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Fire department closes three apartment buildings

Easy Keep owner defends company: ‘We try to help everyone’

Published: Thursday, July 24, 2014 11:27 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, July 24, 2014 11:36 a.m. CDT
(Ty Rushing/Daily News)
Since June, Newton Fire Marshal Mike Knoll has had to declare three properties run by Easy Keep Management an “unfit dwelling.” Easy Keep Owner Kenneth Johnson said they are working on getting the buildings up to code so that residents may return but that it will take time. Pictured here are the Hampton House Apartments, 319/321 E. Eighth Street S. in Newton.

“No Trespassing” signs are hung on the door, the parking lots sit empty and soggy mildewing newspapers are piling up on the steps at the Hampton House Apartments, 319/321 E. Eighth Street S. in Newton.

About five weeks ago, Newton Fire Marshal Mike Knoll condemned these buildings, managed by Easy Keep Management, making them the third properties overseen by this company Knoll has deemed “an unfit dwelling” this year.

“This is an unusual occurrence,” Knoll said Tuesday.

Knoll estimated in the typical year, he condemns no properties. The Hampton buildings were closed by NFD due to numerous electrical issues they discovered during a fire call.

Another Easy Keep property, 124 E. Fourth St. N., was shut down a week after Hampton. That property had several code violation as well, and Newton Fire Chief Jarrod Wellik noted a damaged fire escape was the most severe of those violations. As of press time, that escape was still covered in red tape with the word “danger” printed on it.

In June, Wellik said Easy Keep had been working with the city to bring the 124 building up to code. On Wednesday, Easy Keep owner Kenneth Johnson, of Newton, said his company is working on making repairs to the building — the walls have been freshly painted in the lobby and hallways — and that they were working with a contractor on replacing that escape.

“Residents still can’t return,” Knoll said.

The 124 building has 12 units and Knoll estimated Hampton has between 12 and 14 units. A number of those displaced residents have been struggling to find somewhere else to go and many have turned to the Salvation Army’s Newton office.

“I would estimated that we’ve talked to probably about seven (Easy Keep tenants). Right now, I’m working with two families to try to find placement,” Salvation Army case manager Kelly Zach said.

Johnson said that Easy Keep offered everyone of their displaced tenants an alternate housing unit and he couldn’t give an exact figure on how many properties they manage because the figure fluctuates. He said in most cases, they offered those tenants a larger apartment for the same rental price and now, all of its their buildings are full.

Although Easy Keep has made efforts to help, Zach agreed that having an influx of people come to her office was out of the norm. She said this has put a significant dent into their funding, but despite the financial difficulty the Salvation Army is still offering assistance.

“We are offering extra food, if those families need extra food at this time,” Zach said. “We’re offering just support services. We’re trying to help people get deposits made on their utilities — because a lot of them didn’t have to pay utilities in those buildings and a lot of them have past bills they owe money on. We are just mainly trying to be supportive and offer safe alternate housing.”

Zach said a lot of people who chose to live in properties like the ones managed by Easy Keep, do so because they can’t afford the deposits and application fees associated with more reputable apartments. She added that a lot of those people live on a low-income or have something damaging on their background limiting their options.

“We try to help everyone,” Johnson said. “We’ve tried to accommodate everybody we could. But, when people are forced to moved, not by their choice, they’re angry.”

The City of Newton has recently taken initiative to update its rental policies. At Monday’s city council meeting, Knoll made a presentation where he said the current rental code is from 1978, and he proposed several reasons it should be revised.

An updated code would bring the city in line with Iowa Code 562a, which deals with housing issues. Knoll also said an updated code would be easier to enforce, hold both tenants and landlords more accountable and provide clearer definitions to the ordinance.

His proposal would align with the city’s Crime Free Housing program and revised nuisance code. Knoll would also create a points system for landlords, with a 12 month rolling period, and if a landlord acquired 15 points during that time, their rental permit would be suspended.

“The important thing is that we’ve been in business for over 20 years, and never been denied a rental permit. Never. We are inspected every year,” Johnson said.

Although the company is working on fixing its properties, Johnson couldn’t really give a clear date when residents would finally be able to return. He said the company can’t afford to fix everything right away since they aren’t collecting any rent from those tenants.

“You shut down two large buildings and say, ‘OK. You have no money coming in, when you going to restore the whole thing?’ Where’s that money come from?” Johnson said. “Pride keeps me here. I don’t draw a salary. Anything that comes in goes right back into the properties.”

According to Jasper County Treasure’s office, Easy Keep owes around $40,000 in back taxes on those three properties.

Senior staff writer Ty Rushing may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 6532, or at trushing@newtondailynews.com.

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