Claremont — When city officials met earlier this year with the owner of a Pleasant Street apartment building that had multiple serious life-safety code violations, City Manager Ryan McNutt made sure all those involved were on hand to discuss the problem.
That way, there was no miscommunication, McNutt said. He stressed that all the city departments responsible for code enforcement, along with police and the city attorney, were present when the building owner was given a complete record of any and all efforts to rectify the violations.
The violations were so severe that McNutt ordered the tenants to vacate their apartments, just a block south of Opera House Square, in early March.
“There was no working fire alarm panel, no smoke detectors, wiring violations,” McNutt said. “There was no ability to warn residents if there was a fire.”
But the owner, Walter Fawcett, of Wolfeboro, N.H., said the city refused to work with him to bring the Goddard Block at 54-62 Pleasant St. up to code at a reasonable cost and now the city has another vacant building in need of repair that he doubts anyone would be willing to invest in.
According to Fawcett, code improvements would cost about $700,000 based on an architect’s code analysis he had done several years ago.
The city’s action, which forced out the tenants of 26 units on the top two floors of the three-story building, was the result of a new program instituted by McNutt almost as soon as he arrived in February.
Called “neighborhood improvement through code enforcement,” aka “NICE,” it’s a program McNutt said he instituted and saw benefits from when he was director of housing in Fitchburg, Mass., by offering a more coordinated approach to code enforcement in the city.
“It was not coordinated,” McNutt said about how Claremont enforced code violations previously. “That was the lacking element, no interdepartmental coordination, so the building department may not know what the fire department is doing.”
The fire department has had a program in place to inspect multi-family dwellings roughly every three to five years.
A team of department heads that includes the fire, police and planning and zoning will meet again at the end of the month.
“I told my team, give me the ones that we may need to take corrective action on,” McNutt said about other buildings.
In the case of 54-62 Pleasant St., Fawcett met with the fire department and was aware of the violations, McNutt said.
“It was my understanding he knew what he had to do and had hired an architect but he just never pulled the trigger,” McNutt said.
In Fawcett’s view, the city would not work with him so he could meet code requirements at a lower cost.
Fawcett said when he bought the Goddard Block in 1990 it was a “derelict, vacant” building that he spent about a year and a half renovating to bring up to existing code. By 1992, the apartments were filled and he had commercial tenants on the ground floor. But when the recession hit toward the end of 2008 and Fawcett began seeing commercial vacancies, problems started to mount and got worse after the city updated its building and life safety codes for older buildings a few years ago. According to the city’s assessing records, the building was constructed in 1900.
“They wanted us to upgrade to the current code,” which was prohibitively expensive Fawcett said in a Wednesday phone interview.
Among the improvements needed were a sprinkler system, a new fire alarm system, larger stairwells and changes in the egresses, according to Fawcett. There also were multiple building code and health violations, according to city records.
The order to vacate the building, dated March 7, listed a total of 70 building and life-safety code violations, broken down by apartment. Additionally, the city’s building department has roughly 20 tenant complaints on file about conditions in the apartments. Many are from the last few years, but others go back further. They include bedbug infestations, cockroaches, broken appliances, broken light switches, water leaks and black mold.
In a 2009 complaint, a tenant said heat is included in the rent but the owner shut it off on May 1 and refused to turn it back on even though temperatures had dropped into the 30s. She also told the city about a water leak above her apartment that had not been fixed.
“I have complained about the ceiling in the bathroom which is directly below the bathroom above us. It is saturated with God knows what. When the toilet flushes above us, you can hear water dripping on the ceiling tiles which are saturated and swollen,” the tenant wrote in a complaint to the city. “I am sure there are plumbing problems throughout the building. It may be a serious health code violation in more than just our apartment.”
In January, another tenant wrote about a bedbug infestation she had been trying to get the owner to address since last August, and although they “bombed” the place once, it did not correct the problem, and promises to follow up in December were never fulfilled, she said.
Fawcett said the “code analysis” on the building, where in addition to 26 apartments there are 13 commercial spaces, gave an estimate of $700,000 to fix the problems on a building that is assessed at $425,000.
“We could never get the financing to do that,” Fawcett said. “There was no cost-effective way to do it.”
Fawcett said he thought he could finance about $250,000 in upgrades and tried to negotiate on a few things, such as modifying the existing fire alarm system at a considerably lower cost than installing a new one.
“We tried to negotiate on what we could do, but we couldn’t get the fire department to agree on anything,” he said.
Fire Chief Rick Bergeron said on Wednesday the fire alarm system in the building could not be modified and still meet current code. Further, Bergeron said problems in the building go back before the recession and the city’s most recent update to its life-safety code was in 2012.
Claremont Fire Department Capt. Bryan Burr disputes what Fawcett said was the city’s unwillingness to compromise.
“That building had many, many violations that existed for years,” Burr said on Wednesday. “By statute we are required to address them based on the code. We have tried to work with him for many, many years, but it wasn’t happening. He just didn’t come through and wasn’t making any steps in the right direction.”
Burr said the life and safety codes are state-level codes and the department updates them when they are changed.
Bergeron said the living conditions and the safety of residents, as well as emergency personnel if they had to enter the building, were becoming increasingly worrisome for his department.
Claremont’s Planning and Development Director Nancy Merrill said the city’s building inspector had to respond to tenants’ complaints, including roof leaks, pests and windows that didn’t open.
“But the majority of issues were fire-code related,” Merrill said.
Both Burr and McNutt said they want to give property owners every opportunity to take corrective action and believe they did so in this case.
“We understand it costs money, so we give them time to develop a plan and work with them,” Burr said. “It is when the property owner is reluctant to move forward that we do something.”
Burr said some landowners in Claremont have invested to bring old buildings — including the Union Block, Latchis building and Moody building — up to code downtown.
“The property owners understood the code and understood the need to make changes,” Burr said.
Fawcett said he learned of the city’s decision to order tenants out when the building manager called him. Despite asking for 30 days to allow the tenants to move, Fawcett said McNutt was “uncooperative” and refused to give him a grace period.
“I’m very frustrated and believe this is not the way to treat people,” Fawcett said of his tenants, who he also said were refunded their security deposits and rent for March.
As for what he intends to do with the building, Fawcett said he hasn’t decided. “I’m still reeling from what happened.”
McNutt said the program’s aim is not to go after landlords for every minor violation such as a broken handrail, but to target the most egregious ones who are doing nothing.
“We are looking at the problematic ones,” he said. “In the end, we want to put ourselves out of business.”
Patrick O’Grady can be reached at email@example.com.