Chattanooga apartment dwellers say attempts to get help with safety problems have been futile

Chattanooga apartment dwellers say attempts to get help with safety problems have been futile

July 16th, 2011 by Chris Carroll in News

Illah Salvador, 5, stands inside of her family's bathroom which has gaping holes in the tile of the bath and grime on the floor, which the owners of The View complex have not repaired. Residents of the complex said that the owners have been unwilling to perform proper maintenance on the complex, resulting in problems including bugs, leaks, molding and rats.

Photo by Jenna Walker /Times Free Press.

Katrina Johnson has just completed her day's first shift as a certified nursing assistant for a 99-year-old woman. She has another shift to go.

Hands on hips, she stands on the patio of her ground-floor apartment overlooking the Ridge cut on Interstate 24, downtown Chattanooga and, even farther than that, the mountains surrounding the city.

She lives at a place called The View.

"And that's all there is," she says.

Her tone is irritable because of what she's been through and what's on her body. Critters, mold, rats and holes in the wall await her inside, but the bites on her arms prove she doesn't need actually to see any of it again.

She has the records to prove it.

"A bedbug infestation was found in the living room, bedroom, etc.," a June 22 Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department inspection report states. "Many living bedbugs were found during the inspection crawling on the beds, walls, ceilings, etc."

Bureaucratic run-arounds, long work days and ugly living conditions have dominated the last few months - it's as if she doesn't have time to smile.

Residents at The View - an efficiency complex with some one-bedroom apartments priced at $350 a month - recounted stories of the complex's former owner, John Oliver, posing as the maintenance man and never revealing that he was the man pocketing their rent money.

"You laugh to keep from crying," said a female resident who goes by the name Chocolate.

They also said he was an incompetent fixer, papering over brownish mold, ignoring thick seepage under the carpets and rat-sized holes in the ceiling, and failing to mend leaky faucets.

"He presented himself as the maintenance man - 'Mr. John,'" said resident Samantha Millraney, 22. "That's all we knew. He's preying on disadvantaged people."

In a phone interview Friday, Oliver confirmed that he never identified himself as the owner when he fixed maintenance problems at the complex, saying "it didn't make any difference who I was."

"Anytime they asked me questions, I referred them to the property manager," he said, confirming that the property manager was his employee.

Records show Oliver and his wife, Joyce, own a $250,000 house in Ooltewah and a Chattanooga-based business called Star Properties, which sold The View to a New York-based investor group for $859,620 on June 22.

"At the time that property was sold, there were no such problems existing," Oliver said.

Records show the sale happened the same day the health department inspector wrote that he saw bedbugs crawling all over Johnson's apartment.

Chattanooga Property Management LLC now operates The View for the new owners.

"Changes are already being made," said Melanie Butler, a property manager with the company. "For instance, the lighting problems in the parking lot - everything was dark when we got there. Fixed."

When Johnson first went to the health department, the agency agreed to inspect the apartment but did little else.

"The health department has no legal authority to enforce corrective action on owners of residential property," said spokeswoman Abena Williams.

Health department officials gave Johnson "educational materials" before referring her to city officials, Williams said.

The 37-page bedbug infestation report given to Johnson states it's "designed for health professionals, housing professionals and pest management professionals" seeking to rectify "multifamily housing."

Johnson said she visited Chattanooga's Neighborhood Services and Community Development division, whose mission partly entails "engaging in active code enforcement to create viable living environments that enhance the quality of life for all residents," according to the city's website.

"They told me it wasn't their problem and sprayed their desks down with Lysol when I left," Johnson said.

Beverly Johnson, administrator for Neighborhood Services, denied that account, saying the division "does not regulate bedbugs" and that "bedbugs are a health department issue."

"I don't know anything about a Lysol incident taking place," Beverly Johnson said. "It did not take place in my presence. That's what I'm saying."