de Four said. “And not surprisingly, the residents, you know, want to have some separation between their personal lives and where they live.”

Long-time residents said they had no formal say about the removal of services. Some said the recent increase of drug use in the building calls for a reevaluation.

We’re not perfect. The buildings aren’t perfect. – Sean de Four, CEO, Southwest Solutions

Southwest Solutions admits that Piquette Square has experienced some problems since its establishment — but its CEO said they’ve been responsive to residents’ needs.

“It’s clear that not all residents may agree with how they want things,” de Four wrote in an email, adding that the complex’s property management team plans to survey residents “to gauge what their current desires are” in light of the concerns raised during the reporting of this story.

De Four said the project’s mission — to create a sustainable, permanent housing solution for Detroit veterans – is something they’ve accomplished.

We’re not perfect. The buildings aren’t perfect. There are no shortage of challenges. But I think we do the best we can,” said de Four.

Still, some residents say they want to see the complex restored to what it was in the beginning.

I want Piquette to get back to where it was. Maybe that’s asking too much, but the first four, five, six, seven years. I want to get back to that,” said Robert Vinson.

Tenants say they want the building to become a place where veterans can get back on their feet, live better lives, and get exposed to an environment that pushes them to do better.

We deserve better than this,” said Bell. “We deserve better.”

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  • Jamie Simmons
    Jamie Simmons comes to Michigan Radio as a new Community Engagement Reporter for the station’s Enterprise team. She is a macro social worker with a strong background in community engagement and communal dialogue.