Over the past year, conditions at the Mint Urban Infinity apartment complex at 1261 South Bellaire Street have become untenable, according to 204 tenants who signed a petition demanding decent living conditions that was submitted to Cardinal Group Management, property manager of the complex, this summer.
The tenants cite numerous problems at the 561-unit complex. From July 6 through July 15, for example, the hot water went out in building nine. The air conditioning has been unpredictable at best, nonexistent at worst in several buildings throughout the summer. There are persistent pest and security issues, and the elevators break down frequently. Maintenance requests are usually ignored, and work orders are checked off before the problem is fixed adequately, tenants say.
After Mint residents took their concerns to the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, the DDPHE sent several notices of violations to the complex's owner last month.
But tenants are worried that the notices don't go far enough, and as a last resort are ready to pursue legal action through a potential class-action lawsuit. In Colorado, renters don't have a lot of other options when they have issues with their landlords.
Jason Legg, who's with Cadiz Law in Glendale and works in partnership with the organization 9to5 Colorado, says he's considering filing a case against both Mint Urban Infinity and Cardinal Group Management. “Based on what I know and have seen so far, I think there are likely grounds in which to file a case, and I’m very interested in investigating that further and am prepared to do so," explains Legg. Certain provisions of the lease are problematic, he adds, and "the duration of some of these issues is very concerning."
Cardinal Group Companies, which operates Cardinal Group Management, is a real estate developer that manages dozens of properties across the country, most of them operating student, affordable and multi-unit family housing.
“When I toured the place with my father before moving in, they showed me a completely different unit,” says former tenant Cassandra McDade. After signing her lease, she discovered that her unit was in another building and had cracks and a leak. She later learned that a portion of the exterior brick wall was separating from the ceiling, allowing insects and pests inside. But it wasn’t until she felt trembles and heard creaks that she contacted the DDPHE.
The department sent an investigator and a structural engineer to inspect McDade’s unit, and issued a notice of violation to Mint Urban Infinity on August 13. It cited several problems, among them the unsound condition of McDade’s roof and a cracking interior wall adjacent to the fireplace. It also noted sanitary violations throughout the building.
The notice ordered repairs within ten days of the notice, but by the time McDade moved out on August 31, they were still incomplete. “Maintenance would come by and inspect the ceiling and roof, but nothing was actively done,” she reports. Maintenance did provide her with two buckets for the leaks, she adds.
“The property management company has corrected several violations noted in the notice," says Tammy Vigil of the DDPHE. "However, some are still outstanding. We have not placarded any units at this time due to uninhabitable living conditions.”
But McDade felt that she couldn't live there any longer. In order to terminate her lease early, Mint Urban Infinity asked her to sign a non-disclosure agreement. She refused, and after some hassle was finally allowed to leave. “It’s been really tough on my mental health," she notes. "I feel stressed out having to deal with all of this.”
Nathan Navratil, a tenant in building three who ended his lease early and recently moved out, says that he and his sister also were shown a unit different than the one in which they wound up. They noticed red flags immediately.
For starters, his sister suffered several bug bites. “She couldn't exist in her room comfortably,” says Navratil. The heat made things worse, he adds: “Going without AC in the summer months, it was just miserable living here.”
When he complained about an issue — whether it was the AC or the elevator — Navratil was told that it was the vendor's fault, that management couldn't do much. "It seems like every vendor has a problem," he says. "So the question is, ‘Why are they pairing with bad vendors?'”
Other tenants offer a litany of complaints. A pregnant woman in building nine had minor flooding after a pipe broke; she notified the leasing office and expressed concern that her ten-month-old baby was being affected by unsanitary water.
Briana Simmons, a former tenant of building two, moved out after two and a half years. “When we first moved in, it wasn’t the model unit that they showed us. It wasn’t bad — it was livable, the amenities worked, and we didn't notice any major bug problems,” she recalls, but “once COVID happened, things just really went downhill."
A DDPHE violation notice cites roaches and mold-like substances on an interior wall adjacent to her unit. By the time Simmons moved out, the problem still wasn't fixed. “We feel very fortunate that we were able to leave," she says. "There are people living there that don’t have the ability to do that, so we feel very privileged that we were able to get out.”
She worries about other tenants who still live there, particularly given the problems with the elevator. "There are people on our floor that are disabled who really struggle to get up the stairs,” she says.
Navratil recalls the elevators in his building frequently breaking down, sometimes with people trapped inside.
In fact, according to the Denver Fire Department, there have been 64 elevator rescues or elevator-related fires reported at Mint Urban Infinity since 2018. That doesn't include an incident on September 5 in building nine, when multiple people got stuck in an elevator; the Denver Department of Safety subsequently posted an order requiring the complex to comply with the city’s fire codes on the door.
One disabled tenant had originally planned to move into a unit on the top floor of building eight in order to have access to natural light — but the leasing office couldn’t guarantee that the elevators would be operating consistently. Instead, she wound up on the third floor of building nine, where the elevators also have problems, and she frequently has to take the stairs, which can be difficult for her.
And there are other obstacles. “No one seems to care that there is only one handicap parking spot in the entire building, and it’s in front of the door with stairs,” she says.
Fed up with a lack of accountability, Brandon Smith, a tenant in building nine, organized the petition drive and is now working with Legg on a class-action lawsuit against Cardinal Management Group; he'll be the lead plaintiff. Although management has responded more promptly to complaints since the situation got attention from the DDPHE and the press, he doesn't believe it will continue.
“I think they’re only making these changes because I got the DDPHE involved,” says Smith. “By all means, I think they’ll continue to sweep this under the rug for as long as they can.”
The City of Denver enforces residential housing regulations that are meant to protect renters by ensuring residential units meet minimum housing, safety and construction standards. But aside from contacting the DDPHE with complaints — and persuading the department to investigate — tenants living in what they believe are unsafe conditions have few places to go.
Disabled tenants can file an accessibility complaint with the Denver Division of Disability Rights, and rental assistance programs can assist tenants facing eviction or struggling financially. Nonprofits like the Denver Metro Fair Housing Center, 9to5 Colorado and the Colorado Poverty Law Project assist renters with finding financial and legal resources, but they can't keep up with demand. And without legal representation, renters are far outmatched by unresponsive landlords.
"It's always easier if a landlord is willing to be reasonable and responsive to tenant concerns, and one would hope that when there are issues something could be worked out, but sometimes that's not the case," says Jack Regenbogen, senior attorney at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. "Having the assistance of a lawyer would certainly be pivotal."
Denver will offer some remedy when it begins enforcing new landlord licensing requirements that go into effect next January as part of the city's Healthy Residential Rentals for All initiative.
Councilman Paul Kashmann, who represents the south Denver district that includes Mint Urban Infinity, says that he hopes the new requirements give tenants better support from the city government and keep landlords accountable.
"We felt that tenants did not have the support that they deserve," he says. "Everybody has the right to safe and secure housing, and we felt that having a licensing program with inspections baked into it would be one way to ensure that basic tenants' rights are being upheld."
The inspection program is still being designed, but it will include ensuring that appliances are in good working condition and spaces are free of leaks. Landlords will be required to hire third-party inspectors to ensure that their properties align with city guidelines.
In the meantime, though, there's not much more the residents of Mint Urban Infinity can do. “I just wish they would communicate with some sort of compassion to us," says a building nine tenant. "Literally, no one cares."
Neither Cardinal Group Companies nor the leasing office at Mint Urban Infinity responded to multiple requests from Westword for comment.