City code enforcement officials inspected The Ralston Monday morning and found 26 units non-compliant with directives set forth by the city.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson made the announcement, along with City Code Enforcement Director John Hudginson, during a news conference in the mayor’s office.
The inspection came four days after 60-year-old Charles Hart died in a room topping 98 degrees. Chief Deputy Muscogee County Coroner Freeman Worley has said the cause of death will be heat-related due to medical conditions.
On Friday, the city ordered the building’s New Jersey-based owner, PF Ralston LLC, to undertake temporary measures to protect residents from heat at 211 12th St. or relocate affected residents. The company was given until 9 a.m. Monday to comply.
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Tomlinson said Hudginson and his staff arrived Monday morning and checked every room in the building to make sure the temperature was 80 degrees or below.
“Out of the 269 units, approximately 200 of which are inhabited, 26 were found to be out of compliance, meaning they couldn’t maintain a temperature less than 80 degrees,” said Tomlinson. “There are approximately 50 vacancies in the Ralston right now. It is believed that at least 20 of those have operating air systems.”
Tomlinson said the city hopes owners will bring the 26 units into compliance by Tuesday, or move occupants to rooms within The Ralston that meet the 80-degree threshold.
“Of course, as we have made it clear, should they not be brought into compliance and maintained in compliance, then we will not hesitate to shut down those particular units,” the mayor said. “... If it requires (residents) being moved out of the Ralston, they will be moved out of the Ralston at the expense of PF Holdings, LLC.”
In that case, the city would help relocate people through community partners such as Home for Good and the Columbus Public Housing Authority, she explained.
Tomlinson said she wanted to make it clear that The Ralston is not owned by the city or the Columbus Public Housing Authority. It’s owned by PF Holdings, LLC, and funded, in part, by a federal Housing and Urban Development program, she said. HUD handles the building’s annual inspections since it’s the funding agency.
The mayor said Hudginson has alerted HUD of the city’s findings, and she expects the federal agency will take necessary measures.
When asked who should be held responsible for the situation, the mayor said: “I would say the buck stops with the owner.”
Hudginson said he and his staffed inspected all 10 floors of the building on Monday, and then they red flagged all units where the cooling system was not operational.
In some units, the thermostats were not set properly, he said. In others, there were no thermostats at all or they were broken.
“We went to every unit,” he said. “Some people didn’t want us in there. Some of them said, ‘Yes, my air is working and I’m fine. Others were like, ‘I’m fine at 85 degrees.’ So we told the owner of the property to notate that properly. ”
Hudginson said the property owner had portable cooling equipment on hand Monday to address some of the problems. He said code enforcement would do a follow-up inspection by the end of the day Tuesday to determine if the 26 units have been brought into compliance
When asked if Hart’s air conditioning unit was off at the time of his death, as some have claimed, Hudginson said inspectors didn’t have owner information when they checked the units, but the information could be obtained.
While in the building, Hudginson said code inspectors also looked for leaky pipes, holes in walls that could harbor infestations and proper ingress/egress. He said Columbus Fire and Safety is in the process of rewiring the building’s fire alarm system.
Tomlinson said the city received complaints as early as May 30 about the air conditioning. Property owners were put on notice at that time, and the deadline was approaching at the time of Hart’s death.
On Monday, some Ralston residents sat outside the building in the sweltering heat.
One 61-year-old man said the air conditioning unit in his apartment wasn’t working, and he’s been using fans to stay cool. Yet, he wants to stay in the unit.
“I’ve been there for almost six years and I like where I’m at,” he said. “The only problem I’m having is heat.”
Another man on dialysis said he had a heat stroke about three weeks ago because his unit hit 96 degrees. He said he had to be rushed to Midtown Medical Center by ambulance. He spent 10 days there, and then went to his sister’s place for a week.
The man said the air conditioning in his room began working Thursday. He’s back at The Ralston, but doesn’t believe the building is fit for habitation.
“Shut the whole thing down,” he said. “People shouldn’t be living here.”