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Photos by Caleb Motsinger
Lakeya Jones stands in front of her apartment at Belle Manor where she lives with her two children, with one on the way.
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Photo by Caleb Motsinger
The signs on the locked gate leading into the Belle Manor Apartments.
A chain that locks one of the entryways into Belle Manor Apartments in Alton has sparked a debate between two men seemingly determined to do what’s right for the community.
Both have raised the question if a locked gate is the solution to the problems Belle Manor has seen over the years. Either way, there is one way in and one way out of the complex for motor vehicles.
But is this a good thing for the residents of Belle Manor?
Property manager Kent Snyder, based out of Kansas City, said it reduces drive-through traffic and access by drug dealers. But Lee Barham, an Alton Democratic precinct committeeman who lives about a half-mile away on State Street, said the locked gate poses a hazard and will slow responses from emergency vehicles.
Belle Manor has 60 units nestled on a hillside on the outskirts of town.
Lakeya Jones lives at the top of the hill with her two children in the apartment building closest to the locked gate.
Before the gate was sealed, she was able to back out of the four-slot parking lot across the street and pull onto Belle Street within seconds. Now she must drive a quarter mile to the nearest exit.
“I’ve lived here since July of 2012 and most of the people who live here are single mothers and children,” she said. “Don’t fix what isn’t broken; we need some playground equipment for the kids, but we don’t need the gate locked up nowadays. Several years ago, yes, but since I’ve been out here that gate being locked up has only caused problems, not solved them.”
There are four apartments in her building, with only three occupied. Each apartment has three bedrooms, with families residing in each.
Jones said snow accumulates on top of the hill, often making it impossible to get out.
“Snowplows don’t come up here because they can’t,” she said. “This is a steep hill and they can only go up it just to find a locked gate at the top.”
Upon complaining to management, Jones said she was instructed to dig out the snow herself.
But the gate isn’t Jones’ only problem; she cited plumbing and sewage issues over the years that never were taken care of by management. She said when the complex came under private management in September, the gate was immediately locked without consulting residents.
“If it was me taking over these apartments I would have given everyone a notice that we all needed to meet up in one spot and discuss the problems and what needs to be fixed,” Jones said.
A Concerned Citizen
Barham, 50, has lived in Alton all of his life. He said the Belle Manor complex is, and always has been, a total disaster.
He has spoken out several times about the gate being locked up, dating back to 2000 when Ron Bohlen, who had managed the property since 1981, initially put the lock on the gate.
“The local residents are not untamed animals that need to be chained inside their living environment,” Barham said in a March 3 letter to U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart.
Barham’s letter evoked an immediate response and will be addressed during Congress on Your Corner, which provides community members the opportunity to meet, one-on-one, with Enyart to discuss any issue dealing with the federal government.
However, Megan Williams, Alton’s city attorney, said this is a private property issue.
“It is Mr. Snyder’s private property and he has the right to manage it however he wants, as long as it’s in accordance with state and federal law as well as Alton city ordinances,” she said.
Kent Snyder has been the manager of privately owned Belle Manor since Sept. 1, 2013. He is the owner of Premier Property Group of Liberty, Mo., managing five properties.
He said he first met with Barham in September when he had first put the lock back on the gate.
“I’m the right person to handle a property like this because I don’t tolerate people breaking the rules,” he said. “There are laws and rules to follow as a resident, and if you break them, you’re gone.”
Snyder said he needs to move to Alton because he spends more time there than any of his other properties.
“I strongly encourage people to visit this property during the summertime,” he said. “This is a front-porch community and when it’s warm everybody’s out; especially kids. If we keep one of the gates locked up there is less traffic, plain and simple. I know that and the people who operated Belle Manor before me knew that too.”
He said it has been proven time and time again at Belle Manor that if you close a property and make it one way in and one way out you can reduce crime, which is one of many reasons he said it will remain closed.
“When you see this property in the school season when it’s warm it is like a festival; it’s unbelievable,” he said. “When that school bus lets off it’s just like a big party; all the kids are out playing and you couldn’t get a car down that driveway if you wanted to.
“But that’s not a bad thing,” he added.
Snyder said there is no good place for children to play at Belle Manor and he is looking into purchasing playground equipment. However, he said there is really no good location for it.
“It’s a hilly area that they can play in if their surroundings are safe,” he said. “And they can play out in the streets if a lot of cars aren’t coming through.”
Snyder said he when he met with Barham in September, he told Barham he would not only take off the chain but take out the whole gate.
“I want to put up concrete pillars that you can walk and ride your bikes through,” he said.
He also said the issue that the police and the ambulance can’t respond has been handled.
“I have worked with city officials to reroute emergency coordinates for the police and fire departments,” he said. “Instead of showing that the property has two entrances, it will automatically default to the one that’s open.”
According to inspection records on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) website, Belle Manor was last inspected in 2009.
Belle Manor earned a Housing Quality Standards score of 59 out of 100, which means the living conditions of the property are significantly below the average.
A score of 86 or above is considered healthy and safe, however, any property that scores below an 86 should be avoided, the HUD inspection report said.
With multiple reports of drug arrests, traffic citations and residential burglary over the years, Belle Manor has a less-than-stellar reputation, Alton Police Department Capt. Scott Waldrup said.
However, incidents have decreased since Belle Manor has been under new ownership, Waldrup said.
“There have been a lot of problems at Belle Manor over the years but things have settled down,” he said. “But as for the gate being locked, the apartments are on private property and that issue Mr. Barham has is out of our hands.”