Leaving broken homes behind

Posted: Wednesday, August 20, 2003

After 11 months of renting an apartment, a tenant leaves a three-bedroom townhome in the middle of the night. The next day, the apartment manager walks in to find the abandoned unit in shambles.

The place reeks. Toilets overflow in both bathrooms. Garbage is strewn all over the floors and on the stairs of the two-story apartment, including paper, food and what appears to be furniture stuffing or insulation.

A mattress is stuck to a wall. The dishwasher is broken, as are the washer and dryer. The lights are inoperable. The carpeting has rotted. Dirty brown stains are smeared on the bedroom walls.

This is what Kevin McMinn, the property manager at the Redoubt Luxury Townhomes, said he experienced when he first entered No. 18 earlier this month at the Kenai apartment complex.

"The place is a biological health hazard," he said.

McMinn and building owner Mike Martin, who lives in Fair-banks, are pressing the Kenai Police Department to prosecute the runaway tenant for the damage done to the unit.

"My estimate is that we have over $12,000 in damage," Martin said.

McMinn said a professional janitorial service cleaned the place for $1,500.

This is not a common occurrence, but it does happen, according to the Kenai police.

How can these and many other troubles between tenants and landlords be avoided?

What legal recourse do property owners have? Or tenants, for that matter?

"I probably have none," Martin said.


Broken furniture and trash cover the floor of one of the apartment's bedrooms.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Kenai Police Sgt. Scott McBride said the state provides guidelines for rental contracts that could at least be the groundwork for alleviating these situations.

"If you refer people to the Alaska Landlord and Tenant Act, it explains pretty clearly what the rights of the tenant are and what the rights of the landlord are," McBride said.

The Alaska Tenant and Land-lord Act is designed to protect the rights of both parties in rental agreements and to outline the specific responsibilities and rights of each party.

For example, a tenant has the right to adequate notice of rent increases, and it is the landlord's responsibility to provide that notification.

At the same time, the tenant is responsible for reporting damage to the property as soon as it is known, and the landlord has the right to know of such maintenance needs.

McBride said his department generally only sees a few such cases a year that are at a criminal level, and determining if one warrants criminal charges or a civil case comes on a case-by-case basis.

"From time to time we get calls that a landlord came in a unit and didn't give prior notice," he said.

"The only time a landlord is not required to give prior notice is in an emergency, like when the plumbing is busted or when a window is open and about to freeze. Otherwise it's trespassing.

"If there's one or two holes in the wall, that's grounds for the civil court. But if the whole door has been ripped off the wall or a whole section of the wall is missing or if appliances have been stolen, that's when it's viewed as criminal."

Assistant District Attorney June Stein said her office doesn't handle civil landlord-tenant disputes, so if a case comes to her office, it has been tagged a criminal case.

"It relates to the expenses of damage, and part of that is sometimes what we can prove," she said. "If it's an absentee landlord and the tenant moves out three weeks early ... how can we prove that tenant did the damage?"

Mary Jean Koch said she allows her conscience to dictate her treatment of the apartment she rents in Soldotna, and said that is how every renter should look at the space they rent.

"I was raised to respect other people and their belongings, since it does belong to somebody else," she said.

Mavis Blazy-Lancaster of Sol-dotna has been a rental property owner for 25 years. She said one of the best ways for landlords to avoid major damage problems with their tenants is to keep in contact with renters.

"I think the landlord is as much to blame (as the tenant)," Blazy-Lancaster said, referring to Mar-tin's apartment. "He should have sent out a notice the first time he had a complaint."

Martin said he received one complaint on the tenant in No. 18, and neither he nor McMinn were allowed into the house.

"Both Kevin and I have gone to her door," Martin said. "But she blocked the door ... you couldn't get in. And she never made a maintenance call."

Martin said the wayward tenant was receiving housing vouchers from Alaska Housing and Finan-cing Corp. and hinted that this and two similar but less damaging incidents with voucher recipients is making him wary of the housing assistance program.

"Do a few bad apples ruin it for all? Yes," he said.

Sherrie Simmonds, spokesperson for AHFC, said she agreed that a few can spoil the benefits of many, but she said the landlords shouldn't treat housing voucher recipients any different than other tenants.

"I think landlords need to look at Alaska Housing as just another form of payment, but not a guarantee that that tenant is going to be the best tenant," she said.

Kenai police are investigating the case at Redoubt Luxury Townhomes, and McBride said they will forward it to the district attorney's office when the investigation is complete.

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