Insect woes spawn a revolt among tenants in St. Paul

  • Article by: CHRIS HAVENS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 8, 2008 - 7:44 AM

Tenants at a twice-condemned St. Paul apartment complex are fed up with vermin and other problems.

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Teresa Alcantor cuddled with her newborn baby, Kelly, on a bug-ridden mattress in their St. Paul apartment. Alcantor and her husband, Joel Ramos, were preparing to leave the apartment over a number of problems, including bug infestation, lack of heat, defective appliances, broken doors and mold. ]

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Teresa Alcantor and her husband put off buying a crib for their 2-week-old daughter because they knew it would get infested with bedbugs at their St. Paul apartment.

So last week they moved, after throwing their clothes, linens and furniture in the trash.

The building they left, and one next to it, have been condemned by the city of St. Paul because of infestations -- of bedbugs, roaches and rodents -- and a "general lack of maintenance," according to inspection reports.

The residents of 280 and 300 Fuller Av. are being allowed to stay because the landlord is making an effort to fix the list of problems, according to a city official. While the property, a seven-building complex with 84 units, has a history of complaints to the city, it wasn't until a tenant-advocacy group began organizing renters a few months ago that the infestation problems became more widely recognized.

James Tindall, owner of Pro One Management, which runs the complex, has his own complaints. He says Community Stabilization Project (CSP) organizers are harassing his renters and aren't willing to work with him. He said the advocacy group has been telling tenants they don't have to pay rent.

CSP, which is based in St. Paul, has indeed been organizing tenants since it received a complaint this summer about the insect problem. Organizers held meetings with tenants and tried to negotiate -- to no avail -- with Tindall, said organizer Ben Lenyard. Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, which provides free legal help to low-income people, also got involved at CSP's request.

Many tenants at the complex, between Interstate 94 and University Avenue near Marion Street, are low income and don't speak English as their first language.

Lenyard said he has received nearly 20 complaints from people who showed him scars or shared gross tales about the bedbug problems. "Time and time again we've gone over, seen roaches, bedbugs, and the management has stressed they've done all they can do," he said.

Bedbugs are difficult to get rid of and, while annoying, aren't believed to transmit diseases to humans. Landlords are expected to eradicate the pests.

Tindall said it was the "sanitary conditions of the residents themselves" that propagated the bug problem. He also acknowledged: "We didn't police it as diligent as we should, have."

The two buildings were inspected on Sept. 26 and found to be "unfit for human habitation," according to city records. An inspector made a list of things that needed to be fixed and set another inspection for last week. The buildings were condemned again, but several items on the list had been dealt with, according to the reports. Another inspection is set for Dec. 3.

"We're working with the owner, who has been very cooperative," said Bob Kessler, director of the city's Department of Safety and Inspections. Kessler said there's no immediate danger to the residents and no need to put dozens of people on the streets.

A lot of the city's orders sound worse than they really are, Kessler said.

Avoiding homelessness

Cassandra Netzke, an attorney with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, said she worked with the city to keep the residents in the building.

"Our goal is to prevent homelessness. If it's anything less than life safety issues, they're willing to help us work with the court process," she said. She was going to file a legal motion on behalf of the tenants, but is holding off because the landlord seems responsive. Still, she said, infestations and "general lack of maintenance" aren't problems that happen overnight.

Tindall says he has exterminators out regularly.

Socorro Senske, 68, who has lived in 300 Fuller for about five years, said she hasn't had problems with insects in her apartment for a while, but she has scars on her arms to show past bites.

She says neighbors complain to her about things not getting fixed. "A lot of people who don't speak English and they come to me to complain, and my Spanish isn't that good, but I try to let the caretaker know," she said.

Mari Lecours, executive director of CSP, said it's common for renters who don't speak English well to be afraid of speaking up.

Tindall said renters shouldn't have anything to fear if they have a complaint to lodge.

He ticked off a list of improvements made to the complex, such as a new asphalt parking lot and new soffits, that cost him tens of thousands of dollars. He said he has added a full-time maintenance person to his staff and is hiring contractors to make repairs.

"It's about time, but he should have started a long time ago," said Senske, who has put some of her stuff in boxes just in case she is forced to leave because of condemnation.

For Alcantor and family, the frustration was too much and the fixes too late.

Tindall said he has an "open checkbook" to get everything fixed. "I don't mind doing the work. It's too bad it had to come to this point."

Chris Havens • 651-298-1542

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