Brookings tenants, landlord at odds over state of homes
Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer   
September 28, 2012 09:21 pm

Brookings resident Beverly Baker is worried about being evicted from her duplex. The Pilot/Jane Stebbins
 

Monique and Drew Kelley’s duplex in Brookings smells dank – no surprise to anyone who takes a look around the two-bedroom unit.

Mold coats the window drainage tracks in the bedrooms. It freckles every item of clothing. It’s on the exterior of the refrigerator doors – despite every-other-day bleach cleanings – and in their cabinets. Their dishes. Their furniture. The carpet is so moist, one must wear shoes. Water drips down the single-pane windows in every room.

When water “exploded” onto their bed in the middle of the night from the unit upstairs, they were forced to abandon the bedroom to the living room couch where they now sleep – with their 2-month-old infant Camden.

 

Their landlord, Earl Upton of Rogue River, hasn’t done anything to alleviate the problems, they said.

He says otherwise.

“I sent my property manager and they cleaned up the problem,” Upton said. “It was just a dripping sink. He wanted me to buy him a new bed; that’s not appropriate. He said it smelled like feces. All I can tell you is what I was told: it was just a dripping sink. It has nothing to do with leaking refuse.”

Landlord-tenant disputes are common, but the Kelleys aren’t the only ones complaining.

The tenants – at least 15 of them – held a protest Thursday in front of their properties, where signs posted read, “Unfair Evictions,” “Housing Authority: Help Us!” “We Want City/County Inspections.”

Shane Jensen lives across the street in a duplex Upton owns. The land under the adjacent unit is sinking, making it impossible for his neighbors to shut their garage door and causing the roof to sag.

Jensen can’t completely open a door in his kitchen. A light fixture fell out of the ceiling. The bathtub is sinking, pulling away from the wall.

A fan in his bathroom and a refrigerator were replaced when they died. And a kitchen faucet leak was fixed promptly.

“They have done more replacement stuff for me,” he said. “But I think it’s because I’m on HUD, and HUD is a stickler.”

Upton has contacted an engineering firm to determine how to best fix the foundation; the engineer has been unable to conduct a full evaluation because he can’t get in the garage for all the trash collected in it.

That tenant, like most of the others, has been given an eviction notice for late rent  – in one case, six months late – trash scattered throughout the properties and frequent police calls to the residence.

Some tenants complain of rats, and Upton noted that the vermin is drawn to the unit by improperly disposed-of trash.

Mold issues

The mold – prevalent in most of the units – is what has tenants bothered the most.

“The mold is because they don’t open any windows,” Upton said. “When they (Kelleys) moved in, I explained to them: It’s an old apartment; you need to open it up and circulate the air. I said, ‘You may not be happy here,’ and they said, ‘No, no, we’re very happy to be here.’”

“I am making every effort there is to relieve their mold problem,” Upton continued. “I have replaced most of the sheetrock, I’ve sealed the walls, I’ve put in new insulation. … The mold is killer. If you don’t keep it dry in there – and they’re below ground – mold will grow. You can’t just stop cleaning, or it’ll come back.”

He’s working on other issues, mostly related to the age of the homes.

“I would like to clean this place up, make it clean, livable, a place people want to live in,” Upton said. “Not people with drug problems who just want to lay around and cause problems.”

Other units in the neighborhood owned by Upton have drainage issues. One has a tarp covering the worn shingles on the roof. A retaining wall is crumbling. Water pours from Ransom Avenue and uphill units and then pools beneath other houses, despite ditches dug to drain the water away.

The 15 residences – some are duplexes, two are homes – have about 25 renters who pay between $500 and $625 a month rent. Security deposits average $500, and variations are due to differing subsidies, the tenants said.

April Johnson, on First Avenue, has a crack in her porcelain sink she worries could cut her 2-year-old daughter, Lilly. Electrical outlets won’t hold plugs tightly; she has two working outlets in her unit. And the toilet leaks.

She said that although she has the money, she plans to submit a list of items that need to be fixed in lieu of her rent check. She’s also looking for a new place to live.

Upton said he’s been working with an engineering firm and the city’s building inspector, LauraLee Snook.

“I just want to live in peace,” Johnson said. “I just want to pay the rent and have the place fixed up and usable for my children. It’s not fair.”

She’s lived there three years.

“We’re stuck between a rock and a hard spot,” Monique said. “We’re horrified. We really thought he’d (Upton) help us with the situation.”

Upton did provide the couple with a hotel room for two days, but nothing had been repaired upon their return home, she added.

“If it were just me and her ...” Drew said, bouncing a smiling Camden on his arm. “If he gets sick, I’m going to freak out.”

Monique is on maternity leave; Drew just started a new job. They, and the others interviewed, said they could not afford to move elsewhere.

“And I have given them the opportunity to move,” Upton said of the Kelleys, noting that he even said they could take their last month’s rent money to find another place. “It’s whatever they wish to do.”

Upton’s complaint list is as long as his tenants’.

“They’ve got dogs in the street, cars parked there illegally, other people are living there who don’t belong there,” he said. “The cops are called up there all the time. They don’t have the money to pay rent, but they buy dope and have dope parties, half come walking down street barefoot, drunk, spinning.

“One tenant told my property manager, ‘We don’t have to move; you can’t make me move; we’re running this block, we have squatters right, we’ll stay here as long as we want to.’ I went over the next day and spoke to them, and he said he’d take me down. I left.”

Brookings Police Det. Donny Dotson said officers have made calls there, although no more than to other similar housing complexes in the city.

Sgt. Kelby McCrae agreed, with the exception of one residence, to which they have responded 13 times this year for verbal disputes, animal complaints, theft, burglary, menacing and a probation violation.

“I can’t say that would be a fair representation of the other units,” McCrae said.

Looking elsewhere

The tenants have looked for solutions elsewhere, they said, including the city, Legal Aid, the Oregon Housing Authority, Community Alliance of Tenants and the county health department.

Snook often refers people to the Community Alliance of Tenants, a tenant-rights organization. Messages to that agency were not returned, and a recording says priority return calls are made to paying members of the organization.

The law stands behind them – sort of.

The stumbling block is that only houses built after the city established its building code must abide by it. It was established in 1976, and Upton Weaver’s units were built in the 1940s and 1950s.

“New development has to meet the rules; old development does not,” Snook said. “Do they have to comply? Probably not. They were probably all built before the building codes (were enacted). It’s hard to say what they have to have. Unfortunately, I’m not the person who can enforce that.”

Her job description limits her to compliance with building codes and demanding repair or vacation of the property if the situation is life-threatening.

Snook said she first heard of the problem Sept. 20 – and that call came from a neighbor concerned about the duplex unit whose foundation is sinking.

The city doesn’t get involved with mold cases, Snook said. It has no way to test it, and when she receives complaints, she recommends tenants have it inspected.

“I’m only able to enforce the building code. Period,” Snook said. “If there’s a danger, then we’d look at doing a condemnation. But that’s not what people really want. What they want, is to have it fixed.”

Snook would like to see the issues addressed as well, because a red-tagged neighborhood brings down the property value of those around it.

“We’re very cautious when you move to that degree,” she said. “You could end up with tenant on the streets, then a vacant, boarded-up home in town. So far this owner is appearing cooperative. I’m hoping there’s follow-through.”

Rainy, damp, moist,
humid Oregon

The tenants in these units might be on the more extreme end of such problems in a city whose climate makes mold endemic.

“The problem here, we have such a damp climate, it brings its own set of issues,” Snook said. “Even when it’s not raining, we have the coastal influence, moisture in the air,” Snook said. “It’s a never-ending battle of the wet climate. And if it’s cold out, you don’t want to open doors and windows. And a lot of people can’t afford to keep the heat cranked up, and it leads to an ongoing, damp, moist, bad environment.”

Beverly Baker, a tenant who moved into a unit without a refrigerator or glass in the bathroom window, no ventilation and with chipping, 10-year-old paint, has also looked for help.

“They know they’re renting to low-income people, Baker said. “They know they can get away with it. We pay high rent and get no repairs.”

None of those interviewed said they wanted to leave.

“How am I supposed to come up with $1,000 – or more – to move?” Baker said. “We don’t really have a choice (but to stay).”

“I don’t know,” Snook said, when asked what the families could do. “There aren’t the resources. These kind of units get the low-income, elderly people, people with young kids – the least equipped to try and help themselves. They feel victimized and helpless.”

They could always take the landlord to court.

“But then you’re back to, ‘Well, I don’t have the money to take the landlord to court,’” Snook said. “We’re not equipped to deal with legal issues. It’s an unfortunate thing, and you hate to see it happen. The last thing you want is to put people out on the street when you’re trying to make things better for them.”

Upton agreed.

“Other tenants have been there for years,” he said. “They’ve never had a problem.”