Tenants Live In Unsafe Conditions
NewsChannel 5 Investigates a problem that housing officials say they see all too often.
In this case, we discovered women and their families paying hundreds of dollars in rent, yet living in what some would call deplorable conditions.
Our consumer investigator Jennifer Kraus uncovered this problem.
These women felt they had no where to turn for help. But our investigation discovered consumers do have options.
Leticia Blackman is one of those women. She doesn't feel safe in her own home. Blackman looks around her house and says, "It's a disaster -- is what I would call it."
Her house, as we found, is literally falling down around her.
In a back room, we found the ceiling looks like it's about ready to cave in. And water seems to leak everywhere.
"When it rains, it rains in my house," Blackman says.
There is a slow drip that winds its way through her kitchen cabinets. And, in her bathroom, whenever her upstairs neighbors take a shower, she, too, gets wet.
Blackman points to the damp walls and door frame. "That bath water comes all down through there, and my floor is wet all down in there."
All that water, in fact, has caused the floor in her bathroom to give way, leaving a gaping hole and the ground below exposed.
Then there's the mold, both inside and out.
"This is bad to live like this," Blackman adds.
She pays $650 a month in rent.
Her next door neighbor, Rosetta Graham, pays $700 a month -- and her place is in pretty bad shape too. When asked to describe her home, Graham says, "It's not safe at all. It's not safe."
In her laundry room, the exterior wall literally falls apart when you touch it.
"When I first moved here, it was patched up," Graham says. "When it rained, it came through." Then she says the wall simply fell in.
The same man owns both properties, and both women say he has refused to fix the problems.
In Graham's kitchen, she says, "The whole floor's going to fall in."
The property owner did send over a couple of men to do some of the repair work, but the women say the workers were not licensed contractors and they actually did more harm than good.
Attorney Russ Overby with the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee says, "The landlord has to maintain their apartment in a fit and inhabitable condition."
And renters, he says, have rights.
First though, Overby says, tenants must make sure the landlord knows about the problems.
In this case, both Blackman and Graham say they repeatedly called the property owner.
And when we tracked him down, he insisted he was having the work done, though he admitted that most of the workers he'd simply hired off the street.
He promised us the repairs would all be done within a couple of days.
But two weeks later, nothing had been fixed.
Attorney Overby says the women then had several options.
"One is sue the landlord in court," he says. "Another is pay for the repairs themselves and deduct from the rent. And, the third is move out."
Leticia Blackman though says, "I just don't have nowhere to go right now. I have five kids."
One other option is to call the city's Codes Department.
And that's what Blackman ended up doing. Inspectors checked out both houses to find out whether the landlord was providing safe and liveable conditions.
Afterwards, we asked Codes Supervisor Ronnie Mitchell if the property owner was, in fact, doing that.
"I think he's failing to do that here," Mitchell answered.
The inspectors were most concerned about Blackman's roof caving in, that supposedly had just been fixed.
"What do you call the work he's had done so far?" Kraus asked Mitchell.
His answer: "Shoddy, at best."
Mitchell also called it unacceptable under codes' standards.
The property owner was then ordered to make the repairs. He then turned around and evicted both women. He told Blackman it was because she'd called the codes inspectors.
The Legal Aid Society's Overby says "that's against the law."
And, it's also illegal, he says, under Tennessee law, for the tenant to simply stop paying the rent, just because the landlord won't fix something -- even if it gets as bad as the conditions in these homes.
Rosetta Graham says, "He is the worst landlord I have ever lived, ever lived (under). I'm 40-something years old and I've never lived like this before in my life. Never."
Metro has given the property owner until February to get the place fixed. If it isn't up to code then, he could be fined $50 a day until it is.
And Metro says this case isn't all that unusual.
Inspectors say they see poor living conditions like this, in their words, 'quite a bit.' And that they end up having to haul dozens of landlords into court every year.
Now if you do decide to move out because the conditions are simply so bad, all you have to do is give two weeks' notice and you're entitled to get any deposits or remaining rent back.
But again, remember you do have to pay your rent while you're living there.
A lot of folks think it's OK to simply stop paying rent until the problems are fixed. That's OK in some states, but not Tennessee. And you can get evicted for that.