Cheney Free Press -

By SHANNEN TALBOT
Staff Reporter 

Airway Heights code woes

Disagreements in local mobile home park spotlight gaps in city code

 

Tucked away in a mobile home park off of Sunset Highway in Airway Heights, a drama worthy of a telenovela has quietly been playing out since late June, expanding to involve city departments, local officials and residents alike.

What started as a routine code enforcement call has rapidly turned into a quagmire of issues code enforcement officer Kristina Blake says highlights the need for additional city code detailing rental inspection rules.

Essentially uninhabitable

Last month, Blake was contacted by a tenant of the All-Season’s Motel and RV Park, a property combining an overnight motel with about 20 mobile homes and 10 RVs. When she arrived to inspect the home, she was presented with a host of problems, including soft floors, faulty wiring and a rodent infestation.

The tenant, Christina Larsen, said the hazards in her mobile home have been a problem for years and called it “straight-up dangerous.”

Larsen provided the Cheney Free Press with a certified doctor’s note that said her child had been seen multiple times for respiratory infections. According to the note, “having dirty and unmaintained air ducts could be a factor.”

While on the property, Blake says she was contacted by three other tenants with similar issues in their homes, including Brandi Feazell.

The unit occupied by Feazell and her three daughters “had mold on the walls, mold on the windows, a rat in the ceiling,” Blake said. The HVAC system was full of dust and dirt and holes pockmarked the floor, walls and ceiling.

Feazell’s toilet also regularly backs up and overflows, pushing raw sewage into the home she shares with her three daughters. Blisters are scattered across Feazell’s hands from using the plunger so frequently.

“A couple of these places I’ve seen should be condemned,” Blake said. “They’re essentially uninhabitable.”

Following Blake’s inspection, the fire department came out to inspect for safety and found most residences did not have smoke detectors.

Larsen and Feazell contend that property co-owner and manager Ken Gill not only refused to fix problems in a professional and timely manner, but that he prevented them from solving the problems themselves.

According to Blake and multiple tenants, renters were not allowed to clean or fix their own vents. Larsen also arranged for weatherization of her home through a local SNAP program, but it could only be completed if the property owner signed off. A letter from SNAP administrators revealed that “after several attempts, the weatherization was denied because there was no response from the owner.”

Gill contends that the damages are due to homeowner neglect and says he didn’t know the extent of damages until he received a compliance letter last month.

Paperwork problems

Gill said the issues have stemmed from tenants not filling out the proper work orders for repairs.

“We can’t do anything unless we see paperwork,” he said, noting he has not seen work orders for the repairs to Larsen and Feazell’s properties.

However, both women claim they have submitted numerous work orders over the years. A video taken by Feazell confirms their existence, depicting a former park maintenance worker saying he saw a stack of Feazell’s work orders in the motel laundry room over a year ago.

What happened to those work orders in the intervening months is unclear. Gill admits the All-Season’s filing system is “not the best.” There is no paper trail tracking people’s submitted work orders, or in the words of Larsen and Feazell — “no proof.”

All-Season’s tenants also have no leases, a violation of Washington tenants’ rights. Gill said he is in the process of writing up a lease to give to future renters.

Gill ultimately blames the damages in the mobile homes on poor occupant upkeep.

“These people can’t even clean the place,” he said. “I have two maintenance guys and 99 percent of people are happy here.”

Multiple sources disputed the idea that the damage was the fault of tenants.

“There’s not anything that I saw that was housekeeping or homeowner neglect,” Blake said.

According to Feazell, much of the work in her home she did herself, including painting, caulking and cleaning. “Why would I ruin it when I did all the work myself?” she added.

Tenants have complained about the poor quality of repairs performed by an endless string of maintenance workers. Larsen said more than eight unlicensed maintenance men have worked at the park in the last two years, one of whom was a registered sex offender she was afraid to let around her daughters.

Feazell said a maintenance man did snake her toilet after Blake’s visit, but the problems returned after just three days.

Gill said his maintenance workers were “handymen,” not licensed contractors, though he said he has worked with licensed electricians in the past.

Constant conflict

According to city documents and resident testimony, the lack of repairs isn’t the only problem.

A compliance letter sent to Gill by the city Code Compliance Department on June 27stated Gill attempted to serve Feazell with an illegal, retaliatory eviction. The letter also says Blake was made aware of “verbal abuse, threats to evict, call CPS and enter homes without the required 24-hour notice by the landlord” and personally witnessed some of this behavior.

Both Larsen and Feazell are now trying to move out, citing a pattern of harassment and abusive behavior from Gill and from neighbors at Gill’s direction.

Larsen and her family are on a waiting list for an apartment out of state, while Feazell said she is frantically searching for a home in the Spokane area. Catholic Charities has partnered with her and is offering to pay her first and last month’s rent and deposit, but the rental market is such that it’s still difficult to find an affordable place, especially when relying on city busses, she said.

Gill suggested the women are lying to code enforcement and “trying to beat the system.” He said the eviction was unrelated to Feazell’s cooperation with code enforcement and instead tied to the “vicious” behavior of her daughters and two dogs.

A longtime resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the problems at the All-Season’s run deep. According to them, most motel employees work under the table for as little as $5 per hour, and employees and tenants alike are routinely berated and cursed at.

According to the resident, Feazell’s dogs “are not vicious at all,” and the damages in the trailers are not the fault of tenants.

“They didn’t put mold in their own house and tear out their electrical,” the resident said.

Tenants also said Gill tried to force them to sign cards that designate them “motel guests” instead of long-term tenants. That designation could exempt them from tenant protections like advance eviction notices.

“He said we didn’t have a choice (to sign) or he could evict us,” Larsen said.

Gill categorically denied threatening tenants with eviction. He also denied attempting to enter tenant’s premises without a 24-hour notice, though he did say that “some people don’t want that much notice.”

However, a request for entry signed by Gill and served to Feazell showed only 12 hours’ notice.

When asked if he had ever threatened tenants with eviction, violence or Child Protective Services, Gill said, “Define threat.”

“It’s not all bad; he’s worked with people who are late on rent and stuff,” the anonymous resident said. “But it’s just escalated. I’m actually getting scared to live here.”

Failure to communicate

In the few short weeks since the original inspection, Gill and Blake have had a tough time communicating.

“Her job is not to be a judge,” Gill said. “Even a judge listens to both sides.”

According to Blake, her job is less about sides and more about dealing with existing problems. If property owners are officially cited, they are called to a hearing where they can present their side of the story, but Gill has not yet been formally cited under Airway Heights code.

“It’s not really a he said, she said,” Blake added. “These people are living in un-livable conditions — it’s about where we go from here more than how they got that way.”

Blake said she had several conversations with Gill after the first inspection but he initially refused to come to her office to discuss the problem.

Gill appeared before the City Council on July 1 to give public comment, claiming that Blake called him and “screamed and yelled” while discussing the park’s issues.

Blake did not dispute those claims.

“I did call him to talk about the violations, and it was a heated conversation — it wasn’t a professional conversation and I won’t say I’m proud of it,” Blake said. “You see the conditions these people are living in and it’s hard not to take personally and let your judgement slip, but it won’t be repeated.”

In the meeting where Gill presented his complaint, Blake’s superior and Public Works Director Kevin Anderson said he and Blake had a conversation about the phone call and he was confident “it wouldn’t happen again.”

Next steps

Just what the end result of the situation will be is not clear. Larsen and Feazell have both asked that no repairs be done until they have vacated their homes, after which Gill will be required to bring both up to code prior to re-renting.

Code-related problems are usually civil issues, not criminal, unless tenants decide to press charges.

“It’s people in a tight situation — many of them have criminal histories, have worked with CPS or are on disability,” Blake said. “They feel like the deck is stacked against them.”

Blake said she has been in contact with local Labor and Industries offices, the state Health Department and the city’s Building Department to discuss how to prevent similar issues in the future and all say they are not authorized to perform inspections.

That’s why she says it’s vital to reform the city’s rental inspection program. Under the current policies, inspections can only be performed at the specific request of tenants.

She said the city is considering re-writing the codes to emulate those used in Seattle, in which rental inspections are tied to business licenses and performed every two years.

Blake said the inspections would be paid for by a fee for landlords — $70 for the first inspection and $15 for every subsequent one.

“We’ve been talking with a landlord who has property in Seattle and Spokane, and she thinks the fee is an investment in her properties,” Blake said. “It would stop slumlords from operating in the dark anymore.”

Blake said she hopes to present code changes to City Council this fall.

Shannen Talbot can be reached at shannen@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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