With a hacking cough, wrapped up in her coat, hat and gloves and shivering under several blankets, as the wind blew through the cracks in her windows, Bobbie Jo O’Dell didn’t think she would survive the night when her apartment had no heat during the Christmas weekend winter storm that saw below zero wind-chills.
O’Dell, 42, for weeks had asked for the heating to be fixed, with heating problems occurring since she moved into the building at 2904 W. Wisconsin Ave. on Milwaukee’s near west side in 2020. But her landlord, James M. Crosbie, and other management never replied to her multiple text messages or when they did minimized the issues, she said. She provided screenshots of the messages.
O’Dell provided multiple pictures of thermometers showing the temperature drop in her apartment to 40.5°F, but said that it had dropped as low as 32 degrees in recent weeks.
When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel visited the property on Wednesday, O’Dell’s apartment registered a temperature of 63 degrees. All these temperatures recorded by O’Dell and reviewed by the Journal Sentinel were below the minimum temperature requirement of 67 degrees for residential properties in the city of Milwaukee.
“If it hadn’t been for my son’s father and my son coming back up here to make sure I was OK, I don’t know if I’d still be alive,” she said, choking back tears as she recalled that night. “They found me frozen in my bed.”
The heating is just one of the many problems tenants endure at the property.
In fact, despite many of the low-income residents begging for help, Crosbie and his management team have barely ever or if ever fixed any of the issues in the building, tenants say. The issues are many: pipes have burst flooding tenants out of their apartments a day before Christmas, insect and rodent infestations, gas leaks, smoke coming out the burst pipes, water leaking into the building from a roof covered in tarp and plywood, electricity shortages, mold, fire exits padlocked shut, the front door of the building without a lock and the on-going smell of sewage throughout the building and in the tap water.
More:Our Public Investigator team wants to solve your problems
The property has a lengthy history of enforcement by the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services, mostly for no heat, disrepair of the building’s exterior, water leaks and infestations.
Many of O’Dell’s text messages and requests for help from other tenants to Crosbie and the property managers went unanswered or were met with very little remedy. The tenants who spoke with the Journal Sentinel pay anywhere between $550 and $625 per month, with a number of those living in the building receiving rental and energy assistance from Community Advocates and the Social Development Commission.
Since June 2021, Community Advocates has provided more than $34,000 in rental assistance to six individuals at the apartment building, and the Social Development Commission gave out more than $47,000 in rental assistance to 12 tenants since November 2020. The money is sent directly to 2904 W. Wisconsin LLC, whose registered agent is Heller Law Offices, LLC. Heller Law Offices and its owner Michael G. Heller represent Crosbie in on-going litigation involving the 2904 W. Wisconsin Ave. property.
Since 2021, O’Dell has also directly reached out to Ald. Robert Bauman, who represents the area, and the Department of Neighborhood Services’ residential code enforcement inspector, Theresa Schaefer-Morales, asking for repeated inspections of the building.
Crosbie and Heller did not respond to requests for comment from the Journal Sentinel on all of the issues and concerns tenants laid out. An email directed to one of the property managers, Desiree Helm, bounced back.
Both the Department of Neighborhood Services’ spokesperson, Tanz Rome, and its commissioner, Erica R. Roberts, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Bauman did not respond to a request for comment.
Crosbie, who is based in Ozaukee County, owns five west side Milwaukee buildings, and since November 2020 has received almost $183,000 in rental assistance for four of his rental properties.
Some residents have been threatened with eviction for speaking publicly or with the media about the conditions at the property, according to O’Dell. The federal ban on evictions was lifted in July 31, 2021.
O’Dell also requested water testing at the building after on-going concerns about the smell of sewage or fecal matter in the tenants’ tap water. Results from samples taken by the Milwaukee Water Works in November this year reported an absence of Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Coliform bacteria, but the odor was reported as “musty.” Despite the tests, tenants are still left wondering whether the water is drinkable.
Milwaukee Waters Works told the Journal Sentinel that they had reached out multiple times to explain the results to O’Dell without success.
Enforcement aside, Crosbie and the property face multiple lawsuits, including a personal injury lawsuit filed in September 2021, involving tenant, Jimmie L. Steele.
But Crosbie flouting the law is nothing new. He was accused of masterminding a $6 million financial fraud while letting the buildings fall into disrepair back in 2018 and 2019.
In May 2019, the City of Milwaukee dropped its fraud lawsuit against Crosbie, after agreeing to collect $191,573 in back taxes and fines plus a promise to receive another $400,000.
‘We fend for ourselves here’
While O’Dell is outspoken about what she and other tenants have experienced at the west side apartment building and has options to leave her current living situation, she feels obligated to stay and keep documenting what is happening to her and the other tenants.
“All that has happened here is all preventable,” O’Dell said. “We fend for ourselves here.”
“I’m not going until I know my people are taken care of,” she said.
O’Dell has often served as a temporary, unofficial superintendent at the building, helping tenants out when issues arise, including when the fire department has been called out to the property in recent weeks.
On Dec. 22, 2022, the fire department was called out to 2904 W. Wisconsin Ave. following pipes bursting due to the cold and smoke coming out of the very same pipes. Crosbie never arrived, O’Dell said, despite her reaching out to him for help. Three of the apartments were boarded up and electricity was shut off to those apartments. O’Dell said the locked utility room had to be broken into so that the firefighters could shut off the electricity.
“I’m here helping as much as I can and it’s not my job. Where are you?” she wrote in a message to Crosbie on Dec. 25. “This building is a death trap. Something horrible is going to happen here and you’re going to be responsible.”
“Something’s going to happen and somebody’s going to lose their life… You’ve known about this for years and you’ve monkeyed around and band-aided it and haven’t addressed the problem properly,” she added.
O’Dell also said that management has tried to relocate her to one of those apartments despite being boarded-up by the fire department.
One of the other apartments lost to flooding and smoke was being rented by Starquita Keith.
Keith, 29, was flooded out of her home after she returned to her apartment on Dec. 22. Multiple pipes had burst, with water pouring from the pipes and various areas across the ceiling. Except for her bed, Keith lost all of her belongings to water damage. She later reported the smoke and the fire department was called out.
“It was full of water and it was steady pouring down like it was a pool. It was filling big buckets of water like for hours,” she said.
Keith said was moved to another “raggedy” apartment on the same floor as her previous apartment that was flooded.
Keith’s aunt, Freda Washington, said that since she moved into the building in October 2021, problems have been on-stop, including water leaking in the kitchen, mice infestation and feces, a sewage smell in the tap water, and limited heating throughout her apartment. She said that a couple of months ago during a major rainstorm the top floor of the building was flooded due to a broken roof, which is covered in tarp and plywood.
During the recent winter storm, Washington, 47, and her boyfriend had to turn on the stove for heat, but soon had to stop after developing headaches from the “gas fumes coming out of the stove.”
“We’re constantly freezing in this building,” she said. “There are babies and kids in this building.”
The many times that Washington complained to management, she was only met with empty promises to fix the issues in her apartment, she said, even when she explained that the building’s front door was broken, with no security, and strangers were entering the building.
“Anyone can walk in the front door and out the back door. You can go in any apartment,” Washington said. “We’ve found needles and lighters in the hallway and condoms in the hallway.”
Elijah McCall, 33, was moved by management to a smaller apartment he could afford in the building, but when he tried to return to his old apartment to retrieve his belongings, he said he was locked out. Now, he sleeps on a mattress on the floor, with little furniture, and a stove that still hasn’t been hooked up by management.
“I’m just getting my TV and my bed and everything and bring it down here. They won’t do it,” he said.
Rachel Fox Armstrong, Legal Action of Wisconsin’s development and communications manager, said she was sickened to hear about the conditions tenants have been facing at 2904 W. Wisconsin Ave.
“Sadly, there are too many landlords who care only about their bottom line and they give a bad name to the landlords who care for their property and tenants,” Fox Armstrong wrote in a statement to the Journal Sentinel. “No one deserves to live in those kinds of conditions. No one deserves to be freezing cold on Christmas, or have water pour in every time it rains, or live amongst infestations and toxic mold.”
But the practice speaks volumes to Wisconsin’s laws that protect landlords and widen the inequity gap among its residents, who are low-income and people of color, according to Attorney Caitlin Hazard Firer, assistant director of litigation and strategic advocacy at Legal Action of Wisconsin. At the heart of it, it is a public health issue Firer said.
“Wisconsin doesn’t have as much strength for tenants. Tenants don’t have as much enforcement rights,” Hazard Firer said. “I think there are a number of landlords who really make a very lucrative business model of renting to low-income people with poor credit history, poor rental history.”
“This uneven playing field between tenants and landlords also just furthers racial inequity and the racial segregation in the city,” she said.
Landlord has received assistance payments
As of 2019, the buildings are doing well financially — the city suit said they are making a profit of about $240,000 annually, according to reporting from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Between 2017 and 2019, Crosbie and his wife, Kim Cassiani Crosbie, have made multiple donations each worth up to $499 to the University School of Milwaukee, the exclusive prep school.
Since November 2020, two of Milwaukee’s largest rental assistance organizations, Community Advocates and the Social Development Commission, have disbursed $81,560 on behalf of 18 tenants at Crosbie’s property at 2904 W. Wisconsin Ave.
“He’s being paid to kill us,” O’Dell said.
Andi Elliott, chief executive officer of Community Advocates, said the organization is following protocol on how to disburse rental assistance to those who need it.
“The eligibility lies with the tenant,” Elliott said. “They have to demonstrate that there’s a hardship that they’ve experienced due to the pandemic.”
The application is processed by the organization and verified by the landlord, confirming that the applicant is a tenant on his or her property. The landlord supplies a W-9 form confirming their ownership of the property and that the payments are processed by the landlord.
“The way that this emergency rental assistance program works is it’s a lot different than our other programs, where this program is basically assessing whether or not the tenant is eligible,” she said. “So it’s really transactional.”
Elliott was unable to provide the dollar amounts for energy assistance at Crosbie’s properties. Social Development Commission’s spokesperson, Antony Okonji, explained that the commission no longer handles energy assistance requests and was unable to provide a dollar amount for previous assistance provided to tenants at Crosbie’s properties.
About Public Investigator
Government corruption. Corporate wrongdoing. Consumer complaints. Medical scams. Public Investigator is a new initiative of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and its sister newsrooms across Wisconsin. Our team wants to hear your tips, chase the leads and uncover the truth. We’ll investigate anywhere in Wisconsin. Send your tips to email@example.com or Signal at 414-319-9061. You can also submit tips at jsonline.com/tips.