Residents of Fairmont Terrace apartments say they feel safe, enjoy family atmosphere
BY CARY ASPINWALL World Staff Writer & ZIVA BRANSTETTER World Enterprise Editor
Sunday, January 20, 2013
1/20/13 at 7:23 AM
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People who've seen it on the news may think of it as a war zone, but those who live at Fairmont Terrace call it home.
"We're kind of like a family," said Betty Winston, 66, who moved to Fairmont Terrace about eight years ago from California. "We are all looking out for everybody."
The complex is the kind of place where kids ride their bikes through the streets and every woman is an "auntie" who can tell them it's time to get home, said Winston's daughter, Jeanette, 50.
She lives in the same building as her mother at the sprawling complex at 1111 E. 60th St., close enough to yell from across a balcony.
"I can walk across the parking lot at 1 a.m. and nobody will mess with me. There's nobody chasing nobody," said Jeanette Winston, who has lived at the complex for 14 years and raised her children there.
They are grown and gone now, but Jeanette Winston and her mom want to stay.
"I feel safe when we are here because we have security. It's not the people who live here; it's the people who come in," she said.
It's an argument repeated by many residents of the federally subsidized complex when asked about the sporadic violence there.
Eight people have been killed in the last two years at Fairmont Terrace, including four women gunned down inside an apartment Jan. 7. Police continue to investigate the deaths of Misty Nunley, 33; Julie Jackson, 55; Rebeika Powell, 23; and her twin sister Kayetie Powell Melchor, 23.
Property Manager Angela McGinnis said after the killings that television news stories depicted Fairmont as a "war zone." In reality, it's a place where residents hold cookouts, help each other through hard times and stick together, she said.
The complex held its first resident council meeting last month, drawing about 20 people. McGinnis said she expects turnout to grow.
Rochelle Remesar moved to Fairmont about 14 months ago from New Orleans and is already well known among residents for her cooking. Remesar, a single mother of an 8-year-old, volunteers at nearby Marshall Elementary and knows nearly all of the children who live in the complex.
When a fire swept through a building at Fairmont in August, management quickly moved displaced residents into new apartments and coordinated relief efforts for clothing and supplies, she said.
Residents escaped safely after a maintenance worker pounded on every door and helped firefighters locate a woman who had trouble escaping, Betty Winston said.
The women bristle at some portrayals they've seen of Fairmont Terrace as an uncaring place.
"A lot of people are saying that management doesn't do nothing here. That's a lie," Remesar said, her eyes filling with tears. "I've never known so much compassion. She practically broke her back for the people in building four," Remesar says, referring to McGinnis' help after the fire.
'Somewhere to live'
Chiquilia Richardson moved into Fairmont Terrace about two months ago, not long before the complex made headlines. She needed an affordable place to move with her two sons, and Fairmont Terrace had a three-bedroom unit with room for her boys.
"It's just some place to stay," she said. "It's not the best place to live, but it's somewhere to live."
Those who need help securing affordable housing though the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 8 program must choose from a list of landlords at about 30 "project-based" sites in Tulsa. A related program offering vouchers directly to residents gives them more choice but also has a long waiting list.
Many market-rate apartment complexes run credit checks on potential occupants, a further barrier to finding housing for the working poor and unemployed.
Fairmont Terrace has 335 subsidized units, the largest of the four project-based Section 8 properties in the 61st and Peoria area.
As for misconceptions about residents of public housing: "People can think what they want," Richardson said.
Most of her neighbors are good people, moms like her.
Richardson is working on getting her GED at the South Tulsa Community House, so she can go to trade school and maybe style hair, "do something different."
Amber Vickers needed a place to live with her 1-year-old son and appreciates the opportunity Section 8 housing has given her.
"This has given me the opportunity to get my life right and get a better life for my baby," Vickers said.
She struggled with drugs and depression in her teen years after her father died. She ended up in prison in her early 20s. Getting a job and getting back on her feet with felony convictions has been difficult, Vickers said.
"Nobody wants to give anybody a chance," she said. "It's been real tough."
She's working on her GED at the South Tulsa Community House's joint program with Union Public Schools, and she hopes to one day attend veterinary school.
She hasn't had any problems with management or neighbors, Vickers said.
"If you stick to yourself, you don't have any problems," she said.
'As fast as we can'
McGinnis points to numerous policies the property has in place to keep residents safe. Residents undergo a thorough background check, and all who enter must show a photo ID.
The complex recently installed tire spikes to stop people from driving through the exit gate when it opened. A new camera system installed last week allows McGinnis to view the property from her cell phone.
While some of these measures were already in place, others have been added since the killings. None is required by HUD except the background checks.
"We're moving as fast as we can," a weary McGinnis said last week as she sat in the busy clubhouse at the complex.
Outside on a warm winter day, residents sat on front steps outside their apartments, and children played football in the yard. Other children darted throughout the property on bikes and kicked up dirt near a bright new playground.
Betty Winston pointed to a patch of concrete where a barbecue grill is set up for community cookouts. All are welcome, and everyone knows each other, she said.
Sure, sometimes the young people play their music too loud at night or a resident may complain about a repair that wasn't made quickly enough.
But all they need to do is let the front office know. McGinnis will see to it that it's fixed, Remesar noted.
Otherwise they can't expect to complain.
"Closed mouths don't get fed," she said.
Lisa Willhite, a supervisor and security officer, and Manager Helen Dowling (left) walk the grounds at Bradford Apartments in north Tulsa last week. Willhite regularly patrols Bradford and Edenwood apartments on foot. JOHN CLANTON / Tulsa World
BRADFORD AND EDENWOOD
Dealing with crime in public housing
In 2008, the Bradford and Edenwood complexes in north Tulsa were described by community activists and security officers as "under siege" in a Tulsa World article on numerous violent crimes in the area.
Crime hasn't died down entirely; Bradford and Edenwood have both had several homicides, drive-by shootings and domestic violence in the past five years, records show.
But managers say they've worked to make things safer for residents by stepping up security through a private contractor, Guardian Angel Security Plus.
Both are owned by an Alabama-based company, BSR Trust LLC. They are part of the federal project-based Section 8 program.
"We want everybody to have a home and be safe and feel safe," Manager Kathryn Darner said. "Everybody should have that."
Both complexes are gated with a security guard posted 24 hours at the gate and another armed security officer who patrols the complexes on foot, Darner said.
"It's not if an incident happens, it's when. So it's how management reacts to it and how they resolve it," she said. "We try to be proactive. That just takes day in and day out walking the property."
Security Officer Lisa Willhite was patrolling Bradford last week when the World visited. She tries to build trust with the residents and keep tabs on what's going on in their lives, she said.
"We've got some good residents in here who try to keep their own watch on things," she said. "There are lot of residents here who are trying to make a change in their lives."
Willhite waves and smiles at residents as she patrols but doesn't hesitate to write trespassing tickets to people banned from the property. Sometimes she has to call Tulsa police to break up crowds, she said.
She stopped to check in on an elderly resident who was warming up her car, a woman who'd been ill recently: "How are you feeling?"
"Give residents a couple of minutes, and you'd be surprised what they give back," Willhite said.
Cary Aspinwall 918-581-8477
Ziva Branstetter 918-581-8306
Jeanette Winston (center) and her neighbors at Fairmont Terrace — Rochelle Remesar and Jessica Harshbarger (far left) — talk outside their building Friday afternoon at Fairmont Terrace. JOHN CLANTON / Tulsa World
Residents of Fairmont Terrace walk around the apartment complex near a playground on the east end of the complex. JOHN CLANTON / Tulsa World
Tre Springer plays football with a friend outside his apartment building at Fairmont Terrace, 1111 E. 60th St., on Friday. Residents say the complex is a safe place to live. JOHN CLANTON / Tulsa World