Lack of code enforcement leaves trailers without hot water

2014-08-13T22:00:00Z 2014-08-14T09:22:45Z Lack of code enforcement leaves trailers without hot waterBy Emily Bregel Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Renters at a Pima County trailer park are making do without hot water or stoves after the company that supplies their propane said it’s too dangerous to refill their tanks.

The renters are lucky their homes haven’t gone up in flames, said a representative of the company that rents tanks to the park owner. On six of the seven trailers at Eagles Nest mobile home park on East Benson Highway, the park owner set up large propane tanks — as big as 120 gallons — with regulators meant for small tanks on barbecue grills, said April Knoll of Arizona Propane.

“You cannot run a whole house on that size regulator. It could cause lots of damage,” Knoll said. “It is pretty amazing that something hasn’t happened yet.”

The company put a note on the door of each resident last week saying it would no longer refill the unsafe tanks. The note said if the situation isn’t fixed in 30 days, the company will take back the tanks.

“Our job is to make sure everything is safe,” Knoll said. “If we go in there and start filling tanks running off of barbecue regulators, that could put us in deep trouble.”

It would cost $100 apiece for the tanks to get appropriate regulators, she said.

Sergio Leyva, owner of Eagles Nest, denied there is a safety issue when reached by phone on Monday. When the Star asked whether he was going to replace the regulators, Leyva said he had to speak with his lawyer. He has not returned messages left since then.

A lawyer, whom Leyva previously identified as his attorney, also did not return two messages this week.

Knoll said she talked to Leyva and also warned him that some trailers have natural-gas water heaters that can’t be safely converted to receive propane.

“He should be replacing those as well,” she said.

Renter Kylie Collins, who has an 11-month-old daughter, said she feared for her safety when she kept smelling propane in her trailer earlier this year and her landlord wouldn’t respond to her requests for a repair. She finally called the Fire Department in March, and the responding officer disconnected the propane tank. He said the tank was not compatible with the trailer’s natural-gas water heater and that the barbecue regulator posed an immediate hazard.

LIMITED CODE ENFORCEMENT

But the fire district cannot force the landlord to bring utilities up to code, said Willie Treatch, Rural/Metro Fire Department deputy fire marshal.

In Pima County, code enforcement is disseminated among various departments, including Development Services, which includes code enforcement; various fire districts; and the county Department of Environmental Quality, which deals with issues like raw sewage outside of residential properties.

But none has the authority to enforce inside residential properties. As the Star reported in June, that’s because Pima County has intentionally adopted a limited set of property maintenance codes to avoid the expense of enforcing a more robust code that would apply to the inside of residential properties.

Confusion remains over whether Pima County has oversight of mobile homes’ safety. Carmine DeBonis, Pima County Development Services director, said mobile-home tenants can make complaints about problems inside their homes — such as heating and cooling or electrical issues — to the state’s Office of Manufactured Housing, in the Arizona Department of Fire, Building and Life Safety.

But that’s not the case, said Debra Blake, deputy director of the Office of Manufactured Housing. The state office’s oversight ends after the trailers are constructed and installed, she said. Local jurisdictions are responsible for dealing with reports of code violations or zoning code issues, like adding on decks, she said.

Commercial properties are more strictly regulated in the county, Treatch said. Fire districts have enforcement authority there and can issue citations, and even shut a building down if there’s an unaddressed hazard.

LITTLE RECOURSE FOR TENANTS

Mobile-home park residents who rent their trailers have little recourse unless they have the money to hire a lawyer and pressure their landlord using the state’s landlord-tenant laws. They also can request a hearing through the Arizona Office of Administrative Hearings for $50.

At Eagles Nest, residents don’t have any hot water, stoves or heat, which will be a bigger problem in the winter.

“It’s not right,” said renter Chico el Santo, 52, who has lived in the park for about a year. “So many of them (landlords) want money for doing nothing. At some point, the city or county should step in and do something.”

Collins has been boiling water on an electric hot plate and using it to bathe her baby. She said she’s been trying to move, but she hasn’t been able to find anyone who will rent to her because she has an eviction on her record because of the ongoing dispute over the propane tanks.

Months ago she withheld rent payments in an effort to pressure her landlord, Leyva, to repair the tank. Legal advocates say withholding rent is never a good idea because nonpayment can be a valid basis for eviction, but Collins said she didn’t know what else to do.

Leyva filed an eviction in Pima County Justice Court, but Collins appealed with her own complaint about what she said are her landlord’s failures under the Arizona Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. Her case is now in Superior Court and she says she is making rent payments to the Justice Court.

She said she’s fed up that no one is holding her landlord accountable. Various facets of local code enforcement keep “pointing the finger at somebody else,” she said.

CITY ENFORCEMENT

The situation might be different if Eagles Nest were a mile to the west or a quarter mile north, inside Tucson city limits.

City code enforcement has the authority to go after landlords under a Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, adopted in 2003. The city’s code enforcement department used to send inspectors to look for violations and fine negligent property owners as part of a slum-abatement task force. But since the recession, the department has fewer inspectors on staff and mostly responds to complaints.

About seven years ago, Pima County considered creating something like the city’s slum task force. But it abandoned the area because of anticipated costs in the millions — including the cost of relocating people whose homes were condemned.

Yves Khawam, Pima County’s chief building official, said the Development Services Department could possibly expand its authority to situations in which low-income tenants are exploited by landlords. But he said the department would need a proposal quantifying how often that happens and how much it could cost to tackle the problem.

“If this is a service that could be beneficial on a small scale,” he said, “that could be something we could consider.”

Contact reporter Emily Bregel at 807-7774 or ebregel@tucson.com. On Twitter: @EmilyBregel

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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