Posted: November 8, 2012 at 1:31 pm

By: Jane Abenir and Dan Sweeney

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – From the outside, the house looks a little worse for wear, nothing out of the ordinary. The paint is dull and chipping; the chips create a tree-like texture on the front wall.  Inside, however, wet rust-colored spots are visible on the ceiling and one wall, and the smell of mold lingers in the air.

Lucy Sutton, who lives inside this house on Grant Avenue, says the bathroom above the living room occasionally overflows and water drips down into the living room. She says that she has complained to the landlord, Joseph Nevara, and the city’s housing office about the water damage and mold. But nothing has been done.

The water damage in Sutton’s rental property on Grant Avenue is rotting the walls and columns in the three-story house.

“The last time the code officials were through here, they said everything was up to code,” says Sutton, a junior at West Virginia University.

While city housing officials say they have no record of a complaint from Sutton, she isn’t the only one who lives in unsafe conditions in the city of Morgantown.   Similar housing code violations can be found all over the city, according to Morgantown Code Enforcement Office records.  Some of the most common complaints involve problems like water damage, faulty heating, holes in the floor or walls, big tears in the carpet, leaky ceilings and broken doors and steps.  Over 50 percent of the cases also cite accumulated rubbish piled high in the front and backyards of the  listed properties.

“In most leases it says that landlords should be contacted for house repairs,” says Nicholas Filardo, a graduate student at WVU. ” But when they are, nothing seems to get done.”

However, city officials say they work hard to keep Morgantown’s housing up to code.  Ann Skinner, the city’s Rental Housing Coordinator, says officials endeavor to inspect the more than 8,000 rental properties within city limits every three years.  If the housing office receives a complaint, it will work a re-inspection into its schedule to address the new concerns, she says.

“Just because a place is up to code doesn’t mean it’s going to look like the Taj Mahal,” Skinner says.

She acknowledges that the city’s code enforcement office is currently understaffed. There are only three housing code inspectors working at present. A fourth inspector is on medical leave, she says.

Out of the nearly 1800 code violations recorded since 2011, housing code officials say owners or landlords have done the necessary repairs in order to comply with the city’s housing code about 75 to 80 percent of the time. However, 357 cases still remain open or unresolved. Fines have been levied in 62 cases and landlords or owners found guilty of housing code violations in 50 cases. Yet despite so many violations, only 37 houses have actually been condemned, according to housing records.

Russ Randolph, a realtor at Pearand Corporation, LLC, says that most of the housing code inspectors do a good job. But he expressed concerns about the consistency of the inspections.

Three condemned and empty houses sit in a row on Grant Avenue. They not only pose a fire and safety hazard but means three less  houses that WVU students can lease.

“It depends who you get, as far as what violations you can expect them to look for,” Randolph says.

Morgantown’s fire marshals also inspect city property to look for fire hazards that could be life threatening such as a blockage to any possible fire exits and non-working fire extinguishers.

Code violators are cited, fined and unresolved cases can lead to court hearings, says Skinner.  The possibility of a property being condemned is high if nothing is done about the problem. But fines are low — they range from $50 to over $1000, and Skinner acknowledges that no property owners have ever faced jail time. Once the housing code office issues a citation, Monongalia County Court handles the punishments from that point on. The worse that could happen is an owner having his or her driver’s license suspended.

According to the file on the Grant Avenue house that Sutton rents, it doesn’t appear as though the housing code office took any action against her landlord in response to her repeated complaints. Although Sutton claims to have called the code enforcement office, the office has nothing on file. The last inspection took place on February 28, 2011 and astonishingly, Sutton says, the housing inspector who conducted it found no evidence of water damage.

Sutton plans to keep calling the housing office in the hope that something eventually will be fixed. But she fears that her landlord will do nothing and the house will just get condemned.

“And then I’ll have to move,” says Sutton with a sigh of resignation.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility. the property in question on Grant Avenue has been condemned twice in the last five years.