- Walter Novak
- When Lily Belvy-Holt (left) and Brenda Adrine couldn't find out where their condo fees were going, they launched a jihad.
Lily Belvy-Holt is a welcoming kind of lady. Potted magenta flowers overflow her back stoop, and a plaque in her entryway reads "God Bless Our Home." Her voice holds the honeyed cheer of the 1950s. She greets guests with such overpowering warmth that one half-expects to find a tray of milk and cookies waiting in the kitchen.
Left to her own devices, she seems content to spend her afternoons listening to new age meditation music and tidying a condo crowded with photographs. But today she means business.
She pulls out a small canvas bag that appears to have lost its knitting. Inside is a pile of xeroxed pages, the blueprint for her jihad. Belvy-Holt, it turns out, is at war.
It all began three decades ago, when she moved to her Warrensville Heights condo as a newlywed. The complex boasted a clubhouse and swimming pools, with plenty of grass for the kids to play on and freeway access just a few blocks away.
It seemed a good place to start a family. Until the drug dealers arrived. By the early '90s, Belvy-Holt's Movin' On Up utopia had become New Jack City. The gangs were so bad, she couldn't walk outside at night.
The arrival of new management in 1999 seemed a blessing. Mark Hanslik and John MacDonald bought nearly half the complex's 374 units, rechristened the place Miles Landing, and pledged to resurrect its former glory. They kicked out the subsidized renters, renovated dozens of condos, added security gates, and hired off-duty police as security.
Ever the good neighbor, Belvy-Holt was eager to help. The onetime president of a communications workers' local had recently retired, and she agreed to become treasurer for the new condo association. Hanslik and MacDonald were happy to have her.
That is, until she asked to see the books. "That went over like a fart in church," Belvy-Holt recalls.
The new owners were not eager to have their finances examined. Even their accountant was kept in the dark. And since they owned the most units, they controlled the condo board, which meant that their word was law. They could charge maintenance fees of up to $110 a month without explaining where the money went.
Belvy-Holt and her neighbors believed that much of that money was disappearing into the pockets of Hanslik, MacDonald, and their business cronies. "They just can't explain to me why they're paying these people," says condo owner Brenda Adrine. And that's how the war began.
Neighbors went door-to-door, handing out fliers and urging revolt. Many of them stopped paying their fees. Twenty-five decided to sue.
They alleged that the new condo association had failed to account for its spending, didn't notify residents of meetings, violated its own rules, and was funneling money to Hanslik, MacDonald, and their company, JM Capital. They wrote to the FBI, the state attorney general, and Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs-Jones. They even got the county prosecutor's office to investigate.
But the fight hasn't been going well. In May, Judge Nancy Russo ruled against them. Then, in July, Assistant County Prosecutor James Gutierrez decided not to press criminal charges. "In this case, there was not any evidence of any criminal wrongdoing," he says.
Still, Hanslik was enraged by the charges, insisting that everything had been aboveboard all along. The investigation proved that there were explanations for the checks written to him and his partner, he says, and that the money was simply reimbursement for improvements they made. Truth be told, there was never enough money to line anyone's pocket. "This was on a shoestring budget," Hanslik says. "We had no money at all."
Thanks to a court order, he eventually produced the paperwork to back up his claims. But distrust remains. Residents contend that the numbers still don't add up. And since their condo fees helped pay for the lawyer who battled them in court, they see little reason to drop their skepticism.
Hanslik says that he spent more than $15,000 in legal fees to fight the county's investigation. Now he's trying mightily to get rid of troublemakers. Miles Landing has filed more than two dozen foreclosure cases against residents who are behind on their maintenance fees. Residents fear that they are being kicked out of their homes so that Hanslik and MacDonald can turn a quick profit reselling their condos.
Today, the collateral damage of the war is visible in the two-story, barracks-style brick buildings, which seem more housing project than condominium chic. The arms of the security gate are permanently raised in a V of defeat. Gutters sprout tangled gardens of weeds. The complex's private roads are pockmarked and bumpy. Grass on one side of the street is neatly trimmed, while the other sports a shaggy five o'clock shadow.
"We're on life-support," admits Hanslik, who says that residents are $732,000 in arrears on their fees. "We are just trying to keep up the property the best we can, with the money that we have."
But in light of the bleak landscape and tight-fisted secrecy, residents don't see much incentive to pay up.
"I don't mind paying maintenance fees," says Adrine. "I'm not gonna give you my money."