Last Monday, residents of a Newton apartment building came home to a sign from the Newton Fire Department stating their home was an “unfit dwelling.” They were told to vacate immediately and that the ownership had 10 days to appeal the decision.
The property, located at 124 E. Fourth St. N. is managed by Easy Keep Management, located in Newton. In an interview Monday, the company’s management stated the only issue was a fire escape that was being serviced after being struck by a vehicle.
Easy Keep said it was working on fixing the fire escape and that it is cooperating with the city.
In an interview Tuesday, Newton Fire Chief Jarrod Wellik confirmed that Easy Keep had indeed been working with the city but said there were other problems in addition to the fire escape. Wellik wouldn’t specify what the issues are but provided an update on the building.
“The situation is there were numerous violations of our current rental code that were unsafe for people to basically be living there,” Wellik said. “A week ago, the fire marshal (Mike Knoll) placarded the building as being unfit for human habitation due to some of those issues.”
Clifford Sholley has been staying at the 124 building for the last four months to help his elderly parents. He shed some light on his experiences there.
“The people that own the place don’t want to do nothing with it,” Sholley said.
Sholley said he has some experience with contracting and managing property and offered his services to Easy Keep to make some repairs in the building but said they never got back to him. He also claimed the building has black mold — which is a hazard to people with allergies and lung problems — and an infestation of roaches and bed bugs.
In 2010, another property that was then managed by Easy Keep at 321 E. Eighth St. S. was cited by the Jasper County Board of Health for bed bugs and also supposedly contained roaches and black mold.
“It’s a tax write-off. Anytime they shut a building down, they can use it as a loss and tax write-off — they don’t give a (expletive) about the people here,” Sholley alleged.
In Sholley’s apartment, he pointed out where mold was present and where water had stained the carpets after an above apartment sprang a leak.
According to Iowa Code section 526A.15, “The landlord shall: Comply with the requirements of applicable building and housing codes materially affecting health and safety and make all repairs and do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition.”
Easy Keep couldn’t provide an exact figure but estimated it currently manages around a dozen properties including the 124 building.
The 124 building has three floors and 12 dwellings; an exact figure for occupants is unclear. Sholley said that a lot of people who stay in the building are on low-income or fixed budgets and it would be hard for them to find another place to live in such a short measure of time.
“I don’t believe in ‘slumlords’ you know? If it needs repairing, repair it. We are not in Ethiopia,” Sholley said.
Sholley said if Easy Keep expects tenants to pay rent, they should be taking steps to ensure that the property is livable. Outside of a few things, he said he hasn’t seen much active maintenance in the building.
“I think it’s a shame that they take advantage of people like my mom and dad and the others that are on welfare and stuff here — they don’t care about these people. They want their money and to be on their way,” Sholley said.
According to city ordinance section 21.0912, it is unlawful for Easy Keep to collect rent from tenants while the property is currently under suspension.
A complete copy of the housing renting section of Newton’s ordinances may be found at www.newtongov.org/DocumentCenter/View/1074.
While residents at 124 are still waiting to find out what is happening with their homes, Wellik sounds hopeful that Easy Keep will be able to get the building back up to code soon.
“They’re working on it. They are basically trying to mitigate the things that are wrong and we are working with them trying to get it resolved. Obviously, the number one thing we are looking for is we want that building to be safe for the people that are living there,” Wellik said.
Senior staff writer Ty Rushing may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 426, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.