Rex Johnson and Nancie Gardner are desperate to move out of their rental home just west of Elkhart city limits.
Since they moved into the converted garage a year and a half ago, they’ve dealt with electrical problems, exposed mold, perpetually knee-high grass and a period of at least a week over the winter where they were snowed in without running water, they say.
“We haven’t done anything wrong,” Gardner said. “If we had the money, my God, we’d have been out a long time ago.”
Their landlord, Kenneth Brink, maintains that he’s taken care of problems that’ve come up in a timely manner. He further said he manages eight other properties between Elkhart and St. Joseph counties and none of his other tenants have had significant problems, nor have they complained about his management.
For renters with limited resources, conflicts like this – and worse – can be difficult to navigate, due in part to a lack of liability for landlords and few options for alternative housing.
A census study between 2008 and 2012 found that renters inhabit more than a quarter of all occupied housing units in Elkhart County.
“No real consequences”
Johnson and Gardner live on an income of about $1,100 a month, which comes from Johnson’s disability payments. About half of that goes to rent and utilities for their small home at 56721 B. 27th St., Elkhart. On top of tight finances, both of them struggle with health problems.
They recently turned to Elkhart County Code Enforcement, one of the few resources in the county that can address tenant complaints.
Kevin Williams, building commissioner for Elkhart County, often receives phone calls from renters who say their landlord isn’t taking adequate care of their home. When that happens, the county will check out the complaint. If it’s in violation of a building code, they’ll give the landlord a time frame to make the fix – usually about 30 days, Williams said, unless there’s an imminent safety issue.
That means some renters might have to endure code violations for up to a month.
If the problem isn’t fixed within those 30 days, the complaint will go before a hearing officer in a public meeting, which is rare, Williams said. Landlords usually address complaints once the county gives them a warning.
Landlord Obligations: A landlord shall do the following: (IC 32-31-8-5)
- Deliver the rental premises to a tenant in compliance with the rental agreement, and in a safe, clean, and habitable condition.
- Comply with all health and housing codes applicable to the rental premises.
- Make all reasonable efforts to keep common areas of a rental premises in a clean and proper condition.
- Provide and maintain the following items in a rental premises in good and safe working condition, if provided on the premises at the time the rental agreement is entered into:
- Electrical systems,
- Plumbing systems sufficient to accommodate a reasonable supply of hot and cold running water at all times
- Sanitary systems, heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems
- Elevators, if provided, Appliances supplied as an inducement to the rental agreement.
- A heating system must be sufficient to adequately supply heat at all times.
Aside from that, there isn’t much the county can do to ensure landlords are taking proper care of their tenants, and there are typically no real consequences for landlords with a reputation of not keeping up their properties.
“We really don’t have a rental division to help curb these things, and I know the cities have problems with it and they even have rental divisions,” he said.
Tenants have the option of taking their landlord to small claims court, but that can be costly and time consuming. Moving out is another possibility, but only if renters’ have the funds and resources.
Unfortunately, some landlords may be taking advantage of tenants’ desperation, Williams said.
In Johnson and Gardner’s case, the county had to issue a warning to Brink in July to mow the grass, which was done.
They also gave Brink a warning to fix a broken pipe, which Gardner said they ended up fixing themselves.
According to Brink, the couple fixed the pipe before a plumber had time to come out and fix it.
As for the period over the winter where the couple didn’t have water, “there were a whole lot of people who had water problems,” he said.
"I’ve had tenants out there for months and years who don’t have complaints,” he said.
Brink also said the couple has not officially renewed their lease since the yearlong agreement expired late last year. Instead, they’ve been paying rent month-to-month but Brink said he doesn’t have signatures on an official contract to show that.
The couple have an upcoming appointment with the Elkhart Housing Authority, which provides housing assistance for eligible residents.
"The water has been shut off”
In Goshen, a family is facing homelessness after their apartment building was abandoned in a state of disrepair.
Angel Barsoda, her husband, Jason, and her two daughters moved in October 2013 from South Bend to 121 W. Washington St. in Goshen.
When they they first looked at the apartment, Angel said she pointed out some missing ceiling tiles to her landlord, Jared Yoder, who assured her the apartment would be fixed and clean by the time the family moved in.
In the following months, the family encountered falling ceiling tiles, black mold growth and a building-wide bed bug infestation, they said. Each time they called Yoder with complaints, he assured them he’d fix the problems – but Angel said that never happened.
On June 30, the property was deemed unsafe after an inspection by the city’s building department.
The city then appointed a local rental management company called 534-RENT to take control of the property, but they resigned shortly after, according to Larry Barkes, attorney for the City of Goshen.
“We were hoping someone could address the issues,” he said, adding that the city doesn’t have many solutions when it came to helping tenants.
“Our ability to address issues in the case of rental properties are not always the best tools, because the tenants may not be in the situation to move elsewhere,” Barkes said.
The bank filed a complaint for foreclosure of the property at 121 W. Washington St., according to the letter from 534-RENT.
Tenants throughout the building, including the Barsodas, were notified through 534-RENT's letter that they had 30 days to leave the property.
“You are in the unfortunate situation where the owner of the property has no money to take care of maintenance issues at the property, and the water has been shut off,” the letter stated. “The property is going to be taken back by the bank.”
The letter suggested tenants seek legal counsel if they wanted to get their security deposit back from the owner.
534-RENT offered to find a new apartment for the family, but would require a security deposit and first month’s rent upfront. For the Barsodas, that’s not an option; Angel said she paid another month’s rent to Yoder before she found out about the foreclosure and doesn’t expect to see that money again.
Attempts made by The Elkhart Truth to reach Yoder were unsuccessful.
With limited resources and no transportation, the family has turned to the city, other rental management companies, non-profit organizations and churches for assistance.
So far, they’ve had no luck.