ELKHART — At 2 in the morning, Alicia Miller heard the plaster ceiling in the bedroom across the hall start to creak.
She didn't need to get out of bed to investigate. The sound, she recalls, was like a large tree branch giving way.
“It woke me up, but I already knew what was happening,” Miller said.
Within seconds, part of the bedroom ceiling collapsed under the weight of water that had been collecting after a frozen pipe in an upstairs apartment burst the day before.
Both apartments at 604 Marion St. flooded.
By Thursday afternoon, Jan. 9, the apartments were uninhabitable. An inch of standing water pooled in the kitchen upstairs. Downstairs, soggy carpets squished and floor boards sagged. Water still dripped from the ceiling.
Miller, believing her landlord was being unresponsive, contacted the city.
Building inspectors found water draining over an electrical junction box and an electrical heater in the basement. That, along with other violations, led them to warrant an immediate condemnation of the property.
Eight people, including three children from the two apartments, were forced to quickly find new housing.
Miller, who lived in the apartment with a boyfriend and another relative, was frustrated to the point of tears Thursday afternoon. She paid $175 per week for rent, and the monthly bill for electricity to heat the apartment was nearly $900 last month, she said.
Given the amount of money she was paying, Miller said she felt the landlord seemed unresponsive.
Plumbers in high demand
Equally frustrated was Miller's landlord, Lorraine Wentz, who said she owns 105 rental units.
Bitter cold that arrived Monday wrecked havoc on the water pipes in about 10 of her apartments and Wentz said she was having trouble finding plumbers who could quickly respond. She said plumbing companies told her it might take three days before they could work on the Marion Street apartment building.
“We're not magicians,” Wentz said. “I called everybody I can call, but I can't do it overnight. Everybody's booked up.”
Indeed, frigid conditions caused plenty of problems for many residential customers this week when temperatures dipped to around minus-14 degrees.
Representatives of two plumbing companies said they had waiting lists that extended for days.
“I've been here a couple of years and I've never seen anything like this,” said Jen Hopper, a dispatcher for Henry Smith Plumbing, Heating and Cooling, Elkhart.
Hopper said three-fourths of all their business this week involved frozen pipes.
Smith Plumbing offers 24-hour coverage, but Hopper said that includes overtime rates. For customers who don't want to pay overtime, the wait is several days, she said.
Luke Lefever, manager for Lefever Plumbing and Heating, Elkhart, said they have as much business as they can handle and are booking customers for Monday and Tuesday.
“We've had fellas who have worked 60 hours this week already and they're getting close to exhaustion,” Lefever said.
Hopper and Lefever said they're willing to work with tenants and landlords, but it comes down to who is willing to pay.
Lefever has received calls in the past from frustrated tenants, but his company shies away from getting caught in the middle.
The situation between the two groups, he said, can be difficult.
Sometimes the tenant is willing to pay the bill, but, he added, “I can't take a request from one person and mail it to somebody else. That's a recipe for disaster.”
Threats from landlords?
Denny Correll, Elkhart's building commissioner, said circumstances can leave the city in a difficult position, too, especially when violations are found that require the building to be condemned and leads to residents being displaced.
He said he sympathizes with tenants who have told him landlords sometimes threaten to evict them if they complain to the city about conditions.
Wentz said that she has not done that.
Nonetheless, Regina Richards, who lives at 1309 W. Franklin St., said she contacted the city but had not heard back yet Friday, Jan. 10.
She had broken pipes in a laundry room and a bathroom. Correll said he was unaware of Richards' complaint.
Richards said she pays $725 a month for rent and has experienced numerous other problems. The furnace barely works. A dropped ceiling has collapsed in two areas. Cold air seeps in through two holes in walls. Some of the floors have holes and are covered with rugs, she said.
She said her landlord has been reluctant to make repairs.
The management company that oversees the apartment repaired one of the pipes by Friday afternoon, she said. The Elkhart Truth left messages with the company but did not hear back Friday.
Richards said she can't afford to move.
“It's really hard to do anything without any money,” Richards said.