The Department of Housing and Urban Development ordered areas of the Ralston Towers temporarily evacuated Wednesday due to lack of hot water and a portion of the facility being declared unsafe by city officials.
With temperatures expected to reach a low of 25 degrees on Wednesday night, HUD officials told the Ralston's management company to move out residents and temporarily house them in hotels until the heating issues can be repaired, said HUD spokesman Joe Phillips.
"All of the residents with insufficient heat have to be moved into local motels at the owner's expense," Phillips said.
HUD was made aware of the lack of hot water and and portions of the facility being declared unsafe for human occupancy Wednesday morning by City Inspections and Code Director John Hudgison.
In the letter to PF Ralston L.L.C., Hudgison wrote: “Given this department’s concern for the potential health and safety of the Ralston residents, we ask that you immediately undertake the following measures to protect your residents until the entire existing heating system can be repaired,” the city wrote in the letter to owners. “”Such temporary measures should be instigated no later than 9:00 AM, Monday January 8th ...”
The recommended measures included:
- Moving tenants to areas in the building where the heat and hot water are functioning properly.
- Instructing residents about the dangers of cold and areas in the facility where they will be kept properly heated.
- Assessing each unit to determine its temperature and availability of heating and hot water.
- Posting notices on the door of any unit with a room temperature of 68 degrees, or less, stating that the unit is not habitable and should be vacated.
- Posting a notice on the door of any unit that cannot provide hot water, stating that the unit is not habitable and should be vacated.
- Relocating tenants whose units are closed at the owner’s expense.
HUD is not sure the number of residents impacted, Phillips said. There are 269 Section 8 slots contracted to the owners of the Ralston. Those monthly federal vouchers are used to house low-income residents.
"It is a fairly fluid situation," Phillips said.
Hudgison said his office learned of the issues Tuesday morning when they returned to work from the three-day holiday weekend. The city received complaints from residents about being cold and a lack of hot water.
A city inspector went to the facility on Tuesday, Hudgison said. HUD officials were notified Wednesday morning, Phillips said.
"HUD's main concern is the furnace and the heating conditions, while we have two concerns," Hudgison said. "We are also concerned about the hot water issues."
A city inspector will return to the building later this week or early next week to see if the issues have been addressed, Hudgison said.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said the city was unable to reach Ralston management by phone Wednesday afternoon, but the city was preparing to help relocate residents if necessary. She said temporary shelters would be available overnight, and the city would partner with Home for Good, United Way and the Red Cross if long-term shelter is needed.
However, she reiterated that it’s the company’s responsibility, not the city’s to handle the evacuation.
“We’re trying to facilitate because these folks are citizens of Columbus, Georgia, not because we have any responsibility to relocate them,” the mayor said. “This is not a city building. We don’t own it. We don’t have oversight over it. It’s only through the building and code inspection that apply to every structure within the county that we have any jurisdiction at all.”
Ralston residents and staff were unaware of the decision from HUD and the building was calm and quiet when a reporter went to the tower shortly after 3 p.m. Residents were gathered in the cafeteria and chatting in the building lobby.
One resident said he had no heat or hot water in his room, but said he was okay because he had a space heater.
Tomlinson said the city had been inspecting the Ralston every two weeks since November. She said the company had been in violation of city code, and the officials had given the company time to resolve the issues.
PF Holdings LLC, a New Jersey-based corporation, owns and operates The Ralston.
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. Through information posted inside the building, residents are encouraged to contact the National Housing Compliance in Atlanta with any issues.
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. Columbus Housing Authority Chief Executive Officer Len Williams said Wednesday afternoon he was not aware of the HUD decision to have residents moved out of the Ralston.
Staff writer Scott Berson contributed to this report.