Mark Hayward's City Matters: Landlord leases while tenants and city struggle
Norm Johonnett points out mold in the basement, which has eaten through the floor of his daughter’s bedroom, at his Granite Street apartment in Manchester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
Despite $109,000 in unpaid taxes and late fees...
Despite 16 unpaid citations for violating housing codes...
Despite a cold shoulder to demands it board up a fire-damaged property, the landlord company CGL Properties has been able to stay in business in Manchester, renting run-down apartments to struggling tenants.
While tax collectors prepare to seize its buildings and inspection files brim with a history of violations and unpaid fines, the company has been able to keep 10 apartments leased.
This story shows the limitations to how far a city government can go when faced with an “unresponsive” landlord.
CGL, whose ownership is murky, came to light in August, when a suspicious fire damaged its triple decker at 333 Central St.
The city is taking steps to tear down the building, deemed a hazard after the fire, but it has to go through the courts and file paperwork.
Max Sink, the city's deputy building commissioner, said the owner has been “unresponsive.”
Get in line, Max.
Sink's own building inspector could have told him about 11 dates between 2009 and last year when an inspector was jilted at the Central Street building, according to records in the city's Building Department.
The same thing happened eight times at 459 Granite St. over the same period and three times last year at 51 Laurel St., two other properties CGL owns.
Violations that ranged from a lack of smoke detectors, to broken windows, trashy yards and broken electrical outlets, didn't prevent the company from renting its apartments.
Sink said CGL's listed owner, Mont Vernon resident Gerry Bouthillette Jr., is trying to wash his hands of the property. The mortgage holder, Frederick Santucci of Needham, Mass., has taken control of the property, Sink said.
Tenants say a man named Fred started collecting rent in the spring. When Bouthillette owned the building, they dealt mostly with Dorothy Chapman, whose name and cell phone number are in city files.
“I'm not actually the owner of the properties; I would say you've got to call someone else,” Chapman said on Wednesday, then hung up.
“You'd have to get in touch with my husband. He's not here, OK?” said a woman who answered the telephone at the Santucci residence before hanging up.
Despite years of no-shows and failed inspections, CGL did get its three buildings up to snuff, according to city records. But the company never received its certificate of compliance, which allows it to rent out properties.
The reason: thousands of dollars in unpaid inspection fees, including $50 for every no-show inspection.
Buildings that might have been habitable last year are hardly so today.
During a visit to CGL's Granite Street property this week, tenant John Cajigas pointed out a trench at the side of the building, where he said rainwater leaks into the basement near fuse boxes and circuit breakers.
He showed electrical boxes mounted on the outside of apartment walls, electrical outlets that don't function and missing smoke detectors.
“An electrician came in, looked at the stuff and walked away,” said Cajigas, who said he is fed up and stopped paying rent in August.
“In May 2011, that building might not have been a garden spot,” said David Albin, code enforcement supervisor for the city. “But May 12, 2011, it met minimum housing standards. What happens after that, when he (the inspector) walks out of the building, who knows? ”
Albin said his hands are tied when it comes to taking drastic action against a company. His department has written Bouthillette up for citations. City officials say Bouthillette has paid two of the 18 citations and owes $3,400 in fines.
“He can keep going,” Albin said, noting a landlord can't be jailed for unpaid citations. “They're like parking tickets.”
Albin said he can only close an apartment building and force tenants out for egregious violations, such as a collapsing roof.
Of course, the city will eventually get its due. The city tax collector is taking steps to take ownership of the property because of unpaid taxes stretching back to 2008.
Tax Collector Pat Harte said the process is just starting, and the city could get title to the properties in the late fall.
“It would be hard to believe they would just let them go,” Harte said.
Of course, everything is behind, inspections by about eight months and tax deeds by about a year because of cutbacks at City Hall.
While the city jumps through the hoops, young families end up in shabby apartments.
Why don't they just move?
Cajigas said the $800-a-month rent is good, and the neighborhood is safer than the center city.
“Everywhere you go, they want first month's rent and security deposit,” said Laurel Street resident Andre Bergeron, who pays $170 a week for a two-bedroom, not including heat or hot water.
He notes the landlord is fixing up the apartment above his. Word is he will charge $200 a week for rent.
They aren't the only victims.
It might be simple-minded, but doesn't it make sense that if you do business in the city you should pay your taxes and follow the rules?
Of course, library cards shouldn't be rejected because a tax bill is a week late. Fire and police shouldn't be checking tax rolls before they answer 911 calls.
This city seems to pay its bills, even though it struggles through crowded classrooms and layoffs.
Shouldn't it expect its landlords to do the same?
Mark Hayward's City Matters runs on Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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