COLUMBIA — Renette Weller is tired. Tired of the bureaucratic headaches that accompany each of her half-dozen welfare programs. Tired of people telling her to take psychiatric medicines that don’t work. Most of all, she’s tired of living in motels.
So when her partner, Tom Weller, found a house on Craigslist they could afford to rent, she only asked one question: Could they bring their cats?
The home sits in a neighborhood just north of Worley Street. During a visit in October, problems immediately became apparent. Some things, such as the last tenants’ leftover pile of tires, were mostly cosmetic. Other issues, such as the broken windows and gaps in the foundation, opened the home to critters and the elements.
Just inside the front door — which let in daylight around the edges and through a hairline crack down the middle — there was more of the same. Spray foam plugged holes in the ceiling. The shower didn't run hot water, so Renette Weller had to wash her hair in the kitchen sink. The biggest problem was the furnace; until December, there wasn’t one.
After receiving notices from the city over a period of 10 months, their landlord had an electric furnace delivered Dec. 3; it sat disconnected in a back room until it was installed just before Christmas. In the meantime, a waist-high storage heater rumbled in the living room corner. The Wellers also plugged in space heaters near their beds, a comfort that weighed heavily on their utility bills as fall turned to winter and temperatures fell into the teens.
All these problems and more existed when the landlords, Majed and Cathy Dweik, signed the Wellers’ lease to the house in spring of 2014. The city of Columbia’s Office of Neighborhood Services, which inspects rental properties, had considered it a problem property since February. Its list of violations was seven pages long.
City inspectors issued the landlords several 30-day deadlines to fix up the house, some of which were extended to two months. Although the Dweiks repeatedly failed to comply, they faced only a few fines of less than $50. In the meantime, they leased the place to the Wellers.
A tipped scale
The city's rental codes — and the ways inspectors enforce them — have to balance tenants’ welfare with landlords’ business interests.
Proper smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, for example, are among the most frequent violations, and inspectors typically resolve those issues within days. But very few people complain about smoke alarms; most complain about things such as water damage, black mold and pests.
When disputes over problems like those arise, landlords invariably have the upper hand. Columbia’s rental code, adapted from the International Property Maintenance Code, forbids leaks but doesn’t list things such as mold or water damage as specific violations. Rental inspectors can write those up as “interior surfaces” violations, which require that the landlord clean the area but don't necessarily compel them to fix the underlying issues. Rental inspectors only conduct visual examinations, so violations start and stop at the surface.
Moreover, a landlord can ask to reschedule the inspection for a later date, a request the city typically accommodates. If the problem isn’t resolved by the time of the re-inspection, the landlord is charged $43 — typically less than it would cost to fix the problem — and another inspection is scheduled for a month later.
“In some cases, the violations might be so severe that, for financial reasons, they (landlords) have gotta just take their time to get it done,” said Leigh Britt, Office of Neighborhood Services manager.
Some tenants have the ability to pressure their landlords to get their homes into good shape, or they have the resources to move. Others, such as the Wellers, do not. They have to rely on the city to enforce its codes, a process that can take months to play out. And if that process reaches its conclusion without the landlord capitulating, a judge could vacate the property — amounting to a de facto eviction for the tenant.
Majed Dweik and Ned Hamadto, director of operations for Homecrafters Management, which manages the house for the Dweiks, said they have spent almost $8,000 fixing the Wellers' house, much of that on the furnace. The house is about 70 years old, Hamadto said, so it took them a long time to find a company that could do the work. Hamadto also said the previous tenant had used the house as a "mechanical shop or something, so he put it in very bad shape." They tried evicting him in February 2014, he said, but he didn't leave until months later.
"He didn't even let us inside, you see?"
Majed Dweik and Hamadto both emphasized that even without a permanent furnace, the house was well heated.
"You need to differentiate between installing (a furnace) and between heat existing," Dweik said. "The standard of living has not, y’know, has not anything to do with this."
City code specifies that a home's heat source must be able to heat the entire dwelling to 68 degrees in winter. Tom Weller said with all three portable heaters running, the house was "somewhat warm."
Dweik said he gave the Wellers an opportunity to move out, but they declined. There was nowhere else for them to go, Tom Weller said.
The city’s rental inspectors don’t view themselves as mediators. Although Neighborhood Services employs an on-duty Columbia police officer, the inspectors don’t think of themselves as law enforcement, either.
“I don’t think it’s very smart for us to do that,” Britt said. “How I see our job is to make sure the units are maintained, that they’re safe, they don’t harm anyone’s health. And beyond that, sometimes there’s issues that are really difficult for us to resolve.”
The ample re-inspection extensions give landlords the opportunity to delay repairs. In the meantime, problems can persist.
Each time the Wellers’ home has been inspected, the Dweiks or their contractors have been able to point out work they’ve done: By the fourth month, they had stopped the water heater from sinking into the floor, according to inspection reports. By the eighth month of extensions, they had fixed the gutters and the bathroom floor. They delivered the furnace by the 10th month and installed it nearly a month after that.
It has taken the Dweiks and Hamadto's company a year to check off nearly every violation on the inspectors' list. A Feb. 6 re-inspection report noted the only remaining code violation was a "dilapidated" fence.
The hardest deadline a landlord faces is renewing each property's three-year certificate of compliance, the legal document that permits them to rent out a property. They can renew without an inspection if nobody has flagged a violation.
Otherwise, the city inspects Columbia’s rental stock — about 26,000 properties in total — every six years or whenever it receives a complaint. Between April 2010 and September 2014, the city received more than 700 complaints. Many of them were about leaks or mold, and some cited more serious structural issues.
“Floor is separating from the walls,” reads a June complaint submitted through the city’s website about a property on Gary Street. “Management had to know this residence is currently not liveable, yet they leased it to us anyway.”
Another person complained the same week in June about constant flooding at a property on Jacobs Place: “Yet, all management has to say is ‘all of the units flood when it rains.’ Well my unit floods when it is NOT raining!” City records show it took that landlord about three months to fix the problem.
Regardless of whether tenants think a home is uninhabitable, they have to keep paying rent. It doesn’t matter what the problem is or how bad the conditions are. If tenants don't pay their rent in full, the law says a landlord can evict them.
That’s what happened to Bridgette Evans. She knew the house on Mohawk Avenue had some problems, “but at that point me and my kids were on the verge of being homeless, so I was just glad (we) had a roof over our heads,” she said.
Besides, her landlord, Dale Palmer, had promised to fix it up. So she signed the lease in the spring.
She found rotting food in the air vents, she said, and there was a hole under the kitchen sink through which she could see the basement. It wasn’t long before Evans’ basement toilet began backing up and raw sewage gurgled over the rim and onto the floor. They cleaned the messes, of course, but the moisture caused blooms of black mold.
Evans asked Palmer to intervene, but she never considered moving.
“At that point I (had) spent so much money, I was trying to make the house work for us,” she said. In an effort to prod Palmer into action, she started paying only half her rent.
“I’m very responsive to tenants who ask for repairs,” Palmer said. “But I’m less concerned with tenants who don’t pay rent.”
The problems continued, and Evans called the city. Rental inspector Brian Allen noted “many violations,” according to city records, and he mailed a corrections notice.
Evans asked out of her lease that summer; Palmer evicted her.
Claiming health hazards “is a favorite tactic of people who don’t pay the rent,” Palmer said, adding that’s why he includes in his leases a clause stating that any mold problems are the tenants’ sole responsibility, but he's willing to help out.
Allen’s report after the re-inspection stated that “hardly any of the violations have been corrected.” Because Evans was gone, though, the case was closed. Palmer said he fixed the sewage problem after Evans left.
A nudge, not a shove
The city has few tools to leverage landlords into quicker, more complete compliance. Even if it did, Britt said a gentler approach usually works better.
“If we can get people down that path of handling it themselves, then that’s the best outcome because it fixes (the problem) and gets it done,” she said.
The re-inspection fees — the only price a landlord pays for noncompliance without lawyers getting involved — only cover the department’s operating costs. They’re not designed to be punitive, Britt said.
City Counselor Nancy Thompson said landlords could possibly challenge higher re-inspection fees that don't pass a citywide vote. That's because the Hancock Amendment to the state constitution requires any new tax to appear on the ballot; state courts have established a five-part test to distinguish between taxes and user fees, which the City Council can increase to recoup expenses. Out of an abundance of caution, Thompson said, the city's general practice is to calibrates fees according to how much it costs to do something — though her department hasn't studied re-inspection fees specifically.
If a landlord doesn’t voluntarily follow the city’s orders to fix up a home, the next step is court action. Of the thousands of cases the city handles each year, about a dozen end up in court, Britt said.
The city lacks clear guidelines for which cases should go to court. Rather, each of the city’s rental inspectors decide on their own whether a situation calls for legal action.
“We don’t have hard-and-fast rules for it, and maybe we’d be criticized for it,” Britt said. "We probably have more cases that we could prosecute if we really want to, but I think our staff is pretty good at being able to look and see what’s going on and who needs to go to court."
Even if inspectors had more muscle, Britt said her department still would focus on voluntary compliance.
“Taking people to court does not fix the problem,” she said. It just costs landlords money, which the city would rather see them spend on fixing their properties.
Britt also emphasized that Columbia is one of only a handful of places nationwide that does any sort of periodic inspections of rental homes. She said other cities, such as Hannibal, Missouri, have approached her office about creating an inspection system modeled off Columbia's.
Outside city limits in Boone County — just a few miles from where many unhappy renters live — there is no recourse for renters whatsoever.
The Wellers know that, and they appreciate whatever help the city can give them. Rosie Prior, the inspector who handled their case for several months, thought their situation was so dire that she brought them extra blankets. But she never brought their landlords to court, even though the pace of the Dweiks’ repairs frustrated her.
After the October inspection of the Wellers’ home, when she detailed for Hamadto all the violations that remained unaddressed, she got into her car and just sat for a moment. She flipped through pages of violations and sighed.
“It’s not OK, is it?”
Prior said the Wellers would have been in a bad spot if she hadn't been coming around for occasional inspections.
“They’re vulnerable. They need someone. Otherwise that guy (Hamadto) wouldn’t have been there," she said.
"(The landlords) don’t really care, they just want Tom and Renette to pay the money at the end of the month.”