Home, bitter home: The housing story Mountain Xpress’ publisher killed

by David Forbes March 31, 2014

Pardon the long introduction, but the facts in this case are important. In December, Mountain Xpress‘ publisher killed a piece on tenant rights because he didn’t want landlords negatively portrayed. Here’s what happened.

Last October a county resident approached me with serious concerns about conditions at his home and the conduct of a management company.

After a preliminary look I found that there was more than enough information to proceed, including documented investigations by both Buncombe County and the Asheville Board of Realtors.

In the following weeks, I worked extensively with Peter Gregutt, an experienced and respected editor, to craft a quality story. He rigorously fact-checked my information and by mid-December we had a good piece, titled “Home, bitter home” ready to run.

I’ve covered tenants’ rights and housing issues for many years at Xpress, and had done a major investigative story on the topic as recently as mid-October. Housing problems in the county, the recourses tenants have and the obstacles they deal with are an essential part of the larger issues facing the area. This story seemed like the logical next step in informing the public.

On Dec. 13, the story was laid out on the pages, ready to go in the Dec. 18 edition. The piece was pulled last-minute at the order of publisher Jeff Fobes. At first I was told this was because of “space concerns.” But then it didn’t show up in the ensuing weeks.

This is incredibly unusual. While it’s not unheard of to delay a story if space is tight, it usually runs a week or two later. About two weeks later, I was told that the story was pulled because our publisher didn’t want to portray landlords in a negative light.

I was troubled, and said so. But over the next months, I had plenty of other issues to tackle, especially as Xpress’ workers are in the middle of a labor fight over numerous management issues that affect working conditions and the coverage the public receives. I still hoped that the publisher might reconsider and we could reach an agreement to run the story largely as written.

However, on Feb. 19 I received more information from managing editor Margaret Williams in a rundown of pending story ideas. Now the piece I’d worked on for over a month was ranked low-priority in a list of future stories, and she said it would require a drastic “revisioning” to run.

They (Fobes’ remarks were included in the review too) insisted that a central part of this “revisioning” included reframing the story around the “challenges” faced by landlords, including elaborating how they could better evict tenants they had a problem with.

I was appalled. This sort of overhaul was extremely unethical on a number of levels: it wasn’t backed up by the facts of this case and would distort the larger issues raised by the story.

It’s also absolutely against our usual practice. When Xpress covered the CTS groundwater contamination story, for example, we didn’t insert material on corporations that are doing a great job not polluting or focus on the “challenges” companies like CTS face. That’s not the point, and such “revisioning” betrays the core purposes of journalism.

While a reporter should strive to be fair, we shouldn’t shoehorn in information to make things seem sunnier because the reality of a particular investigation makes a publisher (or an advertiser, or a reader) uncomfortable.

I’ve worked as a journalist for over a decade and while I haven’t always seen eye to eye with editors, I have never seen a case like this happen.

I worked on the other story ideas, racking my brain for some ethical resolution to this situation. But on March 14, Williams insisted I respond in detail to each of the story ideas. That weekend, I did. I refused to overhaul “Home, bitter home” in the unethical manner they required, and expressed my serious problems with their order and the thinking behind it.

On March 20, Williams again insisted that I change the story to portray landlords positively, warning that reporters who don’t conform to Xpress’ “direction” might be terminated. Again, I refused.

It’s clear at this point that they refuse to run the story in any ethical form, so I have set up this page.

As a journalist, I have a duty to inform the public. That duty goes beyond who signs my paycheck.

I believe this story, and the facts behind the attempt to crush it, must be known. Reader, you can judge.

-David Forbes

Home, bitter home

What recourse for tenants with housing complaints?

[NOTE: Because it’s not running in Xpress, I’ve removed “so-and-so told Xpress”-style references and added some brief notes, but otherwise have left the piece unaltered from the version originally slated to run Dec. 18]

When Dave Mittler and his girlfriend moved into a rental house near Weaverville in November of last year [2012], they believed they’d found a nice country home close to Asheville, complete with gazebo and deck. Mittler does remember feeling some frustration over having to clean up mold and mildew shortly after moving into 321 Moody Cove Road, and he wondered whether there was a leak somewhere. Still, for $850 a month, it seemed like a good deal.

“We thought we might have parties once in a while, invite some friends over,” he recalls.

Instead, it marked the start of a monthslong conflict with the management company, Asheville Phoenix Properties.

“It’s just been hell,” says Mittler, claiming that the mold situation led to multiple health problems for his girlfriend and considerable mental distress for both of them. He has photos showing mold in the windowsills and gaps in the foundation. And when he cleaned off the mold, he reports, it just grew back. Meanwhile, he began to feel concerns about how stable the deck was and whether the wood stove was safe to use. “I’ll be honest,” he continues. “I’ve been shocked.”

Launching a one-man crusade to get those issues addressed, Mittler called the fire marshal’s office, which deals with housing complaints in the county. And on March 6, he took the unusual step of filing a complaint with the Asheville Board of Realtors.

In the following months, county inspectors identified multiple significant problems with the house, and on Oct. 4 of this year [2013], the Board of Realtors sent Phoenix an official letter of reprimand for a “lack of regard for the rights, safety, and health of tenants.” The board’s grievance committee, however, also found that Phoenix had made “every effort … to bring home into compliance” after the initial inspection, and in documents filed with the board, the company charged that Mittler had interfered with its attempts to get repairs made.

Assistant Fire Marshal Kile Davis says his office investigates about five complaints a week concerning substandard rental housing, in addition to its other duties. And while Mittler’s case “was a little extreme,” Davis says the problems were typical of the issues he sees in mobile homes and older housing. Buncombe County, he notes, extends “all the way from Sandy Mush to Haywood. We look at a lot of landlords.”

In an interview several months ago, attorney Tom Gallagher of Pisgah Legal Services told a similar story. The nonprofit handles cases in both Asheville and Buncombe County, and while he stressed that some landlords “are diligent and caring, we’re seeing dozens on a weekly basis that are not.”

Asked about Mittler’s case, Phoenix Properties co-owner Donna Prinz referred to her attorney. At press time, the attorney had not responded to requests for comment.

[NOTE: About a week after the story was initially axed, Prinz’s attorney, Doug Tate, got back to me and said he might be able to pull together a statement or further information. I told him I would be happy to incorporate it into the story. I’ve had contact with him several more times, most recently in late February, and repeated the request. So far, I’ve received no statement.]

Structural issues

Although state law requires landlords to provide a “fit and habitable home,” local governments in North Carolina have limited powers in dealing with tenant complaints, particularly where mold is concerned (see “Breaking the Mold,” Oct. 16 Xpress). In some situations, tenants’ only real recourse is a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, housing costs in the Asheville area are rising rapidly, state data show, and more and more people are seeking cheaper rents beyond the city limits. But the county’s aging housing stock is often poorly maintained, notes Gallagher. And together with a “growing disparity between rich and poor,” he continues, the result is more unsafe housing complaints than Pisgah Legal Services can keep up with.

According to the fire marshal’s office, rental housing code complaints have been filed against seven different properties managed by Phoenix since 2011. At this writing, five, including Mittler’s, were still considered “active,” meaning the county agency hasn’t signed off on them, and the properties cannot be re-rented till it does.

Mittler says he began calling Phoenix last December, repeatedly asking them to address issues with mold, the home’s basic structure and the wood stove. He also claims that he asked for his rent money back, and to be let out of the lease, but was initially refused.

In February, Mittler called the fire marshal’s office, which sent Davis out on Feb. 5. The inspection found that the stovepipe was improperly installed, smoke detectors didn’t work, there was mold, a leak in the roof in the back bedroom, and a deteriorating foundation. “Whenever a landlord rents a property, it has to meet a certain standard of livability,” Davis explains. “It don’t have to be pretty, but it does have to be safe and reasonably sanitary.”

And if mold, for example, is caused by something like a roof leak, the fire marshal’s office can make the landlord repair it and push them to clean up the mold. After Davis or another marshal notes a problem, they work with the county’s building inspectors to make sure repairs are made, the permits are correct, and the problems are fixed before the property is rented again. The agency can also issue fines for things like fire hazards and structural issues, if they’re not addressed.

“We’re the go-between guys,” says Davis. “When the tenants have reached the end of their rope with the landlord and feel like they can’t get anything fixed, they contact us. We come in and we require the landlords to fix these problems.” Landlords, he notes, can also request an inspection if they feel a tenant is damaging the property.

On Feb. 14, Phoenix sent the fire marshal’s office a letter saying they’d hired a number of companies to make the necessary repairs.

But Mittler, who says he’s a licensed contractor in Florida, asserts that some of those repairs were inadequate or improperly done. And in a Feb. 20 follow-up, county building inspectors indeed found that foundation and stove repairs had been done without the proper permits, and the deck was deemed “deficient and possibly dangerous.” After another complaint by Mittler, an April 9 inspection found that the deck work hadn’t been permitted either.

Mittler moved out on Nov. 1, 2013. And shortly before that, on Oct. 23, yet another inspection found that the foundation repairs made earlier in the year showed signs of settling, which could contribute to water intrusion, and that mold was still a problem. An Oct. 23 letter again directed Phoenix to make repairs, warning that the property couldn’t be rented again until the problems were fixed.

As this story went to press, the property was listed for rent on Phoenix’s website. That’s not a problem, Davis explains, as long as the issues are addressed before any new tenant moves in.

Mounting tension

Founded in 1995 by Asheville natives Prinz and Pat Puckridge, Phoenix manages numerous properties in the area. Both owners are licensed real estate brokers, with a combined 75 years of business experience, according to the company’s website. As of Dec. 13, the site listed 18 properties for rent. Documents Phoenix submitted to the Board of Realtors state that the company has a clean record.

A series of letters between Mittler and Phoenix make it clear that tensions were running high by this time. Mittler, who admits to being angry and frustrated, says he began protesting outside the company’s offices in February to put further pressure on them to address the issues at his home.

On Feb. 25, Phoenix did agree to let Mittler and his girlfriend, Sherrie Pace, move out without any penalty. But despite an offer to return their security deposit, Mittler says they didn’t have enough money to move. Like many renters, Pace has declined to comment on the situation.

The letter, however, also advised Mittler that “From this point on, all communications need to be in writing or via email” and noted that “the Asheville Police Department” had been informed that he was barred from the company’s offices. Charging that he’d tried to intimidate Phoenix and its contractors, and to “block and obstruct repairs,” the letter threatened Mittler with eviction if he denied contractors entry into his residence. The letter also stated, “We strongly disagree that you are not being provided with a safe and healthy condition.”

Mittler admits that he refused to let some workers come in, saying he was reluctant to have more work done without the proper permits (which county inspectors subsequently found to be the case). He also concedes that in his frustration with the situation, he sometimes became quite angry with Phoenix’s representatives and, during hearings, became so agitated that he had to leave the room until he’d calmed down.

Seeking redress

“Our process is there to give the public an outlet if they have a complaint against one of our members,” says [Board of Realtors] Communications Director Corean Hamlin, adding, “It’s as due process as possible.”

People with grievances, whether they’re tenants or are buying or selling property, can contact the board and request a complaint form. It asks them to describe the problem, who was responsible for the alleged violation, and which particular portion of the National Association of Realtors code of ethics they believe was violated; board staff are available to answer questions. A grievance committee appointed by the board assesses whether the complaint involves behaviors covered by the ethics code. If it does, a hearing panel then considers the case, basing its decision on the complaint form, the member’s response, and any other evidence submitted by either party.

Potential sanctions range from requiring more training, to issuing a warning or reprimand, to fining or even expelling the member. Such measures, notes Hamlin, carry considerable weight, given the central importance of the private trade association’s listings and connections to the business of buying and selling property.

Expulsion, she explains, “would be an option if the committee was concerned that someone was going to continue to harm the public.”

The complaint process, however, is little-used: Hamlin estimates that only about 10 cases a year go through it — a number she calls “surprisingly low: We have around 1,300 members.” Most landlords and tenants, she maintains, manage to avoid things ever getting to that point.

Limited options

Neither the Board of Realtors nor its representatives are allowed to discuss specific grievances — and, unlike complaints to government agencies, these are not public record. However, I did obtain copies of some of the documents filed in this particular case.

On July 2, citing many of the same issues found by county inspectors, the six-person grievance committee ruled that the house had not been “properly and completely inspected” before Mittler moved in, and that “The home was in a state of disrepair to the point of being dangerous.”

Phoenix appealed the ruling, claiming that it had made multiple efforts to address the issues. The appeal also stated that the initial hearing had been “punctuated by the verbal outbursts and jousting of Mr. Mittler,” and that he had briefly left the room. In addition, it asserted that the property owner, Paul Marmish, was pleased with Phoenix’s management, and that many of the issues identified by county inspectors “are not necessarily those that employees of [Phoenix] or any realtor would readily know and question.” Pointing out that this was the first time Phoenix had been cited by the board for a violation, it argued for a milder penalty, such as a letter of warning.

In October, however, just as Mittler was preparing to move out, a Board of Realtors tribunal upheld the initial ruling and issued Phoenix the letter of reprimand (which had been delayed while the appeal was being considered).

Pace had already moved out — due in part, says Mittler, to health issues and the strain of the ongoing attempts to get the property repaired.

Mittler, who now lives in Leicester, says that Phoenix did return his security deposit — even though he’d withheld the last two months’ rent on account of the safety issues. But though he’s pleased that the board found in his favor, he’s still concerned about the overall plight of renters in Buncombe County.

“It feels like there isn’t empathy for working people,” Mittler observes. “Even at the [Board of Realtors] hearing, I was asked, ‘Why didn’t you just move out?’ We had tried, but we’re blue-collar people: We didn’t have two grand to move back out. Most people don’t.”