As was written in this space in April, “Ninety days might not seem like much time to property owners in New Jersey, but it’s an eternity to people here in Columbus who don’t know what’s going to happen to the place where some of them have lived for years.”
The 90-day reference was to a deadline the Columbus Inspections and Code Department gave absentee owners of the Ralston Towers after what a March safety code report confirmed about the deplorable condition of the HUD-contracted low-income residential facility that once was a showcase Columbus hotel.
Malfunctioning fire panels and a defective fire pump were reported more than a year ago, fire alarm and sprinkler problems in January.
It’s now tragically clear those weren’t the only life-threatening safety problems at the Ralston. Charles Hart, 60, died Thursday from what Muscogee County Chief Deputy Coroner Freeman Worley said were heat-related causes.
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The temperature in Hart’s room, Worley said, was 98.6 degrees.
Hart was not the only Ralston resident without air conditioning in a summer that over the last few days had turned brutally hot, in a region where sweltering summer weather is the norm. Nor had the air conditioning problem just cropped up.
“I was here a month ago and had the same issues with a different person but it wasn’t as hot outside,” Worley told Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Ben Wright. “It was not quite as hot inside. It’s cooking in there now.”
The community, as it always does, has rallied to the Ralston residents’ aid with donations of money, fans, ice water and other kinds of help. But even good hearts and good works can’t undo gross mismanagement and neglect.
After the spring revelations, Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Meyer and Mayor Teresa Tomlinson wrote the building’s owners that the Ralston must “either be brought into code compliance or provisions started to relocate the residents to another location until such time as the building is deemed code compliant.”
Time ran out on Charles Hart; now it might be running out on PF Holdings LLC, the New Jersey ownership company.
A Friday news release from the mayor’s office said PF Holdings was “put on notice to immediately remedy any cooling system malfunctions through repair or common cooling stations for the safety and benefit of its residents.”
In an attached letter, Inspections & Code Director John Hudgison called the portion of the building where Hart died “unsafe for human occupancy” and a violation not just of city codes but of the 2012 International Property Maintenance Code.
PF Holdings is ordered to move tenants to parts of the building with working air conditioner units; inform residents of heat hazards and areas where they will be safe; assess each of the Ralston’s 269 units for room temperature and air conditioning function; post a notice on the door of any unit where a temperature of 80 or cooler can’t be maintained; and relocate tenants of those units at the owners’ expense.
There’s no 90-day window on this one.
”Such temporary measures,” Hudgison wrote, “should be instigated no later than 9:00 AM, Monday, July 10th” (as in, first thing tomorrow morning).
There’s also no “honor system” or “good faith” expectation of compliance: Inspections & Code people will be there waiting, and if the owners don’t come through, “we will have no choice but to declare the building unsafe and prohibit … habitation or resident entry until the repairs are made.”
What happens if the vulnerable Ralston residents’ New Jersey landlords can’t or won’t do what should have been done months and probably years ago? Trying to enforce not just compliance but basic decency on the part of a faceless corporate entity a thousand miles away is tough enough under any circumstances. The circumstances here have gone from outrageous to horrifying.