The management company that operates The Ralston, a low-income apartment building in downtown Columbus, was notified multiple times of air conditioning issues inside the facility weeks and even hours before a resident was found dead in a room that was more than 98 degrees.
Charles Hart, 60, was pronounced dead at 5:23 p.m. on July 6 in his room at the 211 12th St. facility. The cause of death was heat-related due to medical conditions, said Muscogee County Chief Deputy Coroner Freeman Worley.
Three hours before Hart was found dead, the director of the Columbus Inspections and Codes Department sent an email to Yaakov Levitin, a regional manager with PF Holdings LLC, the New Jersey-based corporation that owns and operates The Ralston, according to information obtained through Georgia’s Open Records Act. John C. Hudgison’s email to Levitin cited complaints from residents about the heat inside the rooms.
“They have complained to your management staff and are afraid of retribution including eviction of tenants that speak up about the conditions there,” Hudgison wrote in an email time-stamped at 2:23 p.m. on July 6. “With this being South Georgia, and an elderly lady calling me yesterday and telling me that inside her unit it is over 100 degrees. I need to know what PF Holdings is doing to remedy this before this also reaches an ‘unfit for human occupancy’ threshold.”
The resident complaints to the city and the National Housing Compliance, a nonprofit regulatory organization that processes U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development subsidies to The Ralston, started in late May.
A Ralston resident took a list of 17 tenants with complaints about the air conditioning to Mayor Teresa Tomlinson’s office in the government center on May 30. The mayor’s office forwarded that hand-written correspondence to Hudgison the same day.
Hudgison had been dealing with PF Holdings and Levitin on fire safety conditions in the building. After receiving the written complaint, Hudgison said he brought up the matter the next week with Levintin during a phone conversation.
“He said maintenance was looking into it,” Hudgison said.
In the July 6 email to Levitin that was sparked by additional residence complaints, Hudgison attached the complaint letter the mayor received more than a month earlier.
“We were so worried about retaliation that we did not want to put those names out there,” Hudgison said of the delay in forwarding the names to PF Holdings.
At the same time the city was receiving complaints about the heat and living conditions inside the 103-year-old building, National Housing Compliance notified the on-site management of air conditioning issues on May 31, NHC President Valerie Todaro said last week.
National Housing Compliance is an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization formed nearly 20 years ago by 10 Georgia public housing authorities, including the one in Columbus, and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, the state organization that administers federal housing funding in Georgia.
A second call about air conditioning issues came on June 15, Todaro said. Todaro would not identify the residents making the complaints, but said the residents called NHC through a hotline number that is listed inside The Ralston.
NHC contacted two people, Jewel Earl in compliance and Levitin, about the May and June air conditioning concerns, Vadaro said.
An attorney for PF Holdings LLC said last week that the management was notified of air conditioning issues with two units in late May and June. Both times the units were repaired, said Travis C. Hargrove with The Finley Group, a law firm with offices in Atlanta, Columbus and Auburn, Ala.
“It is my understanding that the work orders were issued and it did not involve Mr. Hart’s room,” Hargrove said.
Worley said the temperature was 98.6 degrees when he entered the room and the air conditioning was off. The air was then turned on, he said, but the temperature didn’t drop after more than 30 minutes.
“My folks say otherwise,” Hargrove said. He maintains that The Ralston staff turned the air conditioning on in Hart’s room after his body was found and cool air came out of the unit.
After Hart’s death, The Ralston brought in a large portable cooling unit and placed it outside the building on the 12th Street sidewalk, creating a cool zone inside the lobby of the 103-year-old building.
The Ralston is a project-based HUD Section 8 site. There are 269 Section 8 slots contracted to the owners of the Ralston. Those monthly federal vouchers are used to house low-income residents.
HUD is responsible for the facility inspections of The Ralston, which was last inspected in January, Todaro said, and NHC performs an operational review of the management group but is not responsible for inspection of the facility. The last operational inspection was done in October 2016, she said.
Through information posted inside the building, residents are encouraged to contact National Housing Compliance with any issues concerning the facility, Todaro said.
Project-based Section 8 housing is different than the nearly 3,000 individual Section 8 vouchers administered by the Housing Authority of Columbus. The owners of the building control the project-based funding. The individual vouchers are provided to people who meet the income qualifications. They then take those vouchers and go into the private real estate market where they are free to rent properties that meet HUD’s qualifications.
The Housing Authority of Columbus has no control over project-based funding at The Ralston and is not involved with that project.