News 5 Guardians

Oct 29, 2013 10:17 PM by Eric Ross

News 5 Guardians: Apartment complex problems spark OSHA case

We're taking a closer look at why tens of thousands of your tax dollars are going toward housing elderly and low-income tenants in an apartment complex with problems.

In September, News 5 Investigates began looking into concerns of asbestos and bed bugs at Kit Carson Apartments on Marquette Drive following several complaints and viewer news tips.

The complex is once again at the center of an OSHA investigation into allegations they willfully exposed employees to asbestos. That allegation as well as many others are spelled out in OSHA documents News 5 obtained in October. Since receiving OSHA's report, several tenants have come forward claiming Kit Carson Apartment management has refused to address some of their complaints.

"Over the past few years, this place has really gone downhill," Linda Hastings said.

Hastings says conditions at the complex have gone so downhill, she's looking at new places for her 80-year-old mother to live.

"Nothing at all is being done about the bed bugs, mice, cockroaches and burglaries," she said. "She (my mother) can tell the apartment management about it and they keep saying they don't have time."

The laundry list of problems goes on. Laci Meier says the conditions were so bad, she took her newborn daughter and moved out.

"I kept finding bites on me," Meier said. "I was looking everywhere and couldn't find anything. Then when I was changing the sheets, I found little black dots moving around."

Meier believed they were bed bugs and says she found them everywhere. She's not alone. There have been complaint after complaint written about Kit Carson Apartments.

News 5 did some digging and learned you the taxpayer foot the bill for several low income seniors and families to live in the complex under Section 8 housing.

Since 2010, the Fountain Housing Authority has dished out nearly $93,000 in rent money to the complex. The Colorado Springs Housing Authority paid out another $38,000 in vouchers.

So, what are you tax dollars paying for?

"These very basic habitability standards," said Chad Wright, executive director of the Colorado Springs Housing Authority. "We're talking about access to potable water and functional fire alarms (as examples). HUD sets those requirements for us."

Are those HUD requirements enough?

In 2002, OSHA fined the complex owner $31,500 for asbestos exposure that could have caused illness. The owner, Ron Helten, settled the case for $5,500.

11 years later, this complex once again surfaced on OSHA's radar for the same problem. Edward Thiel, a maintenance man who had worked at the complex for several years before parting ways in July, agreed to sit down and talk with News 5.

During his employment, he said he was not given the proper resources and training to perform many of the maintenance tasks.

In OSHA's latest report filed this year, documents back up Thiel's statement, noting that employees were not properly trained and were exposed to asbestos during repair work. Maintenance crews were also provided respirators without proper fit-testing or medical clearance.

"Every day I work there got harder and harder," Thiel said.

Thiel showed News 5 a rash which he claims he contracted after performing maintenance work. The exact cause of that rash has yet to be determined. However, doctors continue prescribing him medication to control the infection.

Citing "unsafe working conditions," OSHA fined the complex more than $44,000 this time around.
It's important to note, OSHA's report states only that employees had been exposed to asbestos, not tenants, who have their own set of issues like bed bugs.

"The bed bugs were bad," Thiel said. "They were really bad."

We sent our News 5 Investigates chief photographer and investigative producer undercover to inquire about renting an apartment to see whether the leasing staff would back up any of the complaints made by Ed, Linda and Laci.

News 5 producer: "What about bed bugs?"

Leasing agent: "We've had a couple of people who have had them and we treat them very seriously. They get sprayed and sprayed and sprayed."

Thiel says spraying only did so much.

"The bed bugs can be in the wall," he said. "We spray and do what we can do but they can go in the wall and live there for a year."

According to experts, the only way to get rid of bed bugs is to heat the room up to at least 125 degrees for a minimum of 2 days.

Tenants also brought up a concern over lead based paint in some of the apartments.

"We do have disclosures that people sign when they sign the lease saying that there is the possibility that there is lead based paint way under the layers of paint," the leasing agent told our undercover producer. "As long as you're not chewing on the walls or peeling it and eating flakes, you're totally fine."

Many older model homes and apartment complexes contain lead based paint. However, if you move into an apartment, leasing agents are required to have you sign a disclosure form.

As far as asbestos treatment, the complex admits that asbestos is in the walls and ceilings. The leasing agent informed us it's under control.

"If there is anything as far as maintenance goes, our guys are all trained on proper procedures on that," the leasing agent said.

Not so----according to OSHA's findings. While the agency protects workers from health hazards on the job, should there be health hazards that could affect tenants, there's no real "big brother" watching overhead unless you're part of the Section 8 housing program.

"Our inspectors (involved with Section 8) go out with HUD supplied materials and visually inspect the units to make sure they meet minimum standards," Wright said.

To view HUD standards, click on the link below.

HUD Housing Quality Standards.pdf

As far as asbestos is concerned, that does not disqualify a landlord from receiving Section 8 housing money. There must be proper plumbing, electricity, and working appliances which inspectors check yearly, but remember, only the apartments with Section 8 tenants get inspected.

"If there are other units in a complex that are having issues or problems and if they are not covered under the Section 8 program, we would never inspect those units," Wright said.

News 5 asked, "Would you consider that a loophole?"

Wright replied, "No, I would consider it following HUD's regulations which we are bound to do."

For tenants who are not part of the program, they are left wondering about repairs and wanting answers.

"The owner doesn't want to spend any money," Hastings said. "He wants to get rich."

The owner, Ron Helten lives in a gated community outside of Denver. We repeatedly asked Helten for an on-camera interview, but he declined. 

Helten sent us a statement via email blaming OSHA's findings on Ed Thiel, the former maintenance man who he describes as being a disgruntled employee. He did not comment directly on OSHA's case or talk about any repairs and maintenance being performed at Kit Carson Apartments.

Helten says he plans to appeal OSHA's latest series of fines. We checked and as of Oct. 29, OSHA has not received an appeal.

As the case moves forward, we'll be sure to keep you updated with any new developments.

Background on asbestos:

Traces of asbestos are often found in older buildings and homes. It only becomes a problem if asbestos fibers are inhaled or if a person comes into direct contact with asbestos.

How to deal with problematic apartment complexes:

First, file any repair claims in writing. This way you have documentation to help build a case should you need to break your lease.

Also, be sure to document any phone calls made to leasing staff or maintenance crews.

If repair claims are not being handled correctly and in a timely manner, contact the Apartment Association of Southern Colorado at 264-9195.

Video cameras used for undercover surveillance were provided by PalmVid in Colorado Springs.

 

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