Residential Real Estate

SBJ SPECIAL REPORT: What HUD Inspection Report on Westlake Apartments Reveals. And, will Chatham County be sued?

Category: Residential Real Estate

PHOTO:  Black mold growing on the ceiling of an apartment at Westlake Apartments, Savannah, photographed just a few days after Hurricane Matthew. 

Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

Editor’s Note:  Following the flooding at the Westlake Apartments in Savannah due to Hurricane Matthew, and the disclosure of the long-term maintenance issues and living conditions there, Coastal Empire News (CEN) filed an Open Records request with the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to uncover who had been responsible for inspections of the 100 units that were home to as many as 500 residents, and what had been done to rectify problems found?

December 15, 2016 – Hurricane Matthew hit Savannah on the night of October 7. By the next morning, the first floor of the Westlake Apartments complex had flooded, and within days mold was growing in units on multiple floors of the multiple buildings that are the home to 100 families, a large number of children and many elderly.     

When the residents began to receive notices from the property management company to ‘clean up and use bleach,’ on their own o make the units habitable again, they sought help from local officials.  At the top of the list in the first days of the flood was identifying places for residents to live, at least temporarily.  There were people living there still, in their cars, and in makeshift arrangements with family and friends ... if they had any local connections.

Tours of the property by City of Savannah and County Commissioners, as well as local clergy, began to bring attention to what appeared to be long-standing problems of inadequate maintenance, and an absentee owner of a complex insufficiently managed by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Atlanta office. 

While Westlake’s address is ‘Savannah,’ the complex is outside the city limits, in Unincorporated Chatham County.  But because the County has no housing authority, the Section 8-approved complex is managed directly by HUD and its chosen subcontractors.

Congressman Buddy Carter got involved, as did State Rep. Carl Gilliard and State Sen. Lester Jackson, holding conference calls with HUD, and seeking solutions for immediate housing arrangements for the tenants.  But, information on how this complex was going to be rehabbed and managed, long-term was difficult to determine.

The owners, Treetop Development, LLC. in New Jersey, came down to Savannah two weeks after the Hurrican, and attended a public meeting organized by Mayor Eddie DeLoach who had gotten involved initially in the flooding crisis for the residents, not realizing the complex was outside the city limits. 

He brought together the residents, citizen activists working to support them, HUD representatives from Atlanta, Treetop owners, pastors and other elected officials for the purpose of getting immediate housing needs addressed and getting the problems there out on the table.   

Also attending the meeting was a Red Cross representative. The American Red Cross has been operating a shelter for all the residents of Westlake, as well as other displaced Chatham County residents, displaced by Hurricane Matthew.

HUD’s most recent property inspection report supplied to CEN was dated 7/16/2014 from the ‘Real Estate Assessment Center’ of HUD and addressed to the owners of the complex. It included their ‘Physical Inspection Summary Report’ for Westlake Apartments, located at 1900-A Westlake Ave.,, known as a ‘POA.’

It includes a long list of problems found, and states that all problems were to be corrected or mitigated within three business days of receipt of the report.  Further, the owners were required to provide their HUD office a “certification, on your letterhead, that the exigent items have been corrected.’

It states, “If your property is assigned to a Performance Based Contract Administrator (PB-CA), your certification should be sent to the PB-CA and not to the local HUD office.” 

And the cover letter to the owners states, “If there are any special requirements for your property, the local Office of Housing or PB-CA having jurisdiction will contact you.” 

Most importantly, the letter from Samuel Tuffour, Program Manager, Physical Assessment Subsystem, Real Estate Assessment Center, states, “If your property had any EHS deficiencies, and you fail to correct all of these deficiencies within the required timeframe, or falsely certify to repairs made, these noncompliance issues many adversely affect your eligibility for participation in HUD programs.

While CEN asked for information on remediation, none has been received.  A new Open Records request has been filed.

Treetop owns and manages many HUD complexes in the Eastern U.S., including in the New York metro area.

HUD’s physical inspection was conducted on July 16, 2014, from 8:41 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. They received a score of 89b*.  In all, 13 buildings and one common area were inspected, with 21 of 100 apartment units surveyed.  At the time, 98 of the apartments were occupied.  Wendy Messer of PK Management, LLC was listed at the ‘Management Agent.’  The owner of the property was listed as Greg Pearlman of PK Management, LLC., but in fact, that firm is only the management company.  The site manager was listed as Pam Ogden of PK Management. 

The firm manages Westlake Apartments and Ponderosa Forest apartments at 4920 Laroche Avenue near Savannah State, according to their website.

The only points deducted were 4.54 points from a possible 21.32 for the exteriors of the buildings; and 2.18 points deducted from a possible 45.89 points for the Units.  The common area, site and building systems all received their maximum points.  Final score was 88.51, rounded up to an ’89.’

But, in reading what was found, the problems would appear more significant.  In the ‘Health and Safety Narrative’ area, it states that 1 site, 14 buildings and 21 units were inspected.  Seven health and safety deficiencies were observed, including missing smoke detectors, and 6 non-life threatening deficienes.  HUD ‘projects’ the total number of deficiencies, as if all units had been inspected.  Therefore, it was projected that there were 19 non-life threatening deficiencies and 5 smoke detectors missing.

The report also states that the inspection does not cover Boilers, Elevators, Fire Alarms or sprinkler systems. Listed as deficiencies were:

Damaged Soffits/Fascia of roofs

Infestation of inserts/roaches. “Multiple dead and live roaches observed.”

Missing/Inoperable Smoke Detector

Cracks/Gaps in Walls

Cracked/Broken/Missing Window panes

Plumbing leaking in bathrooms

Inoperable/Not Lockable windows

Refrigerator missing/damaged or inoperable

Routes obstructed or inaccessible to wheelchairs

Mold/Mildew/Water stains/Water Damage to walls

Ceiling with peeling/needs paint

Damaged surfaces to doors

Rot/Deteriorated Subfloor

Missing/Damaged kitchen cabinets

Shower/Tub damaged or missing

Missing pieces/Holes in walls

What Happens AFTER ‘Deficiencies’ are Reported:

The Real Estate Assessment Center's (REAC) mission, the division of HUD that reported the deficiencies, is to provide and promote the effective use of accurate, timely and reliable information assessing the condition of HUD's portfolio; to provide information to help ensure safe, decent and affordable housing; and to restore the public trust by identifying fraud, abuse and waste of HUD resources, according to HUD’s website.

“REAC's "product" is information; accurate, credible and reliable information assessing the condition of HUD's housing portfolio. To deliver a quality product, REAC depends on the successful partnership of people and technology. Cutting edge technology has fundamentally transformed HUD's old way of doing business. First, by allowing faster and more accurate work by staff, and second by literally bursting open electronic avenues of communication with HUD's housing partners,” HUD states. 

But, once they have produced their report on the conditions of a facility, any remediation of problems needed becomes the responsibility of a HUD regional office, in Westlake’s case, the HUD office in Atlanta.

It was only in recent years that HUD actually conducted physical inspections of all HUD housing.

HUD did not provide all of the Open Records information requested by Coastal Empire News, including whether remediation was done, when and by whom.  A new request has been filed.

Chatham County Ordinances that Might Affect Westlake Apartments

Because Chatham County does not have a Housing Authority, Westlake Apartments and a long list of other Section 8 complexes in the county are managed directed by HUD’s Atlanta office. 

But, according to a local attorney who now represents some of the residents at Westlake, there are also a number of Chatham County ordinances that appear to give the county the ability to make decisions on occupancy permits, and to conduct inspections on their own.

It’s a question that has also been in the minds of local activists who have worked to help many of the families over the past two monts.

One ordinance in the County Code is §21-514, Imminent Danger. “When in the opinion of the code official (Chatham County Building Inspector) there is imminent danger of failure or collapse of a building or structure which endangers life, or when any structure or part of a structure has fallen and life is endangered by the occupation of the structure, or when there is actual or potential danger to the building occupants or those in the proximity of any structure because of explosives, explosive fumes or vapors or the presence of toxic fumes, gases or materials, or operation of defective or dangerous equipment, the code official is hereby authorized and empowered to order and require the occupants to vacate the premises forthwith. The code official shall cause to be posted at each entrance to such structure a notice reading as follows: “This Structure Is Unsafe and Its Occupancy Has Been prohibited by the Code Official.” It shall be unlawful for any person to enter such structure except for the purpose of securing the structure, making the required repairs, removing the hazardous condition or of demolishing the same.”

Also potentially actionable by the County is Ordinance §21-515 Minimum Standards for Basic Equipment and Facilities.

1. No person shall occupy as owner-occupant or let or sublet to another for occupancy any dwelling or dwelling unit designed or intended to be used for the purpose of living, sleeping , cooking or eating therein which does not comply with the following requirements:

a. Sanitary Facilities. Every dwelling unit shall contain not less than a kitchen sink, lavatory, tub or shower, and a water closet all in good working condition and properly connected to an approved water and sewer system. Every plumbing fixture and water and waste pipe shall be properly installed and maintained in good sanitary working condition free from defects, leaks and obstructions.

Location of Sanitary Facilities. All required plumbing fixtures shall be located within the dwelling unit and be accessible to the occupants of same. The water closet, tub or shower and lavatory shall be located in a room affording privacy to the user and such room shall have a minimum floor space of 30 sq. ft. (2.8 m2) with no dimension less than 4 ft. (1219 mm). Bathrooms shall be accessible from habitable rooms, hallways, corridors or other protected or enclosed area.

Hot and Cold Water Supply. Every dwelling unit shall have an adequate supply of both cold and hot water connected to the kitchen sink, lavatory, and tub or shower. All water shall be supplied through an approved distribution system connected to a potable water supply.

Water Heating Facilities. Every dwelling unit shall have water heating facilities which are properly installed and maintained in a safe and good working condition and are capable of heating water to such a temperature as to permit an adequate amount of water to be drawn at every required kitchen sink, lavatory basin, bathtub or shower at a temperature of not less than 110°F (43°C). Such water heating facilities shall be capable of meeting the requirements of this section when the dwelling or dwelling unit heating facilities required under the provisions of this code are not in operation. Apartment houses may use a centralized water heating facility capable of heating an adequate amount of water as required by the International Plumbing Code© to not less than 110°F (43°C).

Heating Facilities Required. Heating facilities shall be provided in structures as required by this section. Dwellings shall be provided with heating facilities capable of maintaining a room temperature of 68°F (20°) in all habitable rooms, bathrooms and toilet rooms based on the winter outdoor design temperature for the locality indicated in Appendix D of the International Plumbing Code. Cooking appliances shall not be used to provide space heating to meet the requirements of this section.

Kitchen Facilities. Every dwelling unit shall contain a kitchen equipped with the following minimum facilities:

i. Food preparation surfaces impervious to water and free of defects which could trap food or liquid.

Shelving, cabinets or drawers for the storage of food and cooking and eating utensils, all of which shall be maintained in good repair.  Freestanding of permanently installed cookstove. Portable electric cooking equipment shall not fulfill this requirement. Portable cooking equipment employing flame shall be prohibited.  Mechanical refrigeration equipment for the storage of perishable foodstuffs.

Exception: Nothing herein shall preclude a written agreement between an owner and tenant that the tenant will furnish mechanical refrigeration equipment and/or a cookstove as required in this section. It shall be an affirmative defense available to an owner charged with a violation of this section if such an agreement exits.

Garbage Disposal Facilities. Every dwelling unit shall have adequate garbage disposal facilities or garbage storage containers, of a type and location approved by the applicable governing body.

Smoke Detector Systems. Every dwelling unit shall be provided with an approved listed smoke detector installed in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendation and listing. When activated, the detector shall provide an audible alarm. The detector shall be tested in accordance with and meet the requirements of UL217 (1989), Single and Multiple Station Smoke Detectors. Smoke detector shall be installed at all of the following locations:

i. On the ceiling or wall outside of each separate sleeping area in the immediate vicinity of bedrooms.

     ii.  In each room used for sleeping purposes.

        iii. In each story within a dwelling unit, including basements and cellars but not including crawl spaces and uninhabitable attics. In dwellings or dwelling units with split levels and without an intervening door between the adjacent levels, a smoke alarm installed on the upper level shall suffice for the adjacent lower level provided that the lower level is less than on full story below the upper level.

There is also Ordinance §21 - 516 Minimum Requirements For Light And Ventilation.

Windows. Every habitable room shall have at least one window or skylight facing directly to the outdoors. The minimum total window area, measured between stops, for every habitable room shall be 8% of the floor area of such room. Whenever walls or other portions of structures face a window of any such room and such light-obstruction structures are located less than 3 ft. (914 mm) from the window and extend to a level above that of the ceiling of the room, such a window shall not be deemed to face directly to the outdoors and shall not be included as contributing to the required minimum total window area. Whenever the only window in a room is a skylight-type window in the top of such room, the total window area of such skylight shall equal at least 15% of the total floor area of such room.

Ventilation. Every habitable space shall have at least one openable window. The total openable area of the window in every room shall be equal to at least 45 percent of the minimum glazed area required.

Exception: Where rooms and spaces without openings to the outdoors are ventilated through an adjoining room, the unobstructed opening to the adjoining room shall be at least 8 percent of the floor area of the interior room or space, but not less than 25 square feet (2.33m2). The ventilation openings to the outdoors shall be based on a total floor area being ventilated.

Bathrooms and Toilet Rooms. Every bathroom and toilet room shall comply with the ventilation requirements for habitable spaces as required, except that a window shall not be required in such spaces equipped with a mechanical ventilation system. Air exhausted by a mechanical ventilation system from a bathroom or toilet room shall discharge to the outdoors and shall not be re-circulated.

Electric Lights and Outlets. Where there is electric service available to the building structure, every habitable room or space shall contain at least two separate and remote receptacle outlets. Bedrooms shall have, in addition, at least one wall switch controlled lighting outlet. In kitchens, two separate and remote receptacle outlets shall be provided (receptacles rendered inaccessible by appliances fastened in place or by appliances occupying dedicated space shall not be considered as these required outlets) and a wall or ceiling lighting outlet controlled by a wall switch shall be provided. Every hall, water closet compartment, bathroom, laundry room or furnace room shall contain at least one ceiling-mounted or wall-mounted lighting outlet. In bathrooms, the lighting outlet shall be controlled by a wall switch. In addition to the lighting outlet in every bathroom and laundry room, there shall be provided at least one receptacle outlet. Any new bathroom receptacle outlet shall have ground fault circuit interrupter protection. Every electrical outlet and fixture, and all electrical wiring and equipment shall be installed, maintained and connected to a source of electric power in accordance with the provisions of the electrical code.

Ordinance §21-517 is titled: Designation of Unfit Dwellings and Legal Procedure for Condemnation.

Dangerous Structures. Any dwelling or dwelling unit which shall be found to have any of the following defects shall be condemned as unfit for human habitation and declared to be a nuisance and shall be so designated and placarded by the code official.

One which is so damaged, decayed, dilapidated, unsanitary, unsafe, or vermin-infested that it creates a serious hazard to the health or safety of the occupants or the public.

One which lacks illumination, ventilation, or sanitation facilities adequate to protect the health or safety of the occupants or the public.

Form of Notice. Whenever the code official has declared a dwelling or multiple dwelling as unfit for human habitation and constituting a nuisance, he shall give notice to the owner of such declaration and placarding of the dwelling or multiple dwelling as unfit for human habitation. Such notice shall:

1.  a.    Be in writing; Include a description of the real estate sufficient for identification; State the time occupants must vacate the dwelling units; and State that, if such repairs, reconstruction, alterations, removal, or demolition are not voluntarily completed within the stated time as set forth in the notice, the code official shall institute such legal proceedings charging the person or persons, firm, corporation, or agent with violation of this code.

3.   Service of Notice.  Service of notice to vacate shall be as follows: By delivery to the owner personally, or by leaving the notice at the usual place of abode of the owner with a person of suitable age and discretion; or By depositing the notice in the United States Post Office addressed to the owner at his last known address with postage prepaid thereon; or By posting and keeping posted for 24 hours a copy of the notice in placard form in a conspicuous place on the premises to be vacated.

Vacating of Condemned Building. Any dwelling or dwelling unit condemned as unfit for human habitation, and so designated by placarded by the code official, shall be vacated within 30 days after notice of such condemnation has been given by the code official to the owner and/or occupant of the building.

Occupancy of Building. No dwelling or dwelling unit which has been condemned and placarded as unfit for human habitation shall again be used for human habitation until approval is secured from and such placard is removed by the code official. The code official shall remove such placard whenever the defect or defects upon which the condemnation and placarding action were based have eliminated.

Removal of Placard or Notice. No person shall deface or remove the placard from any dwelling or dwelling unit which has been condemned as unfit for human habitation and placarded as such, except as provided in 21-517(5).

In order to have made these determinations, there must be a pathway to make inspections by Chatham County officials, it may be argued, though County Manager Lee Smith stated a number of times during the weeks after the Hurricane as the problems at Westlake were uncovered, that it was outside of their access or ability to remedy.

An unanswered question is whether the Westlake Apartments residents knew who to complain to … which governmental body was in charge, particularly if it was Chatham County, and whether the County will face lawsuits.

For citizen activists who have gotten involved, they recognize that in many cases, those living in Section 8 housing fear that they will be evicted, and are hesitant to speak up about inadequate living conditions.

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