In darkness, the elderly apartment dwellers nervously wandered down the stairwell's 17 steps, bumping into walls, clutching at air, not quite sure where their journey would lead.

"Why weren't the auxiliary lights working during the power outage, and why wasn't anyone around to help us?" Melba Hobbs, 83, asked recently from her apartment at Mill Pond Gables, an independent senior-living complex in Champlin.

Problems between anxious tenants and the north metro suburb, which owns the 14-year-old building, stretch beyond a renters' petition. Among the concerns: an old handbook that asks seniors to "periodically" move stoves and refrigerators while cleaning to claims that the management company has not properly maintained the 48-unit building.

The tension in Champlin is representative of a national dilemma in which seniors' needs are changing faster than they can be met.

"We built a building in 1997 that had young seniors move into it," said John Cox, Champlin's deputy city administrator. "Fourteen years later, the needs of that population have changed."

Countered Hobbs: "I've gone from a horse and buggy to watching the last shuttle go off. I know things are going to change. But it's hard when people are afraid to deal with an administrator who has a way of getting even."

Rents remained stable

For tenants like Hobbs, who has lived at Mill Pond Gables for 14 years and loves the building and location, the biggest change came two years ago, when the city hired a new building manager to reduce costs. The switch allowed Champlin to avoid raising rents for three years, despite failures to break even on building expenses.

But tenants have a number of complaints about CommonBond Communities, a St. Paul-based nonprofit provider of affordable housing that now manages the property.

Marcy Johnson, 85, said she cleaned the building's parlor herself just before Easter after growing tired of waiting for staff to do it.

"I'm tired of washing windows, pulling weeds and picking up bags of leaves, too," she said.

Hobbs said carpets have not been cleaned in years. After writing the word "dust" on a dirty banister, she waited more than a week before it was removed. A fire alarm sounded for about an hour before it was silenced and there are problems with the washers and dryers.

Building supervisor Shelly Bakken said that not one of the tenants has complained to her. Cox blamed the alarm problem on a firefighter who insisted on going to the wrong control panel to shut it off.

"Seniors have a lot of time on their hands," said Bakken, who has been managing apartment buildings for 20 years. "Some focus on the negative. But most of our seniors are very happy."

Sound the alarm

One tenant was chastised by an administrator for leaving her apartment to comfort another tenant when the fire alarm sounded, according to Hobbs and Johnson. Others tenants noted that emergency pull cords are in bedrooms and bathrooms, but management has said not to use them.

"I'm sure dealing with old people is no picnic," Johnson said. "You don't have to agree with them, but at least listen to them."

Five tenants said that Bakken confronted a 90-year-old tenant and shoved a complaint letter into the woman's face. Bakken said she did no such thing.

"I sat down with one of the ladies that signed the petition, to discuss and explain," Bakken said. "I did not stick it in her face."

Bakken said she was not in Champlin the day of the June power outage, but she believes one of the two auxiliary lights in the stairwell was still working that day. She said it's "understood" that refrigerators and ovens are to be moved for cleaning only when a tenant is vacating an apartment, not during regular cleaning. Moreover, the handbook has been updated by tenants to take out the offending language. And Bakken said that calling 911 is more effective than pulling an emergency cord.

Deb Sakry Lande, a spokesperson for CommonBond, also disputed the physical condition of the property, noting that the common areas are cleaned four times a week. Landry said tenant surveys show that the majority of residents "believe the building is well cared for."

'Two sides to every story'

Janet Golden, executive director of the Elder Care and Rights Center in Maplewood, said she was unfamiliar with concerns at Miller Pond Gables. She called CommonBond "a substantial organization." However, Golden was concerned by the number of complaints. "Maybe what management needs is a kick in the butt," she said.

Doug Solem, executive director of, an online resource for seniors, said a solution between unhappy tenants and the city could be as simple as showing respect for elders.

"Absolutely dumbfounding," Solem said. "There obviously are two sides to every story, but you give the seniors the courtesy of taking their laundry list of complaints seriously."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419