Michelle Copeland had lived in her apartment at 28 Broad St. for nearly two years when, just before Christmas, her kitchen caught fire.
“I’m in my kitchen washing the dishes and I noticed a burning smell, and there are wires sticking out of the wall—not even a foot away from my gas line to the stove—on fire,” she recalls. “I grabbed the fire extinguisher and immediately called the Fire Department.”
According to a Dec. 13 Fire Department report, the fire was caused by “heat from short circuit (wiring), defective/worn.” After inspecting the property, the city Fire Marshal’s Office fined property owner Renee Lantzius $500 because the hallway smoke detectors didn’t work.
In an internal staff e-mail, Deputy Fire Marshal Patrick Sullivan noted “a large number of code violations such as no working smoke detectors inside the apt. that had fire. There was a smoke detector in the common area that was covered up with a plastic bag. There was also an entire stairwell that was blocked off.”
Copeland has since moved into a friend’s home and hired a lawyer to try to settle matters.
The fire was the most serious of what she says was a long series of problems. Lantzius owns six properties in Asheville—on Broadway Street and Tingle Alley as well as Broad Street—according to Buncombe County tax records. The city’s file on 28 Broad St. documents multiple complaints about the property, and several inspections since 2003 have found problems involving rodents, electrical and plumbing violations.
“First I had mice, so they gave me a mousetrap—that was their solution, which is funny because I’ve got a cat,” notes Copeland. Looking around to see where the mice might be coming from, she says she found a 2-foot-tall hole behind her sink.
“I notified [the landlady] of that. They took their time and put a board over it—that was their solution for that,” she reports. “Then, in August, my toilet broke and the sink stopped working. They did fix that, but it took about a week. After that I got a new toilet, but my sink didn’t work.”
And when Copeland reported the problems, she asserts, the reaction from Lantzius and her property manager was often defensive or outright hostile. “When things went wrong or broke, it was always my fault,” charges Copeland. “After the sink broke, they started asking me what I’d put down it, accusing me of shoving something there. Eventually, they did come—again—and finally fix it, after accusing me of breaking it.”
Copeland said she’d seen open wires in the basement before, where the communal washer and dryer had been removed after they broke. “They just ripped them out of the wall—they didn’t replace them,” she says, displaying photos she took during her time there.
Five days after the fire, the city sent out a building-safety inspector to check on Copeland’s complaints. The inspector found “minor electrical violations, ungrounded refrigerator and an unsafe outlet at the side of the refrigerator. Missing covers in the fuse box, light switch in the bathroom is not approved for wet area.” The inspector also noted that the stairs outside the apartment were “rotting, strong smell of gas in the basement should be checked.”
Lantzius did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
Ashlee McDowell, who lived in another apartment at the same address for a year-and-a-half, reports a similar litany of problems.
“My sink in the kitchen clogged up, and I went without for two or three weeks,” she says. “After they repaired it, there were rats coming in through a hole left behind my sink. I kept calling about that; there was no response. I had to put down sticky paper and deal with the rats myself.”
But it was water problems that eventually resulted in her losing the apartment. “One morning I woke up and the floor was really wet,” says McDowell. “It was coming down from the ceiling. I called them up and told them what was happening, and they accused me of squandering water.”
In a later e-mail exchange produced by McDowell, Lantzius wrote: “If you do any damage to the apartment or to the building, or if you squander any water, I will file a complaint with the Asheville Police Department.” In response, McDowell informed Lantzius that she felt she had to move out before her lease was up because of the water problem.
McDowell also complained to the city, which sent an inspector on June 19, 2007. “It is obvious there is a leak in the ceiling,” the file notes. The file continues: “It seems [Lantzius] is placing the blame on Ashley (sic), therefore is not willing to fix the problem. I will send a letter notifying her that as the owner of the building, she is responsible for necessary repairs.”
But after three weeks, during which McDowell says that no repairs were made, she left the apartment. Evicted, McDowell has since been sued by Lantzius for unpaid rent.
The city inspected McDowell’s apartment again in January 2008 and found the condition “OK,” though the inspector noted that some minor repairs were needed. During the time that Copeland lived at 28 Broad St., the rent rose from $450 to $635 a month, copies of her leases show. McDowell, meanwhile, says her rent climbed from $485 to $565.
“They always said they were increasing the rent due to repairs, and they never repaired anything,” Copeland asserts. Documents produced by Copeland show that Lantzius attributed the rent increases to rising property taxes and storm-water fees levied by the city.
Complaints have been filed
The city’s file on 28 Broad St. shows that Copeland and McDowell were far from the first to complain about the state of the property or to have trouble getting repairs made.
On March 28, 2003, tenant Stephanie Worley complained of rats “in apartment, kitchen cabinets and walls. Problem started in December/ last contact yesterday—maintenance has responded poorly if at all.” On April 1 of that year, an inspector met with the property manager and said they needed to hire an exterminator, clean the basement and deal with standing water, the file shows. Two of the building’s apartments were not found to be habitable and have since been closed, documents show. Later that month, the city issued a permit for renovations.
In February 2005, the city received complaints from a tenant in the unit above the one McDowell would later rent. An e-mail to Lantzius, Code Enforcement Officer Bruce Fields wrote, “The inspection revealed numerous Minimum Housing Code violations that MUST be corrected.” Those violations included a lack of grounded outlets for the refrigerator and bathroom, a nonworking smoke detector, leaks in the ceiling, a loose toilet—and the leakage into the apartment below. On March 14, 2005, however, the city’s files show that the complaint “has been corrected and closed.”
The most recent activity concerning the site indicates that on Dec. 21, 2007, the city issued a permit for electrical repairs. On Dec. 31, Copeland advised the city that an electrician had been working there, according to the file. Lantzius responded to the city on Dec. 27 and scheduled an inspection for early January of this year. During the Jan. 3 inspection, Lantzius “said she would have [the stairs] repaired ASAP.” A visit in late January found that no repairs had been made to the rotted stairs. City inspectors called Lantzius again on Feb. 22 and left a message for her to call them back about the stairs, the documents show.
After the fire, Copeland recalls, the property manager told her that they wanted to relocate her. “I said that was fine. January approaches, my rent is coming up, I haven’t paid it because I’m not sure what’s happening—and they wouldn’t return my calls.”
Worried that she’d be evicted and then blamed for the problems, Copeland says she tried to get help. But the city, she maintains, said the only thing they could do was add her complaint to the file on that particular address. According to the city’s documents, they also advised her to hire a lawyer.
“More time went by—that’s when I got an attorney—and I found out they were about to serve me with an eviction notice,” she remembers. Copeland says she’s still trying to get things straightened out and will probably end up accepting a deal in which she’ll forfeit her security deposit.
As for the city’s complaint process, Copeland maintains that it was no help at all.
She also believes that the condition of the building endangered tenants’ safety. “Not only that, but I had to pay money out of my pocket. Not only that, but if I’d waited any longer than I had, they could have said I damaged that apartment and I would have to fork over thousands of dollars to repair it.
“No judge listens to anyone that has an eviction notice,” Copeland asserts. “I’ve been a good tenant—I even put a fire out—and here I am losing my money, losing my home right before Christmas. Yeah, somehow that doesn’t seem right.”
Shelley Brown, an attorney at Pisgah Legal Services who deals with housing cases, says Copeland’s fears were not unfounded—and she was right to hire an attorney. “Landlords are educated, experienced businesspeople, while tenants are often uninformed laypeople,” notes Brown. “From a legal standpoint there are protections [for a tenant], but from a practical side it’s hard to use them without representation—an attorney who can present evidence and tell their side of the story. I see it happen every day: Unprepared tenants get completely railroaded.”
McDowell, meanwhile, is even more blunt, saying, “I don’t think making a complaint [to the city] did anything at all.”
Every city has its housing horror stories. But the peculiar nature of the local housing market and the lack of detailed information make it difficult to tell whether Copeland’s is an extreme case or representative of widespread problems.
Asheville City Council member Holly Jones concurs. “To be fair, I don’t know if my worst nightmare is coming true or if it hasn’t played out—we just don’t have the data,” she notes.
What we do know is that local housing costs are high in relation to salaries, and the vacancy rate for rental units is low. Under such conditions, low-income tenants may be hesitant to phone the city to report, say, a mold problem for fear of facing a rent hike or getting kicked out. Then again, the sharply rising property values—and, by extension, rents—seen here in recent years may have prompted local landlords to renovate their rental units, improving the overall quality of the city’s housing stock and resulting in fewer problems across the board.
It’s nearly impossible to know for sure, though, because five years after the city switched to a complaint-based minimum housing code—and despite promises at the time that it would conduct a follow-up study to see whether rents actually went down, as proponents predicted—the city appears to have made no effort to track either rents or the overall condition of its rental housing. Meanwhile, the experience of these and other tenants raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the complaint-driven system.
In 2003, the Asheville City Council voted to rescind mandatory inspections for rental properties. Before that, rental properties had to be inspected every five years; now, however, an existing property may continue to be rented as long as it has a housing certificate issued on or after July 1, 1994.
Under the current system, the city’s involvement begins when a tenant phones in a complaint. “One of the first questions we ask is, have you contacted your landlord?” says Marlene Frisbee of the city’s Building Safety Department. “Have you contacted them in writing? Did they refuse to make repairs?” If the answers to all three questions are yes, says Frisbee, the city will agree to take action. But first, they’ll send someone out to verify the complaint, to avoid getting caught in the middle of a personal dispute between a landlord and a disgruntled tenant. Once a genuine housing problem is confirmed, the city orders the landlord to fix it. “If it’s an immediate problem, like no heat, then we say, ‘You need to have this done in X amount of days,’” Frisbee explains. Timelines are more flexible for less-pressing issues, she adds. The city makes no attempt to regulate rents. And state law prohibits landlords from evicting tenants for lodging complaints about the condition of rental property.
Landlords rarely fined
There are repercussions for uncooperative landlords, but only “a very small percentage” are ever fined, notes Frisbee. “Generally speaking, if we notify the landlords, they’re good about complying,” she says. “It is rare that we’re fining folks.”
But specific information on how many landlords were notified, had fines collected or were required to obtain a new housing certificate in a given year isn’t readily available. “You’d have to go back and really pick through a lot of stuff,” says Frisbee. “We don’t just have it.”
If a landlord already has a housing certificate, refusing to comply with the city’s request would result in an order to apply for a new certificate. This would entail paying for an inspection and any repairs that were required.
Fines kick in if the city discovers that a unit is being rented without the required housing certificate. In such cases, the landlord is fined $250 for the first month, and $150 a month thereafter. But the total fine is capped at $600 per dwelling unit—less than one month’s rent, in many cases.
As an extreme last resort, if a problem constitutes a persistent safety hazard and the landlord still refuses to make repairs, the city will order that the dwelling be vacated, Frisbee explains. But she’s quick to note that this step is rarely taken, saying she can recall only one such instance in seven years on the job. In that case, she notes, the city worked with Mountain Housing Opportunities to find safe, adequate dwellings for the displaced tenants.
Still, the lack of information makes it difficult to tell how well the system’s working. And the data the city does have indicates a sharp jump in complaints since 2003, when Asheville tenants lodged 60 grievances against their landlords, Frisbee reports—the lowest number recorded since 2000. The next year, there were 116 complaints, followed by 95 in 2005, 178 in 2006, and 189 last year.
Tanya Watts, program coordinator for the Affordable Housing Coalition’s Home Base Program, confirms this, saying she’s been getting more calls from tenants in the city who are dealing with substandard housing. According to Frisbee, no data is available on what percentage of complaints result in either ordering landlords to fix the problem or fining them.
And without that data, notes Jones, it’s hard to know what to make of the existing numbers. “In terms of the number of complaints going up, does that mean that there’s more of a problem?” Or, she continues, does it mean that the system is working, since complaints are supposed to be the mechanism for addressing problems?
The decision to switch to a complaint-driven system came in response to pressure from landlords and property owners, who argued that the mandatory inspection process was financially burdensome. At the time, proponents also said the change would help alleviate the city’s affordable-housing shortage, since landlords wouldn’t have to pass on the cost of inspections to their tenants.
But after five years of ballooning property values, affordability is still very much an issue. According to the city’s Web site, “affordable housing” is defined as “housing that working families earning $15,000 to $40,000 a year can rent or buy without using more than a third of their income for housing (mortgage or rent payments plus utility costs).” For a three-bedroom home, about $1,000 (including utilities) was considered the maximum such a family could afford to pay in 2006 (the most recent figures on the Web site). “This is the upper limit,” a blurb on the site notes. “Most households within the target income range can afford considerably less.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, meanwhile, has a stricter standard. “The generally accepted definition of affordability is for a household to pay no more than 30 percent of its annual income on housing” not including utilities, the agency’s Web site states. According to 2006 U.S. Census Bureau data, 44.5 percent of Asheville’s rental units ate up 30 percent or more of renters’ household incomes (including utilities). In other words, a substantial percentage of the city’s rental units were “unaffordable” by HUD standards as of 2006—and rents have only continued to climb since then.
How do you spell “affordable”?
That comes as no surprise to Jones, who spoke out forcefully against moving to a complaint-based system even as her colleagues were preparing to approve the change. “Good news!” Jones exclaimed sarcastically at the time. “Housing prices will drop—through the floor! No more affordable-housing problems at all! Landlords, just tell your tenants that they’re gonna get their rebates.” (See “Asheville City Council,” Aug. 20, 2003, Xpress.)
Asked about the situation now, Jones said: “The whole proposition that removing [mandatory inspections] for health and safety would improve affordable-housing stock was flawed. I’m not at all surprised that affordability has not improved.”
Philippe Rosse, executive director of the Affordable Housing Coalition of Asheville and Buncombe County, didn’t have that job in 2003. “Our agency took a very strong stance before I was here about the minimum housing code,” he notes. “The idea is, there has to be a standard on safety in affordable housing, and it’s a standard we all need to agree upon.”
And safety issues aside, Rosse emphatically maintains that the affordable-housing situation has only grown more critical since 2003. “It’s worse,” he says flatly.
“The affordable-rental issue in our community is at a crisis state. When you have only a 3 percent vacancy rate with most new developments at market value or higher, you’re reaching a time where it’s very, very difficult to find affordable housing. It affects low- and moderate-income families and even those dual-earner familes with stable employment. It’s even worse for those who are trying to be housed through the homeless and social-service programs. I would argue that the No. 1 concern of our community is the need to develop more affordable rentals.”