Trauger column: Slumlord, or savior?
Residents were evicted from the old New Castle school building last Friday after continued numerous life-safety violations were found. The question seems to be, was this really necessary?
According to the reports in the Post Independent, the building’s owner, Rosie Ferrin, was made aware of ongoing life-safety violations over 14 months ago.
Upon re-inspection it was found that the building still failed to comply. According to the newspaper account, Ms. Ferrin disagreed, saying she was in compliance. The town of New Castle gave residents four days to move.
This is hard stuff — all the way around.
It appears that this building provided a few people with a step up from being homeless. Ms. Ferrin’s quote was, “I am just helping the forgotten, working people.” Judging from the Facebook comments, at least a few people agree that these residential units provided housing for some that might otherwise be on the street. There are also a fair number of comments that this eviction was long overdue.
As an outsider, looking in, it looks like things could have been handled a bit better on all sides.
First of all, health and safety code violations are of critical importance. They cannot be ignored or circumvented. In Chicago last August, nine children, ranging in age from three-months to 16 years, died in a building that had ongoing violations.
Something as simple as having operating smoke detectors could have prevented some, if not all of those deaths. Yet the landlord and the city had been going back and forth for years trying to resolve those issues. Sound familiar?
The violations in the New Castle school building included not only missing smoke detectors and alarm systems but electrical issues, no heat and blocked emergency exits. These are serious issues. Life-safety codes are in place for a reason — to save lives.
I am not an attorney, but under current Colorado law, a habitability warranty is implied into every residential rental agreement. It deems a residence as uninhabitable if it lacks functioning heating facilities, maintained in good working order. It also states that the premise must be “in compliance with all acceptable building, housing, health codes which, if violated, would constitute a condition that is dangerous or hazardous to the tenants’ life, health or safety.”
It seems like 14 months was adequate time to comply with outstanding issues. Three to six months seems more reasonable to me, but I am not the judge. In the meantime, the residents were subject to substandard and dangerous living conditions, including lack of heat during the winter.
A property owner assumes the responsibility of maintaining the property in a condition that is at least minimally acceptable under health and safety standards. Owning rental property comes with accountability.
After working with Ms. Ferrin for 14 months, it seems a bit preposterous to give the residents four days to find another location and move their belongings. I would have expected the town of New Castle to do better than that. I hope that the town of New Castle communicated to the residents over the past 14 months that eviction was a possibility.
Finally, I see fingers pointed at the town and at the owner. Where is the community in this? It seems that there is a wide variety of opinion about the residents living there but a fair number of comments seem to indicate that Ms. Ferrin has some support.
In the 14 months that she has worked on compliance, could a small group of people come together to volunteer to help her work on the building? It could have also involved the residents themselves — sort of a modified approach that Habitat for Humanity embraces.
I agree that we need all the housing that we can find – particularly for those with low income. However, all housing should meet safety standards and property owners held accountable. It should not be a long, drawn-out process. By extending it over a year, it sends a message that this is not a serious issue. In the meantime, lives are at stake.
Having owned rental property I realize that it can be difficult to maintain properties when the tenants do not have an interest in keeping it up. Involving the residents in the repair and upkeep, for potentially a slightly lower rent, could be a win-win for everyone.
The bottom line, however, is it is the property owner’s responsibility to make sure the premises are safe for everyone. We don’t need a tragedy like the one in Chicago in our region.
Kathryn Trauger lives in and writes from her hometown of Glenwood Springs. She has served the community as a member of Glenwood Springs City Council and chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission. She currently serves as the chair of the city’s Financial Advisory Board and as an associate member of the Garfield County Board of Adjustment. Her column, Perspective, appears monthly in the Post Independent. She may be reached at email@example.com or at 970-379-4849.
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