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Tenants evacuate troubled Jackson Street property

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Tenants continue to evacuate a Jackson Street apartment house declared uninhabitable last week by city building inspectors, Building Commissioner Tony Harmon said.

"Most are moving out. One guy is supposed to be moving out today," he said Tuesday.

The building at 1411 Jackson St. -- a wood-frame house divided into six or seven apartments that reportedly was home to at least 15 people -- has not been condemned, contrary to earlier reports, Harmon said.

"The status is the house is closed down until all the violations are corrected."

The city Building Department sent owner Timothy Harold Stone a certified letter Friday, a day after the house was closed, notifying Stone of 13 building code violations.

Under state law, Stone has 21 days after he receives the letter to correct the violations, Harmon said.

"It it's not corrected, he receives a citation to appear in municipal court and can receive a $500 fine per violation."

As of Tuesday, Stone had not received the certified letter, Harmon said. "Remember, he's in jail."

Charleston police, who were at the scene after following a tip about possible drug use, arrested Stone after he became belligerent and attacked an officer with a screwdriver, said Lt. Shawn Williams, head of the community services division.

Stone is being held in the South Central Regional Jail as a pre-trial felon, charged with second offense carrying a concealed weapon and two misdemeanors. A preliminary hearing is scheduled Monday before a magistrate, Williams said.

Under Charleston's 2 1/2-year-old rental property registration system, inspectors can visit apartments at random or after they get a complaint. The Jackson Street home came up for a random check at least once, Harmon said, but tenants turned the inspector away.

"There's a lot [of apartments] we get in, a lot we don't. It may be the house is dirty. A lot of people don't like people walking through their house. I've got to respect that."

But after police entered one of the Jackson Street apartments on a drug complaint Thursday and noticed what Williams called "deplorable" conditions, they called Harmon's office. Justin Williams, the inspector for the East End, responded.

"Some of the other tenants wanted him to inspect theirs, too," Harmon said. "He found electrical problems. He found infestations, roaches. Not enough bathrooms working. Space heaters.

"They had latched locks, with padlocks, on the inside of the doors. If there had been a fire they'd have had to find a key and open the lock. By then they'd be burned up. No smoke detectors.

"He took pictures, showed them to me. At that point I made the decision to post the house: unsafe for habitation." Stone became upset when the inspector returned to post the property, police said.

Stone did not receive any federal rent subsidies for the apartments from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said Peter C. Minter, Charleston field office director. None of Stone's properties are HUD approved, he said.

Regarding 1411 Jackson, "I can't imagine that property being able to pass a local [HUD inspection]," Minter said. "And I can't imagine someone issuing a check from the Charleston Housing Authority to Mr. Stone."

Stone has two other registered rental properties in Charleston, Harmon said -- four units at 1411 1/2 Jackson St. and one on Larchmont Drive, off Woodward Drive in North Charleston. We get a lot of complaints on Larchmont -- debris, drugs," he said.

While the number of families and police involvement at Stone's property may be unusual, city inspectors often declare dwellings uninhabitable, Harmon said.

"One thing I don't understand is why people are so surprised at this. We post houses regularly, two or three a week. Houses don't have water; the water company can shut them off for nonpayment. They don't have heat; they can't stay in 26-degree weather.

"Usually we get a call from the tenant, or even from a neighbor -- 'I've seen them carry 5-gallon buckets of water into the building. I think you need to check.'

"We do have families displaced fairly often because of unsafe conditions. But in a lot of cases they've called us to begin with. They're getting ready to move out and want to show us the conditions."

Condemnations are an entirely different situation, Harmon said.

"If a property is condemned, it's ready to fall down and we can proceed to getting it torn down."

On rare occasions, an inspection can lead directly to condemnation. "On Watts Street, six years ago. I got a call: the walls were bowing out. We did an inspection."

Water had been leaking in for years, and the house was structurally unsafe.

"We got all the tenants out," he said. "We condemned the property and had it torn down."

While Charleston has plenty of responsible landlords who take pride in keeping their apartments in good shape, Harmon suspects there are plenty of places like the one on Jackson Street.

"We have very old housing stock on the West Side and East End. People don't want to put money in them. Once an elderly person dies, it's probably going to be turned into a rental unit.

"It's frustrating to me because we're out here, beating ourselves to death, doing good. If we hadn't inspected that apartment, there could have been a fire and there could have been a fatality.

"We can't control how people act. It's frustrating because the media wants to focus on what we're not doing.

"But overall, I'm tickled to death this place has been shut down. We've gotten a lot of complaints about it. He can't put people back in until it's right. It will probably take a lot of money to do it -- proper heat in each unit, working bathrooms, working kitchens. It will probably cost a couple thousand dollars just to get the infestation out."

The apartment registration system is working, slowly, he said.

"We found this out. We didn't know how bad it was until we got in there."

Staff writer Travis Crum contributed to this report.

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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