WTOC Investigates: Housing complaints go unchecked during pandemic

WTOC Investigates: Housing complaints go unchecked during pandemic

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Housing complaints about unsafe living conditions in Savannah have gone unchecked during the pandemic.

For several months, the City of Savannah’s code compliance division stopped in-home inspections for because of the virus. Without the service, tenants who have filed complaints have very few options for help.

Those options include continue to live in those reported conditions and try to resolve the issue with an unresponsive landlord or move out and find a new place to live.

For Hillary Jackson, she left after a mold inspection by a private company revealed toxic mold, she said.

“He said you need to get out as soon as you can because it’s not safe to be living there,” she said. “And then the very same day, another large section of the ceiling fell.”

Her first lease in Savannah was short lived. Jackson relocated to the Hostess City in June to teach public school children.

The move came with a lot of excitement, especially, when she and her roommate looked for places to live.

“Being semi-young and single we thought it would be really fun to be close to the action and near downtown and able to live in a historical home and one with character.”

After looking for weeks, they found a townhome listed online within their budget.

“At first it was great, I just called the property manager and we set up a time to come look at it right away.”

Within a week of moving into the townhome at 118 W. 32nd Street, Jackson said the townhome’s character revealed deeper problems. It began with a drip from an air condition unit and quickly escalated to large chunks of the ceiling falling.

Her landlord, Sand Dollar Property Management LLC repaired the A/C unit, but not the soggy ceiling, she said.

“After a month, we started to feel sick. We were noticing black around our air vents and stuff and where the hole was, we could see squishy mold with mushrooms growing out of it. So we were starting to get concerned at that point.”

Her landlord told her the problem was not urgent, she said.

On Aug 20th, she filed a formal a complaint with Savannah’s code compliance.

“I want to make sure that the property management or the owner takes care of the issue.”

Under normal circumstances, Savannah’s Code Compliance Director Kevin Milton said the city would send an inspector to document the conditions inside Jackson’s townhome.

The city has the power to investigate complaints and hold landlords accountable by requiring them to make the repairs, or in extreme circumstances – the city can file the legal paperwork to condemn property.

But those investigative powers are hampered by COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, during the current circumstances, we cannot accommodate everybody’s request for an interior inspection out of protection of our own officers,” Milton said. “Now in exceptional circumstances or court-ordered circumstances, we will make exceptions as long as the property is vacant for the inspection.”

The pandemic has also slowed the response time to complaints. So far this year, there are roughly 7,800 complaints, which is about where the department was this time last year.

About 1,400 of those cases are pending, Milton said.

Recently, the department’s response time has improved.

“We’re up to 75 probably above 80 percent success rate of getting to 311 calls within 3 days,” he said

When WTOC interviewed Milton on Tuesday, no one from the city had responded yet to Hillary’s complaint, which by that point had been pending for nearly four weeks.

“This particular team has been undermanned for a month and a half now due to the COVID-related absences, so this issue has not been addressed yet. I’ll talk to the supervisor today to make sure we get to it.”

Out of options back in August, Hillary said she had no choice, but to break her lease and move out.

She was lucky to find a friend to live with in the meantime. Her roommate had to move back to Texas and quit her teaching job, she said.

“Ideally, I would like our deposits back so we can move into new places,” Jackson said.

The townhome has since been re-listed for rent.

WTOC tried repeatedly to speak with the owner of Sand Dollar Property Management.

She declined an interview through her attorney who provided a statement which says in part, “Since the water leak was corrected immediately, there was no mold and the property was never uninhabitable.”

The ceiling damage, the statement said, has since been repaired. That’s all despite a copy of the mold report and the video reviewed by WTOC.

You can read the attorney’s full statement below:

For now, if you’ve filed a complaint with code compliance about unsafe living conditions. You should know, the city is referring most of those to Georgia Legal Services.

A city inspector will only go inside a property, for now, if city has a court order or in exceptional circumstances that affect health and safety. Even then, the city will only go inside if the property is vacant.

To file a complaint with the city, dial 311. To reach Georgia Legal Services, call 912-651-2180.

Copyright 2020 WTOC. All rights reserved.