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City targets Thompson Hotel, other rental properties over ‘horrific’ living conditions

WORTHINGTON -- Conditions inside the Thompson Hotel apartments in downtown Worthington have become so poor, according to renters and police officers, that the city is considering changing the way it enforces health and safety violations that occu...

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Pictured is the Thompson Hotel in Worthington. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON - Conditions inside the Thompson Hotel apartments in downtown Worthington have become so poor, according to renters and police officers, that the city is considering changing the way it enforces health and safety violations that occur in housing developments.

The city has identified other apartment complexes as problematic, too. But officials say the Thompson Hotel is at the point where it may be a public health crisis.

Worthington Police Department (WPD) officers were called to the 39-unit apartment building 56 times in the last calendar year. While inside, officers described the living conditions as unlivable.

“I’ve personally witnessed a bed covered in bugs to the point where the wooden frame of the bed was no longer visible,” read the report of one officer, according to Worthington Director of Public Safety Troy Appel.

Mold, water damage, broken glass, stains and cockroaches running wild were just some of the problems mentioned in police reports.

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When one ventures inside the former hotel, they are greeted by the thick, suffocating stench of mold and roaches. One officer called it “almost indescribable.” In his words, the smell “almost has a texture to it that can be felt.”

Venturing further into the building’s hallways, clusters of dead insects hug some of the walls. The floors and ceilings are heavily stained. Liquid drips out of the damaged third floor ceilings.

Inside the apartment of one renter, who preferred to remain anonymous, cockroaches of all shapes and sizes frequent the kitchen area in broad daylight. Many more come out at night, the renter said.

“There’s generations of them here,” the renter said. “Millions of them.”

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Pictured are insects within Thompson Hotel apartments. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe)

Every night, the renter gets a bite, or several bites, from the swarm of bed bugs inhabiting their mattress. The individual said they tried various treatments to no avail, and contacted the owner to no avail.

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The renter has contacted various agencies about the problem, also to no avail. The renter, who is hoping to move out as soon as possible, said the city needs to intervene now.

“They need to do something, because there’s babies here,” the renter said. “If we’re getting bit so bad, what’s happening to the babies?”

Another anonymous renter - both renters said they feared eviction - said they had excessive amounts of mold growing in their apartment, along with other specific issues.

Several residents have contacted Legal Aid in hopes of dealing with the health and safety issues. A common theme among renters is that they want to find a new place to live, but cannot find affordable rental housing in town.

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Pictured are hallways within Hotel Thompson apartments. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe)

‘What can we do?’ Worthington City Council members and city officials discussed the issue during a special work session Wednesday, saying the city does not have the means to enforce its own health and safety rules.

Appel, along with other city officials, said the city has long missed former sanitarian Jason Kloss, who accepted a job at Southwest Health and Human Services in 2011 when Nobles-Rock Community Health Services was disbanded.

“We lost that go-to person we could call that could direct this back to the landlord and hold them accountable … by the court process or by rental agreements,” Appel said.

City Administrator Steve Robinson said various agencies that go into apartment buildings, such as Nobles County Community Services and WPD, have to better communicate with the city.

“We each know there’s problems but we’re not telling each other, so there’s no concerted and focused effort to enforce it,” Robinson said.

Rod Odell, housing inspector for the city, said he last checked out the Thompson Hotel on Aug. 10, 2017. At that point, things weren’t as bad. The owner of the property has since changed his extermination service because it wasn’t working, Odell said. He has not re-examined the property since.

According to the Nobles County Auditor’s Office, Curtis and Teresa Williams are the owners of the property.

Odell said 41 landlords did not comply with inspection requests last summer. He focused his efforts on those 41, and got about 30 to comply. The rest are still not in compliance.

Odell sent correction orders, in the form of calls and letters, to an apartment complex on the corner of 10th Street and Eighth Avenue to fix several issues, but never got a response from the owner.

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Apartments located on the corner of 10th Street and Eighth Avenue have reportedly failed to comply with city correction orders. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe)

City officials explained the city does not have proper channels to punish landlords that do not meet inspection requirements or comply with correction orders. It can bring a case to court, but city officials say judges are stretched thin and often don’t want to take on such cases.

“We want to look at avenues that give us more enforcement authority on a quicker basis that has more teeth, where we don’t have to rely on the judicial system or wait for court dockets,” Robinson said.

Council members agreed and said something needs to change - soon.

“These kids are now bringing it to school possibly, whatever it may be,” said Councilman Chad Cummings. “These adults that are living there are bringing it to workplaces … so what can we do?”

Exploring increased enforcement City officials have identified several ways in which its current ordinances are ineffective at keeping rental properties safe and clean.

Currently, registered landlords that don’t comply with requests to clean up their property pay the same fee as landlords that do comply - and have inspections just as frequently, Robinson said.

Fines for landlords that fail to fix housing code violations - $50 for the first notification and $100 for the second notification - are also far too low to encourage landlords to comply, said Jason Brisson, community and economic development director.

“If we’ve got a $100 fine and someone’s looking at a $5,000 bill, they’ll just write the $100 check and be done with it,” Brisson said.
Councilman Alan Oberloh floated the idea of assessing a $1,000 fine per unit to landlords that do not comply with correction orders.

“Any other administrative-type fine we have in the city, the dock permits, all the things we associate fees with, is supposed to be based on offsetting the cost of doing the service,” Oberloh said.

Robinson said heavy penalties could make landlords more willing to comply. Right now, the city has to get a court order to get access to an apartment if the landlord does not let them in.

“If we can do it ourselves and make it clear to landlords that they grant us access or they’ll be sorry that they didn’t, that’s the direction we need to go,” Robinson said.

Brisson said the city could treat the system like an insurance policy - where landlords with a good track record have less frequent inspections than landlords with documented issues.

Appel told council members the city needs to have a three-pronged approach: education, prevention and enforcement.

Education, he said, means educating people who allow these circumstances and are comfortable living with them of the dangers of such an unhealthy environment. That would be tied to prevention - making tenants and landlords take steps to prevent the conditions from deteriorating in the future.

“Short term, you can require strict enforcement and clean a place up and chances are, several months later it’s right back where it started,” Appel said.
Based on the reports he has heard, Robinson said the Thompson Hotel building could be tagged for condemnation, meaning the city could declare it is not fit to live in. Appel estimated the building would require an extensive makeover to fix its issues.

City council members raised the concern that emptying the building would leave residents without a place to live.

The city will wait to hear a legal opinion from City Attorney Mark Shephard before taking any sort of official action. But officials agree: action needs to be taken soon.

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