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Problem Solvers: Tenants in limbo after apartments deemed hazardous

Posted at 7:24 PM, Nov 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-30 07:37:31-05

TULSA, Okla. — A west Tulsa apartment building needs to be condemned, but it’s taking longer than expected.

“We believe the fire in that building, we could, we could have a major life loss,” said Tulsa Fire Marshal Andy Teeter.

The Tulsa Fire Department said the building was never permitted and isn’t up to code for a multi-family apartment. The building is an old church that was half-way turned into several units a few years ago.

“There's so many code violations we've got, like, black mold stuff in the ceilings," Darla Renfro said. "There's nobody to clean the restrooms and of course, none of these are cleaned up after themselves. There's roaches as he hasn't sprayed for bugs in the last probably three months. So, it's just been bad.”

Renfro is a tenant and pays rent to live in the building even though things aren’t maintained.

The landlord, Chri De Bruyn, said the building isn’t apartments but a shelter for those who have nowhere else to go.

“I try to help people on the street who no one wants,” De Bruyn said.

De Bruyn said he’s tried to keep up maintenance but the tenants destroy the property. He also said he helped put them up in the building as a way to help them.

However, a search of property records do not indicate the property has ever been registered as a non-profit or charity.

Renfro and the other tenants are all in a tricky situation when it comes to finding housing. All of the tenants at the building have experienced homelessness, struggle to make ends meet, and some have criminal backgrounds. This building was the only housing that would take many of them.

“Most of these people are the same way they check to check on Social Security. So that's money is the reason we haven't moved," Renfro said.

The Tulsa Fire Department worked with the property for nearly a year trying to improve safety while the city attempts to find housing for the tenants who still live there.

“It was originally built as a school, our research has shown and it operated as a church for many years," Teeter said. "After that, we believe that at some point it was a single family relative residence. As of late. We've had someone take the property and turn it into an apartment. And, right now there's. We've found that there's 13 units inside this. This apartment and 18 people living in there. In the issue becomes as these modifications have been made without regard any change the use for the city in a permitting process. So we, you know, we have not had a chance as a city, and to go in and ensure that life safety is taken care of and all the other things that you would normally expect in a in an apartment complex.”

The situation at this apartment building revealing a much bigger issue in Tulsa.

“We have a lack of safe, affordable housing in Tulsa," said Tyler Parette with Housing Solutions Tulsa. "If we had ample supply of safe, affordable housing with with legal landlord tenant relationships, then people wouldn't be drawn to these kind of sub economy. Rental situations that ultimately pose a danger, not only to them but landlords as well."

Parette says for those with criminal histories, past evictions and who have experienced homelessness, many times living in make-shift apartments is all they can find.

“You know that that's a vulnerability if you've been homeless, then you don't want to go back to that I don't want to go back to the streets for no reason,” Renfro said.

The tenants are getting help from the city and some other outreach organizations but so far, none of them have found homes.

In the meantime, the fire marshal said his department will monitor this building closely until it’s empty and at that point, likely condemn it and not allow it to be occupied again unless it can be brought up to code.

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