Duplex residents consider lawsuit

Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer October 09, 2012 09:55 pm

A civil lawsuit is pending and renters are moving out of their Brookings homes they allege haven’t been taken care of by their out-of-town landlord.

Bill Braden, a resident at one of the units near First Street and Ransom Avenue in Brookings, said he and 10 other tenants in property owned by Earl Upton of Rogue River are willing to file a civil suit to get the units fixed.

“We just want this known, we want this fixed,” he said. “When he is court-ordered to repair this place – that’s what it’s all about.”

 

He also plans to ask in his suit that Upton pay $1,500 to any tenant who has had to move or wants to move because of conditions there.

For most, it’s too late. They’ve been given eviction notices or can’t deal with the problems there anymore. But they fear the owner will merely turn around and re-rent the properties to other unsuspecting people.

Many of the homes, mostly low-income duplexes at the north end of Brookings, have structural, drainage and mold problems – some so severe, tenants have expressed worry about their health.

But it’s proven to be a daunting endeavor, as they have little money with which to relocate, and the city can’t do much about the problems there, short of condemning the property, which no one wants done.

“It’s ridiculous,” said one of the tenants, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. She was served a 24-hour eviction notice last week. “Hopefully, we’ll have found another place, but I’m not going to be thrown out on the street with my child. I stress about it every day. I didn’t do anything except to expect to live in a nice, stable home. And it’s been nothing but stressful.”

Her unit’s carpet is wet to the touch and has no ventilation. When she moved in, there was no glass in the bathroom window frame; it now boasts glass, but cannot be opened.

Upton said he is hiring inspectors to evaluate the foundation at one unit where half the duplex foundation is slipping away. But there are other issues, including a roof that needs to be replaced, redesigning drainage away from homes, repair of electrical outlets and pipes – and the mold growing in some units. 

One unit, occupied by Drew and Monique Kelley, is of particular note.

“I walked in the house and smelled the mold and was, ‘Oh, my goodness,’” said Andrew Meyer, a certified mold inspector with Palm Cleaning. “It was growing everywhere: on the refrigerator, the clothes in their closet, the cabinets.”

Meyer offered to conduct a free inspection of the Kelley’s unit, but Upton kicked him off the property, telling Monique Kelley that if she hired a mold inspector, she would not get her security deposit back.

The Kelleys are moving anyway; they have a two-month-old infant and fear for his health.

Not all mold is bad, however, Meyer said. The toxic one most feared is a black mold, S. chartarum, that can cause severe respiratory problems. And it’s hard to identify, as other innocuous molds are also black in color.

To determine the type of mold, Meyer needs to collect an air sample to determine the concentration of spores.

“It doesn’t even have to be black mold,” Meyer said. “Any mold in excess is bad for the body. If you can see it on the outside, what you can’t see is what you worry about. This is not normal mold growth.”

He said he noticed water in the light fixture above the Kelley’s bed where water either “exploded” from a pipe or was accidentally “spilled” in the bathroom – depending on who’s talking – from the unit upstairs. Meyer suspects mold will grow in the ceiling, as well.

“What I see is a landlord who has no ethics,” he said. “He’s not here to support Brookings; he’s here to support his wallet. The test is, ‘If this was your place, would you live here?’ There needs to be accountability. I call these people slumlords.”

Upton said he’d told tenants prior to their moving in that the units were old and needed ventilation. Mold lives best in warm, moist conditions – exactly what the Kelleys have as they try to keep their unit warm for their baby while living in a downstairs unit that backs against a dirt hill outside.

“He’s being ridiculous to say just open up the windows,” Meyer said of Upton’s suggestion. “What about in the winter? That’s not fixing the problem. He needs to keep it a safe environment for his tenants. That’s their responsibility.”

Meyer called Upton to see if he was interested in free mold testing, and further noted that having a third party conduct the work would reflect well on him; Upton turned down the offer.

Brookings City Councilman Brent Hodges – also a contractor – spent two hours at the site Monday to see the situation firsthand.

“From a contractor’s standpoint, if I’d done that building, I’d be in deep trouble,” he said. “It’s got mold growing on everything. It’s on their blankets, in their closets. And that property has problems with drainage, the roofs, settling – there’s probably lead paint in the walls.”

The city, however, has no jurisdiction over such situations.

“It’s not that we’re not concerned,” he said. “It’s just there’s not a lot we can do. We could red-tag it, and kick everyone out. … There’s someplace to go (for help), and I don’t know where it is.”

He imagines the situation will get worse before it gets better.

Some of the tenants said they were given papers to sign that indicated that if they moved out, they would leave the buildings in clean condition.

“They said they’d drop the (eviction process) if we moved out by the weekend and left it clean,” Baker said. “The place wasn’t clean when I moved in. I’m not going to be held liable for something that hasn’t been done in 10 years.”

“There’s easily a solution,” Meyer said. “Clean the items, give them their money, and while it’s empty, put in new windows, cut back the dirt that’s against the house and build a retaining wall. It could have been a win-win situation. That amount of mold is too much. And it’s the principle you’re dealing with. He would never live in that type of unit.”

Upton maintains that some tenants there are partiers and slobs.

Hodges said that’s not how he perceived them.

“In a lot of cases I can see that,” he said. “But in this case, it’s a slumlord.”

In the meantime, Braden is pursuing the lawsuit, as his friends and neighbors pack and move away.

“All we can do is move, and that’s horrible,” the unidentified woman said. “And all they will do is continue to do what they’re doing to other people, and that’s sad. It’s the same recurring cycle.”

“I told them (the Kelleys) the best thing for them is to free yourselves from the burden of the whole situation,” Meyer said. “When a community speaks loud enough, you can always make change. There is power in peer pressure.”