Tenants prevail over rental company after water damages apartment

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by Jordan Green

Tenants at 4½ Building in downtown Winston-Salem prevailed over a local rental company to get out of their lease after a massive snowmelt leaves their apartment damaged.

Alexis Siebert and Alex Robinson both work service jobs that keep them out late at night, Siebert as a bartender at Single Brothers and Robinson as a chef at Mission Pizza Napoletana, so it was 3 a.m. when they returned to the apartment they shared in downtown Winston-Salem on the night of Feb. 22.

Their downstairs neighbor complained that the ceiling had collapsed. And the two roommates found water pouring through the ceiling and pooling on the floor. A lot of the building’s tenants work in the service industry, and apparently the water had been sifting through the three-story building for hours before it reached the ground floor and someone noticed the problem.

Located on North Spring Street at the corner of 4½ Street, the apartment complex is fondly known by current and former tenants as the “4½ Building.”

Rusty Grubb, the property manager Home Real Estate, said the water break resulted from a combination of snowmelt and a perforation in the rubberized flat roof. An accumulation of ice dammed up the gutters, causing water to collect on the roof.

“Someone that is living in the building had broken through the hole that goes up to the roof,” Grubb said. “Someone had been partying up there, and we believe they tore the rubber roof. [The water from the snowmelt] filled up back to where it was torn.”

Steven Perrine, who lives on the top floor, said he and his housemates had to keep the windows open for several days to deal with the mold that cropped up in the wake of the water break. It was worse for Robinson, whose personal belongings were essentially ruined.

“All of my clothing was soaked; keepsakes from my grandfather, who is now passed, were soaked,” she said. “By the time I got to them they were basically a block of papier-mâché.”

For about five days, they closed off the room and collected water in 5-gallon buckets. Afterwards, Siebert said the room smelled like mildew.

Grubb said the rental company repaired the roof as soon as they could.

In the meantime, Robinson moved out of the apartment, and has been living in her car for the past three weeks. She said she put up the $675 to cover rent for the month of March to avoid being delinquent. Siebert’s room is at the other end of the building, which was not directly affected by the water break, and she felt she had no other choice but to stay on.

Siebert and Robinson have requested that Home Real Estate allow them to break their lease so they can move out without incurring a financial loss, and Robinson added that she would like their rent payment for March to be returned as well.

Until Monday afternoon, the rental company was refusing to allow the tenants to break their lease.

“It was a one-time occurrence, the problem was, and we fixed it immediately,” Grubb said last week. “We’re following the procedures we need to fix the damage. There’s no recurring problem that’s going on. There’s no need for us to allow them to break the lease.”

The tenants have filed a complaint with the city of Winston-Salem, and an investigator told them it will likely be four to 10 weeks before the complaint is resolved. By then, they’ll be nearing the end of their lease, which terminates in mid-June, and they don’t have the patience to wait that long.

On Monday, after Siebert and Robinson enlisted pro bono assistance from lawyer Walter Holton, Home Real Estate relented and allowed them to break the lease. The tenants celebrated by having drinks at Hoots Roller Bar. Siebert said they still have a hearing scheduled with the city, and that she believes the entire building is unlivable. She wants to see the process through to help the tenants in the other five apartments.

While water is no longer pouring through the ceiling, Robinson’s vacated bedroom, the hallway and bathroom all bear the scars of extensive damage: paint peeling from doorframes, watermarks seeping out of a light fixture and cracks in plaster walls. The walls in the bathroom show visible bubbles, and are soft to the touch.

Grubb said repairs to the apartment should have been made, and he only learned that the work had not been performed on March 13.

“We sent people to fix that,” he said. “They fixed the other units. I’m checking to see why they didn’t repair their apartment. Maybe they couldn’t get in. The other units were repaired, so I don’t know why theirs wasn’t. I only became aware of it when they called me earlier today.”

Siebert and Robinson said the repairs the rental company is proposing are inadequate. They said Grubb has told them he plans to send a painter, while the tenants believe the damage is not only cosmetic but also structural. But Grubb said the rental company will do more extensive work if necessary.

“We’re going to be doing whatever the painters think needs to be done,” he said. “If they need to clean out the plaster and replace it, that’s what they’ll do.”

Another point of contention is mold damage caused by the water break. Siebert, who suffers from asthma, hired a consultant to test the apartment for mold.

“The level that came back from the particular strains of mold we tested for were below standard levels of acceptability,” said Duane Jordan of Envirosafe Solutions. “There’s really nobody called the ‘mold police’ that puts out an actual level of acceptability. Within the industry, we’ve all come to an agreement that anything below 500 is safe.”

Considering her asthma, Siebert said the 300-level reading indicates to her that the apartment is not safe for her continued habitation. But Grubb said he came to the opposite conclusion.

Jordan put it in perspective.

“They were at 300, which is by all means within the level of acceptability,” Jordan said. “The fact that it showed up at all means something’s growing. It’s in the beginning stages, and if it’s not treated and remediated, once the warm weather comes, warmer air tends to make it grow faster.”

Citing a cell-phone video made by Siebert that showed the water dripping into buckets, Jordan added, “Basically, the fact that it leaked down means it could be in the wall cavity. If it’s not dried properly it could be a big problem down the road.”

To truly determine whether the apartment is contaminated by mold, Jordan said he would need to do another round of testing, with a sample taken outside as a control.

“They’re nice girls; I could tell they didn’t have a lot of money to put into this,” he said. “If they’re trying to get out of their lease I know they didn’t have a lot of money for a mold test. I cut them some slack.”

Siebert said the rental company can easily afford to allow them to let them out of their lease, noting that the company that owns the building, Ogburn Investments, has extensive real-estate holdings. Incorporated in 1906, Ogburn Investments has 161 properties on the Forsyth County tax roll.

Ogburn Investments purchased the 1924 three-story brick apartment building in 1998 for $380,000, but today it’s assessed tax value is only $253,300. The property card on file with the Forsyth County Tax Assessor’s office lists the effective gross income for the seven units in the building — revenue from rent less vacancy and collection losses — at $37,995 per year. At that rate, the mortgage should have been paid off by 2008, making any revenue from rent collections after that point straight profit.

“They’re not missing out on much money,” Siebert said, questioning why Home Real Estate at first refused to let them out of their lease. “They have so much real estate.”

The 4½ Building is on a prime piece of real estate. The exposed back stairwell affords a spectacular view of the downtown skyline. Across 4½ Street, Forsyth County is building a new library. Around the corner the new 751 West Fourth Street office building is nearing completion. And less than a block away, the new Quanto Basta Italian Eatery & Wine Bar is causing a minor sensation on local Facebook threads.

Siebert said her brother and some friends formerly lived in the building, and recalled leaks at that time. Grubb said he wouldn’t be surprised if that was true, adding, “That’s a newer roof.”

Siebert said people who have lived in the apartment, known to its residents as the “4½ Building,” share a special bond.

“It’s a club that you used to live there,” she said.

“Now it’s a curse,” Robinson added.

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