In the Dumas apartment building just north of campus, a tenant went to sleep every night for more than two months in a bedroom with no window, allowing rain and animals to enter her room.
In one East Campus house, an animal carcass rotted in a student’s house. And in another house, tenants slept in the dining room because the bedroom carpet was soaking wet and smelled like mold.
All of these residences are indicative of the issue in Columbia of strained relations between landlords and tenants that has left tenants living in conditions that could be breaking minimal health standards – and the law.
Junior Erica Vandenhouten and her two roommates spent the first 10 weeks of this semester living without a window in one of the bedrooms in their Dumas apartment. When they moved in, the windows were removed for painting, but one of the windows was not reinstalled until late October.
“So we had pigeons flying into our apartment,” she said. “We opened up our kitchen cabinet one day, and a pigeon flew out.”
From January 2011 to August 2012, the City of Columbia’s Office of Neighborhood Services received 277 tenant complaints, indicating issues with the property that landlords don’t fix.
The office, which works to inspect rental properties, will create a record informing the landlord the property has to be repaired to minimum standards in a reasonable period of time or the landlord will lose control of the property.
“What the property maintenance code does is (the properties) have to meet minimum standards, and probably, I think each structure sets its own minimum standard,” building inspector Bruce Martin said.
But many issues never get reported to the city. Some tenants, including Vandenhouten, are unaware the City of Columbia has a department that helps mediate complaints.
“We have to know what the problem is so we can go and inspect it,” Martin said. “The landlord is going to be aware of it, and this is a public record.”
And then there are others afraid to publicly voice their complaints, saying they feel if they bring up a complaint, the landlord might not renew the tenant's lease, Neighborhood Services manager Leigh Britt said.
“They live in fear,” she said. “And if you’re a renter and your landlord wants to evict you for some reason to get you out, they can do that.”
Landlords are required to give tenants notice before evicting them. Landlords base evictions on violations listed in the lease, according to Missouri law.
Among the Columbia landlords with the most tenant complaints are Mark and Carol Stevenson, whose properties include 400 to 402 S. Ninth Street, commonly referred to as the J-Slums.
"Overwhelmingly, we fix things,” Carol Stevenson said. “We take care of our renters. We just do. You are hearing about unhappy people."
Landlord Vincent Bell, who currently rents out about 20 properties, has had six complaints filed against him with the city since 2011.
“I think some of my tenants (are) used to being pampered, maybe,” he said. “I try to help them out. It’s just some things are more pertinent than others.”
Bell said many of the complaints filed against him don’t get fixed right away because they’re not a priority.
“You’re not at the tenant’s beck and call,” Bell said. “You’re not their babysitter.”
Landlord Dan Johnson, who currently employs three maintenance men who work just for him, said apartment turnover time — July 31 and Aug. 1 — means he has a 48-hour window to get apartments flipped between tenants.
During that time, complaints are often filed with the city rather than dealt with directly through the landlord, he said.
During this year’s turnover, Johnson had a major sewer backup as a result of the summer’s dry conditions, which caused sewers to collapse, especially in older neighborhoods.
“So that’s a major health hazard,” he said. “So someone’s doorknob not latching, which is a liability in itself … It’s kind of a tossup. You’re faced with the fact that you can’t have your guys two places at once.”
Johnson said he thinks he is in the minority of landlords who can justify hiring full-time maintenance workers.
“Even with three full-time guys, you’re constantly prioritizing what projects you do first,” he said.
In some cases, calling the city is necessary, Johnson said. But calling the city for non-emergency situations wastes both the city’s and the landlord’s time and money.
“Do you really want to keep pestering landlords to fix frivolous things?” he asked. “The credit markets have been tightened, and property values have gone down tremendously, which leaves little equity to pull out of the properties for major repairs. Aesthetic things like making landlords spend thousands of dollars on getting rid of peeling paint on the back of a building ends up literally crippling landlords on the important stuff.”
Johnson said he thinks filing complaints that are largely aesthetic takes away from resources he can put toward more serious issues.
“(Filing a complaint with the city) just makes things tense between the landlord and the tenant because the landlord may have had much higher priority problems affecting people’s safety or even their ability to get moved into a place,” he said.
Johnson has only had two complaints filed against him with the city since 2010, but he said those complaints happened because tenants expected him to fix issues that he simply doesn’t have time to tend to right away.
“It’s just crappy luck sometimes,” he said. “There are landlords that just get in bottleneck situations as far as the supply of time and the resources at their disposal.”
Tenants often find complaints about their properties as an excuse when they get behind on rent, Bell said.
A maintenance issue with the property is never a legal excuse to not pay rent, said Steve Scott, a lawyer who represents landlords.
“At the very least, rather than simply not paying rent, you have to put the rent into some kind of escrow so that it’s available to the landlord once the problem is taken care of,” he said. “Simply refusing to pay rent is not permitted.”
Since 1973, Missouri courts have upheld an implied warrant of habitability in residential leases, which state “the dwelling is habitable and fit for living at the inception of the term and that it will remain so during the entire term. The warranty of the landlord is that he will provide facilities and services vital to the life, health and safety of the tenant and to the use of the premises for residential purposes."
But it’s tough to put a finger on exactly what makes a property uninhabitable — whether a missing window or a carcass in a house complies with health standards.
“It is amorphous, and frankly what’s habitable to one person may be uninhabitable to another,” Scott said.
Many of the complaints come from the East Campus area, according to Office of Neighborhood Services data.
“That’s all older housing stock, and they’re bound to have more problems in those properties,” Scott said.
Though Vandenhouten said she recognizes that, she said that’s not a reason for her living condition to suffer.
“I think they can get away with the excuse that the apartments are old and junky, and you knew that when you moved into it,” she said. “But they don’t have to be junky. They’re only junky because they won’t come fix stuff.”
Vandenhouten said she thinks landlords think they can get away with not responding to student complaints.
“They only lease to students, so they’re just like, ‘Oh, they don’t really care that much,’” she said. “But it’s frustrating because it’s like, ‘Man, I’m paying you to live here. I just want my roommate to have windows (in her room).’”
Johnson said he thinks there are landlords who just don’t care.
“They literally will milk properties for every last dime and take short-term gains instead of thinking for the long term,” he said. “They’ll take the money now rather than worry about the long-term ramifications. They could get more rent if they’d just fix the problems. The problem, maybe it’s a leaky roof, all of a sudden becomes something bigger. Maybe now there’s mold growing. Rather than fix it today, they kick the can down the road and take too long to fix it.”
Both the Office of Neighborhood Services and landlords said the best thing to do to get a complaint fixed is for tenants to first talk to the landlord and get it resolved if they can.
“Now, I understand situations arise — ordinances where it doesn’t work out,” Martin said.
That’s where the Office of Neighborhood Services comes into play. Tenants can file a complaint at its office in City Hall or online.
“By getting our office involved in it and getting Bruce (Martin) to inspect it, we’re going to get the problem fixed,” Britt said. “The students are consumers of housing, and if they make it clear what they will and won’t stand for, it’s going to make the housing stock better all across the board.”