Archive for Monday, December 3, 2001

Rental dispute highlights Section 8 housing challenges

December 3, 2001


Myracle Martynowicz says she and her children have been left in the cold by her landlord and the city agency that helps pay her rent. The heating system in her home doesn't work, she says, and nobody seems to care.

"We've been lucky to have warm weather," she said. "But we've had some cold days."

Her landlord, Dennis Grover, and officials with the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority dispute Martynowicz's account. They say she's not cooperated with inspection and repair attempts, and that the heat works fine.

"The biggest problem Myracle has is she's unused to this type of heating system," Grover said.

In any case, he said, Martynowicz is behind on her portion of the rent.

Whichever side you take, the case points up challenges for the federal Section 8 housing program administered by the housing authority. Tenants and landlords both say the other side receives favorable treatment.

"It's been my experience that when tenants have problems and complaints, it's not dealt with at the Section 8 level, period," said Danette Seymour, president of the Kansas Tenants Union and a Lawrence Section 8 aid recipient.

Tough balancing act

But Bob Ebey of Landlords of Lawrence said many Lawrence-area landlords have dropped out of the program because it no longer covers damage caused by tenants.

"The tenant pays the full deposit, but usually the deposit won't cover damages," he said. "And Section 8 people are unsuable. They just don't have money."

It's a tough balancing act for city housing officials.

"That is one of the challenges of the program, yes indeed," said Barbara Huppee, executive director of the housing authority. "Because you've got to satisfy both interests."

Martynowicz said problems started in August, as soon as she moved with her four children into the split-level home at 3021 W. Ninth St. She pays $235 a month in rent; the rest, an undisclosed amount, is paid by the Section 8 program.

"It's been a nightmare," she said. "It's a nightmare to move, but if it's to a house that has constant problems it's even worse."

A wall in the basement was leaking when she moved, Martynowicz said, even though the home had passed a safety inspection prior to her arrival. Despite her complaints, she said it was several weeks before repairs were made.

Other problems

Since then, Martynowicz said, there have been a series of other problems. Most significant, she said, were a stove and household heating system that didn't work.

"There's no heat in the home," she said. "There never has been."

She said complaints to Grover went unheeded. So did repeated calls to the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority. At one point, she even called the police.

"The police said they couldn't do anything about it because it wasn't criminal," she said. "But it was criminal to me."

Martynowicz ended up calling the city's Neighborhood Resources Department for a building code inspection.

Adrian Jones, a city inspector, looked at the house Nov. 14, leaving behind a notice that appeared to list four violations, including problems with the ability to maintain a 70-degree temperature in the home. But Barry Walthall, the city's code enforcement manager, said the notice only listed Martynowicz's complaints.

"Really," he said, "the only problem we can find is the electronic ignition on the stove. We've asked that it be fixed."

On Thursday, a repairman showed up to fix the stove.

Rights and responsibilities

Grover and Charlotte Knoche, the housing authority's director of rental assistance programs, said they've tried to respond to Martynowicz's complaints.

"We've done everything we can short of breaking into her unit ... to verify that if there is a problem with the furnace, that it's being addressed," Knoche said. "We have had extensive conversations with the landlord, following up on her complaints."

Grover and Knoche both said Martynowicz, who works as a certified nurse's aide, was often unavailable to open the home for inspections and repairs.

"We've made every attempt on our behalf to make repairs, but Myracle does not have a phone," Grover said.

Martynowicz said she doesn't know what they're talking about.

"I've been in the (Section 8) program since 1993," she said. "They've never had a problem getting into my unit."

Grover said he suspects some of the vents are obstructed by Martynowicz's possessions. And Grover and Knoche also say part of the problem is that Martynowicz doesn't understand the home's "radiant heat" system that warms water, which runs through tubes in the wall, giving off heat into the rooms.

"It doesn't feel the same," Knoche said. "There isn't one spot you can stand and the hot air blows on you."

Martynowicz said she understands the system, but the house is still too cool. She has rented a big space heater to keep her children warm.

Martynowicz has not made her most recent rent payment she said she's keeping the money until the heat is satisfactory.

"Now that she can't pay the rent, she's trying to turn the tables," Grover said. "I'm being made out to look like the bad guy, and I'm not. I'm a responsible person."

'Problems and problem people'

The dispute reflects the gulf between tenants and landlords in the program. Knoche said there are 650 housing units in Lawrence's Section 8 program; officials say there is as much as a six-month waiting list for the program. The housing authority gives tenants a voucher based on the size of their families to make payments, then choose from the available homes and apartments.

Landlords say they have to pass stricter inspections for Section 8 than for private rentals a lead inspection is mandatory, for instance.

"If they find something, it costs the landlord thousands and thousands of dollars to abate this," Ebey said.

Grover said he was warned against participating in the program. "It's just problems and problem people," he said.

Tenants, however, say they get short shrift when problems happen.

"It seems to be OK most times," Seymour said. "However, there are some landlords that people get involved with and things happen.

"And when those things happen, in my opinion, the housing authority doesn't really go to bat for tenants. They go to bat for the landlords. The feeling on that is, 'If we start advocating for tenants, we're going to lose landlords.'"

Huppee said her office uses Section 8 rules and the city's landlord-tenant act to govern those relationships.

"A lot of times we're the middleman between competing and opposing forces," she said. "We try to conclude what's reasonable and what's right."

Not that that's any consolation to either Martynowicz or Grover.

"We all want respect," Martynowicz said. "As human beings, we just want to be treated right."

"I've not been a fan of Section 8 housing," Grover said. "And now that I've done it, I won't do it again."

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