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'We have been suffering': Cincinnati sues owners over Williamsburg Apartment conditions

Tana Weingartner
The Williamsburg Apartments in Hartwell.

Residents at a large apartment complex in Hartwell say they've been struggling for months. Now, the city of Cincinnati is stepping in.

City officials Tuesday announced they have filed a lawsuit in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court against the New Jersey investment group that owns the 976-unit Williamsburg Apartment complex. Mayor Aftab Pureval says the city takes the poor conditions and code violations it found at the complex seriously — and will come after other large investment companies that aren't treating residents right at their local rental properties.

The lawsuit comes after residents there went without heat and suffered flooding from burst pipes over Christmas. An earlier event around Thanksgiving involving a water main break also left some residents of the complex without water.

But officials and residents say those are just the latest examples of neglect and terrible conditions on the property.

Williamsburg Apartments resident Rhonda Berry-Dear
Nick Swartsell
Williamsburg Apartments resident Rhonda Berry-Dear

Rhonda Berry-Dear has lived at Williamsburg since 2020 and also lived there previously until 2013. She says the sewage leaks, flooding and furnace issues she and other residents have experienced aren't recent developments.

"We have been suffering with low, substandard housing for 10 to 15 years," she says. "The water main break during Thanksgiving wasn't new. Christmas wasn't new."

Pureval says the conditions at Williamsburg are part of a larger dynamic as real estate investment companies swallow up more and more apartment buildings and single family homes.

"Williamsburg Apartments should have been accountable to tenants and they simply have not been," he said during the lawsuit announcement Tuesday. "But this is an also-unacceptable pattern throughout Cincinnati. Institutional investors, many times from outside the city, buy properties, buy homes, only to neglect and prey on the most vulnerable in our city."

Pureval said in addition to the lawsuit, a recently created code compliance task force could help other Cincinnatians living in substandard conditions.

Cincinnati City Manager Sheryl Long says the city has been aware of conditions at Williamsburg for months and has pursued other resolutions to the problem. But she says lack of compliance by the owners of the property has left the city with little other choice than to sue.

"We never set out with litigation as an end goal," she said. "It is always our best goal to work collaboratively with our community. But it is now necessary to address the growing list of code violations and legitimate concerns of our residents."

The city has sued large, out of state property owners before. One of the most high-profile examples occurred when the city challenged the owners of the Alms Apartments in Walnut Hills in court and eventually had the building placed in a court-ordered receivership.

Williamsburg resident Berry-Dear says people living in the sprawling complex have banded together and are working with attorneys to address their individual concerns. She says residents in the city need to be aware of the terrible conditions many of their neighbors are forced to live with.

"If you love this city, stand up," she said.

Nick has reported from a nuclear waste facility in the deserts of New Mexico, the White House press pool, a canoe on the Mill Creek, and even his desk one time.