Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin, Virginia
Before the city helps The Landmark Group build senior apartments on the former American of Martinsville factory site, it first should fix alleged problems at its Martinsville Lofts apartment complex, tenants and at least one city council member are saying.
Shuna Ingram, who has lived in Martinsville Lofts for seven years, is taking the lead among tenants in getting issues addressed. Written complaints she has made to the management company since January 2018 have not been heeded, she said.
Landmark began taking actions on improvements to the building just days after Ingram spoke about the situation on Tuesday at a meeting of the Martinsville City Council.
“We talked about it beforehand, and there wasn’t much excitement from anyone in city hall to help these people,” Martinsville City Council Member Danny Turner said in a telephone interview the day after that meeting.
“We are in a situation where Landmark wants to build” and wants the city’s assistance to ease the way, Turner said. “It’s our job to help folks that want to be helped. I have no problem leaning on Landmark” to take care of its current apartment building while a second potential apartment building is in the works.
The Landmark Group aims to turn an old industrial site on Aaron Street into a complex of 52 one- and two-bedroom affordable apartments for people 55 years and older. The plan involves a complex public-private land swap in which the city would acquire and donate the property to the developers. The city recently received a federal grant to help with cleaning up the brownfields site.
Martinsville Lofts is a complex of 60 units at 900 Rives Road in a refurbished building that once was the Martinsville Novelty Corp. This complex is one of about 60 Landmark owns and manages across nine Southern states, including 11 in Virginia. Landmark’s website says it manages more than 4,000 units.
Ingram held a meeting for residents on June 1. Turner and about half a dozen tenants attended. Tenants at the meeting talked about being sick often and mold in the building, Ingram and Turner said. Some molds are toxic and can cause serious respiratory ailments.
Problems Ingram described to city council included overgrown landscape plants, blocked parking, junked cars on the property, repairs not made and standing water inside buildings after rains.
Vehicles have been broken into, and security cameras on the property do not record, she said. The main entry door’s key code was disabled. A common area alarm rings for entire weekends, and no one can turn it off.
She said she pays $7,000 a year (in rent) “and we can’t get the grass mowed or bulbs replaced” in the common areas, she said.
“We want them to maintain the property before they consider other property in the city,” Ingram said.
Ingram said she is otherwise healthy but has had respiratory problems during the past two years, including three times with pneumonia, which she attributes to mold in the building.
The eviction process was started on her for a supposed failure to pay rent, even though she had proof of payment, she said. Later, she said, she learned from other tenants that the complex’s rent payment box had been stolen, and instead of working to resolve the matter, the company just started evictions on the tenants who said they had put payments into that box.
She said she left work early one day for a scheduled appointment with Landmark management to present proof of payment, but no one from Landmark showed up.
Opportunities to Act
City Attorney Eric Monday said at the meeting that some of her complaints fall under the city’s rental inspection ordinance, such as structural, mold, water leaks, overgrown landscaping and old cars. Other matters would be civil cases.
City Inspector Kris Bridges said during the meeting that, according to the Virginia Landlord Tenant act, a tenant has to notify the landlord of complaints in writing, after which the city can “do inspections and cite violations as they exist.”
If the landlord does not repair the problems, the city can take the company to court. Tenants still would be required to pay rent, but, if allowed by the court, they could pay rent to an escrow account rather than to the landlord, while the case is pending.
Ingram asked if the tenants could act together, and Bridges replied that each tenant would have to act independently.
There was some talk about other agencies through which tenants should make complaints, including the Virginia Development Housing Authority, which oversees the Section 8 subsidy program. Bridges said all complaints by Section 8 tenants (which Ingram is not) have to go through VDHA first, which “has a lot more authority” than the city.
He told Ingram that she had to notify the city in writing, and she said she already had notified city inspector Mark Price, and she would forward to Bridges the emails she had sent to Price.
After the meeting, Ingram provided the Bulletin with copies of emails among her, city officials and the property management company.
An email dated March 7 from Tammy Davis, a city permits technician, confirms receipt of photographs of alleged damages in the apartments building and wrote that she would forward the pictures to the city’s building official.
Terra Fullerton, a Landmark regional property manager based in Charlotte, N.C., was at the city council meeting. After the meeting, she gave her contact information and that of Andrew Hudson of Landmark Group. Calls from the Bulletin to both of them in the following days were not answered, and messages drew no response.
When asked just after the city council meeting had concluded what the official protocol was for notifying management about problems in the apartments, Fullerton said she did not know and would have to look it up.
An email from Bridges that Ingram provided to the Bulletin stated that city inspector Price had received Ingram’s email of May 20 about the problems, but the city inspectors had been busy with other things plus were told Ingram would be moving out, so the city did not “move forward with investigations of your issues specifically.”
Bridges’ email stated that Landmark is addressing the issues identified and that he had pointed out to the company the EPA’s guidelines for mold and his “expectations of them in dealing with mold.”
Ingram also provided to the Bulletin a copy of an email from City Manager Leon Towarnicki that states that Landmark is attempting to be responsive to the mold concerns and that the best course of action would be to wait for results of the related testing.
Notices to Residents
On Wednesday, the day after the city council meeting, the Lofts’ management distributed papers to tenants: a “Mold and Mildew Addendum;” a notice of a residents’ meeting at 6 p.m. June 27; a contact sheet listing names and contact information of three managers with 336 area codes and one local telephone number for a community manager, with “TBD” listed in that name column.
Ingram said she is concerned that the “Mold and Mildew Addendum” seems to put the responsibility for mold and mildew on tenants. The document lists 12 situations that residents must report to management. They include “visible or suspected mold,” “plant watering overflows,” “loose, missing or falling grout or caulk” and “leaky faucets, plumbing, pet urine accidents.”
If tenants do not report those conditions, “Resident(s) can be held responsible for property damage to the dwelling and any health problems that may result,” the addendum states.
Another notice by Landmark, dated Friday, states that a residents’ meeting, facilitated by Landmark COO Blair Maas and Fullerton, would be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday.
A notice by Landmark to tenants dated Wednesday states the company plans to have a new manager in place by the end of the month; a 100% unit inspection was just completed and work orders will be created for “any issues” found in an apartment; and a new landscaping company should be hired by the end of the month.
Work to the building’s exterior, including masonry repairs, exterior painting and awning repairs and replacements is planned, the letter states. The letter also specifies that tenants who need work done to an apartment must fill out a work order that is available in the leasing office.
$42,000 and No Action
Tenant Natasha Jones forwarded to the Bulletin an email she had sent to Lofts management in December, requesting repairs to, or replacement of, a refrigerator, stove, cracked tiles in kitchen and bathroom and replacement of rippled carpet infested with bedbugs, none of which has been addressed to date, she wrote by text.
“If you think about it, I have paid well over $42,000 to your company to live here, so why shouldn’t I get the repairs requested and new appliances?” she wrote to the company in December.
Jones stated by text message on Friday that “the roof has been leaking on and off” since she has lived there, and electronics and furniture have been damaged by water.
“Now they are starting to address the issue of the mold/mildew that are on my walls and bathroom floor,” Jones wrote.
Turner: We Should Take this Seriously
Thursday a landscaping crew on the grounds of the complex was trimming bushes, shrubs and ornamental grasses.
Friday morning a shrill alarm was sounding on the first floor. It had gone off all night, said Ingram, who captured the sound in video on her phone and shared it. “Just imagine how the tenants feel on the first floor,” she said.
“The least the city could do is advocate on their behalf,” Turner said of the tenants. “I was shocked as I went around to city offices and their reactions weren’t as I thought they should be.
“When somebody says mold, we should take that seriously.”
The complaints have been made for a couple of years “and not corrected. City officials say, ‘It’s the first time I’ve heard of it,’ but it’s not the first time I’ve heard of it,” he said.