MERRILLVILLE, Ind. — Some residents of a Northwest Indiana apartment complex were forced out of their homes on Wednesday after an inspection revealed structural issues.
SkyCam9 flew above the scene in the 1700 block of West 55th Avenue after the area fire department deemed the Hickory Ridge Apartments buildings in Merrillville, Indiana unsafe.
“Since we’ve had so many issues at this apartment complex, our fire inspector was coming through just to take note of some issues that were supposed to be repaired,” Merrillville Fire Department Chief Edward Yerga said.
Yerga said the inspector realized structural integrity was an immediate concern, and alerted town officials and the Planning and Building Department, which agreed an evacuation was needed.
According to town officials, the brick front wall of one building buckled outward.
“Our immediate concern now from the fire department is just taking care of the residents,” Yerga said.
Officials also said concerns were raised over an adjacent building within the complex. Sharita Strong said she lives in one of those units and was told by first responders it was no longer safe or healthy to be in there.
“No one should have to live the way that we’ve been living,” Strong said. “No one should have to live this way.”
Strong, who has a two-year-old and 11-year-old, said she moved into Hickory Ridge about five years ago and has had repeated issues trying to resolve problems with the help of management. She told WGN-TV she has put her own money and time into making repairs that couldn’t wait any longer.
Her greatest concern, however, is the mold that she said is throughout the impacted buildings and within her own unit.
“Make it right, just fix it,” Strong said. “I’ve been asking them, ‘Are y’all going to put us somewhere, switch our apartment, give us our money back?’”
Town officials said there are 48 units total between the two buildings, some of which were unoccupied, and in total, 12 families have been displaced due to the situation.
Merrillville Planning and Building Director Sheila Shine said there has been a lack of cooperation from current and former owners to address issues at the apartment complex. Shine said roofing repairs weren’t addressed, which led to water entering buildings and causing mold.
“We’ve had complaints from people with water leaking in their apartments,” Shine said.
Yerga told WGN-TV fire officials are familiar with the apartment complex and respond often for calls.
“Lots of fire alarms and so forth because the systems aren’t working correctly, and yes they have been fined; we’ve taken everything as far as we can take it,” Yerga said. “To see something like this, it’s just not fair to the residents.”
According to records obtained by WGN-TV, the town’s fire marshal conducted inspections of the Hickory Ridge apartments in March 2023, noting several “common findings in each of the buildings.”
“With concerns in your buildings it is not a question of IF a fire happens, it is WHEN a fire happens. I look forward to working with you on increasing the safety of your property to prevent the possible loss of life or property,” Fire Marshal Robert Pillman wrote.
Some of the issues noted in a multi-page report included broken or inoperable egress doors, which officials said could put tenants at risk of not being able to safely exit in the event of an emergency, missing or inoperable smoke detectors, combustibles on or near heat sources, holes in the drywall that could promote fire spread in the event of an emergency, and more.
“We’re working to hopefully get another management company in here and work with them so we can resolve these issues because it’s not fair to the residents,” Yerga said.
Merrillville’s police chief told WGN-TV over the last few months, the apartment complex has drawn the focus of the town’s code enforcement, which falls under their jurisdiction. According to police, Merrillville Code Enforcement has been working with property management to get it to comply with town ordinances that were being violated.
“This has been going on for quite some time,” Ladonna Reed, whose daughter and grandson live in the complex, said. “I came out here days ago to pick her up and saw all the trash.”
Several things, including overflowing dumpsters and high grass, have been concerns noted by officials at the property. Due to legal limitations set by state and federal laws, code enforcement has been limited to issuing warnings and citations to Hickory Ridge management, who police said, have not been responsive to their requests.
According to Town Council President Rick Bella, the grass has reached close to 3 feet tall and ownership had not collected garbage in several weeks. WGN-TV observed workers picking up garbage while at the property on Wednesday.
The town said it hired a company to collect the trash in all the dumpsters.
Police Chief Kosta Nuses said he has personally been in touch with a new potential owner, who is in the process of trying to buy the property and has expressed interest in working to improve conditions for residents.
“It’s just horrible out here. This is not safe for anybody,” Reed said. “People are paying rent here; they’re getting governmental assistance here from tenants and they can’t get any maintenance requests done.”
Aside from issues like mold and water that residents said they are experiencing in their units and buildings, some doors remain boarded up, and one tenant said she’s had a bullet hole in her window since December 2021. According to the woman, who brought WGN-TV to see to the damage, maintenance workers addressed the issue by measuring the window and putting tape over the broken glass.
WGN-TV attempted to speak with on-site staff and was directed to speak with Detroit-based property management company, Friedman Real Estate. We have reached out and have not heard back.
The police department said it will conduct a thorough investigation to determine whether any laws were broken by the owner or property managers of Hickory Ridge.
The American Red Cross and Ross Township Trustee’s Office are also helping any displaced residents impacted by the incident. Anyone in need of assistance is asked to contact the trustee’s office at 219-769-2111 or the American Red Cross at 219-756-5360.
American Red Cross officials told WGN-TV they will do intake for impacted residents and determine their needs, including whether they need a place to stay. A temporary shelter with sleeping cots and hot meals to be served is being coordinated at the Dean and Barbara White Community Center in town.