Monday, September 29, 2014

From Unfit for Human Habitation to Safe Enough for Now: 24 hours in an election year

                                Peeling lead paint on the outside of a building in Manchester.

Mark Hayward had a story in the UL on Friday about a house that had been declared "unfit for human habitation. My commentary on that storyOn Saturday he updated the story.

It seems that 405 Manchester St. went from being unfit for human habitation to "safe enough" for now:

The Health Department determined it was not unsanitary as long as tenants can flush their toilets with outside water.

The Fire Department reset the fire alarm system, which had not been working, LaFreniere said.

And his building inspector determined the other violations — such as doors that do not close and bedbugs — are quality of life issues and not reason to clear out the building, said Chief Building Inspector David Albin.

Having doors that work properly are a "quality of life" issue? Expecting to be free of an insect infestation is some sort of LUXURY? 

Water still remains shut off. Albin said he’s encouraged the tenants, who aren’t paying rent, to pool their money and work out a payment plan with Manchester Water Works.

Albin said he didn’t speak to tenants when he posted the building, but several called his office to ask about it. On Thursday, several tenants said they couldn’t get answers from the city after the sign went up.
“We have a responsibility to notify you that things aren’t right,” Albin said. “The city doesn’t have a responsibility to find you a place to live.”

Chief Building Inspector Albin didn't have the guts to knock on doors to compound the misery the folks who live in 405 were already experiencing, even though "we have a responsibility to notify you that things aren't right." Then he quickly absolves the City from any responsibility to help these people who are living in a situation that has been enabled by the City. 
Every 3 years, the City of Manchester inspects apartment buildings for compliance to the housing code. A certificate of occupancy is issued when the building passes inspection. Technically, apartments should not be rented out in buildings without CoCs. In reality, it happens all the time. It happened here at 405 Manchester St. 
The last CoC for 405 expired May 2, 2014. The process of acquiring that CoC began sometime in 2009. My notes begin in January 2010, when the owner, Paul Schaefer, was supposed to meet the building inspector and didn't show up. He was fined $50. This is not the kind of fine that strikes fear into the heart of a slumlord. It's a damn sight cheaper than doing the repairs, and with enough of those no-shows, a landlord can drag the process on for months, even years. Schaefer did exactly that. 
When the building was finally inspected, 95 code violations were found. Some were "quality of life" issues like switchplate covers on electrical outlets. Many related to replacing bathroom ceiling tiles, painting bathroom ceilings, and replacing bathroom floors. The reason for all of these bathroom repairs is obvious - leaky pipes. Fixing the leaks was never, ever mentioned. Just cosmetic repairs to conceal the ongoing leaks. How could a building deteriorate so much in 3 years? Leaky pipes and cosmetic repairs would be the first place to look. 
At 405 Manchester, he process of repairing code violations  took nearly 2 years. The CoC was issued on June 2, 2011. 
Another violation mentioned a bathroom wall with peeling paint that needed to be scraped and repainted. Was it lead paint? We don't know. The City doesn't test for lead paint unless there's a poisoning case. 
At the time the CoC program was initiated in Manchester, it was regarded as cutting edge. 
Not any more. 
It's evident that the regulations need to be rewritten, and then stringently enforced. It's also clear (after looking at numerous housing files) that a three year gap between inspections is too long for some landlords. The file on 405 Manchester is very thick. All of the files on the most dilapidated buildings are thick. They've been allowed to deteriorate over the decades. They were bought and sold as slums, by landlords who make a living exploiting low income tenants. Buildings that are well maintained do not have inspections that result in 95 code violations. 
There's something of a prevailing attitude that THOSE PEOPLE (meaning the low income tenants in buildings like 405 Manchester St) should feel lucky that they have a roof over their heads. Apparently the poor somehow forfeit any right to decent housing. 
And so the City decides that a building that was unfit for human habitation for a month is suddenly an okay place for people with children to be living. 
This is a decision that lacks conscience or humanity. It's the cowardly decision of a City that doesn't want to deal with the image problem that would be created by tossing women and children out on the street just before an election. 

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