West Virginia Human Rights Commission’s new website

I was recently contacted by Josh Brown, a housing investigator with the West Virginia Human Rights Commission, who told me the commission has a new website, www.hrc.wv.gov.

Brown said the new website contains “a lot of information concerning rights that tenants have under the WV Fair Housing Act (WV Code 5-11A) regarding discrimination as well as other resources that some may find helpful. Individuals can find information on our site concerning their rights as well as how to file a complaint if they feel that they have been the target of discrimination in the rental or sale of housing.”

On the main page there’s a list of the commission’s most popular forms:

There’s even a page to explain how you can file a complaint.

The West Virginia Human Rights Commission deals with issues relating to discrimination not only in housing, but in employment and places of public accommodations. There’s definitely some interesting information on there, so I suggest checking it out if you have a chance.

– Leann

That time my landlord left my door open and unlocked for an undetermined amount of time…

I just wanted to do a quick update today because I’m getting some new traffic thanks to a great article published in today’s edition of The Charleston Daily Mail – “Blog shines light on WVU off-campus housing.”

Not all landlords are bad. I’ve had some great experiences with landlords who immediately come out and fix things. But everyone has at least one story. And I’d like to share one, and hopefully some of you might like to share some in the comment section, as well.

When I was working in Clarksburg at the Exponent-Telegram, I was living in Morgantown. That’s about a 45-minute drive. One day I was working one of the later shifts – either until 8 or 9:30 p.m., and someone was supposed to stop by my apartment and fix something. I can’t even remember what it was.

So I get home after dark, and I notice that my front door is open about an inch. Not just unlocked, but actually open. My first thought wasn’t “what if there’s a murderer inside?” it was “OH MY GOD, I hope my cat didn’t get out!” My cat, Pinkus, has FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus), and she isn’t allowed to go outside. She can infect other kitties if she bites them, and she’s pretty vicious sometimes, as you can tell:

I went inside my apartment, found Pinkus napping safely inside, and then started worrying about serial killers. I checked the shower, and all the closets, then got furious. Why on earth would they leave my front door cracked open, for who knows how many hours? I’m sure they didn’t show up past 5 p.m., and it was at least past 8:30 p.m. when I got home.

The next day I called my landlord and asked about my door being left open. Her excuse? “Well, they said you had left the door cracked open, so they left it like they found it.”

First: No, I didn’t. I never leave my door open. I always, ALWAYS double-check that my door is locked because I’m paranoid/perhaps a little OCD.

Second: If I HAD left my door open, and it’s obvious that I wasn’t home, why would you leave it open? I once left my car unlocked over night at this place and had my GPS and iPod stolen out of my car. I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone walked right in my place and stole things.

Third: Why did no one call me? Wouldn’t it make sense that if no one was home, maybe the door shouldn’t have been open? They had my cell phone number, they could have easily made a quick call to check about the door.

Well, now I’m all heated up over the situation again, even though it happened several years ago. Anyone have any good stories that still upset you?

– Leann

When is an individual considered a sex offender in West Virginia?

On my last post about Morgantown landlord Gary Walden’s history of harassment, a commenter questioned why he wasn’t registered as a sex offender in West Virginia.

If you were unaware, sex offenders have to register with the state they live in, and you can find this information on www.familywatchdog.us to see if there are any in your neighborhood.

I called West Virginia State Police Public Information Officer Sgt. Michael Baylous to find out when someone must register as a sex offender. He suggested I speak with Terri Swecker, the coordinator of the sex-offender registration for the West Virginia State Police.

Swecker said that a person must register as a sex offender when they have been convicted of first, second or third degree sexual abuse, which is rape or inappropriate touching. Sexual harassment is not a registrable offense.

According to West Virginia State Code §61-8B-7, a person is guilty of first-degree sexual abuse when a person subjects another person to sexual contact without his/her consent, and the lack of consent results from forcible compulsion. Sexual contact is defined as “any intentional touching, either directly or through clothing, of the breasts, buttocks, anus or any part of the sex organs of another person, or intentional touching of any part of another person’s body by the actor’s sex organs, where the victim is not married to the actor and the touching is done for the purpose of gratifying the sexual desire of either party.”

(photo credit: http://www.legis.state.wv.us)

In 2006, Walden was sued by a tenant for sexual harassment. According to the West Virginia Record, the complaint stated “The Defendants have repeatedly subjected the Complainant to unlawful sexual harassment and have created a sexually hostile environment…”

According to the WV Record article:

  • [Stacie] Summers says she sought to rent Apartment B in one of the Walden’s apartment buildings in Westover on Jan. 20, 2005. When she met Gary Walden at the apartment, she says he fondled her breasts.
  • Summers says that Walden presented the lease, he again attempted to fondle her breasts. Summers says this prevented her from reading the full lease.
  • Walden again tried to fondle her breasts, she says, when he drove her to an ATM machine to collect rent money.
  • On another occasion, he tried to get one of his employees to touch Summers’ breasts, she says.
  • In March 2005, Summers says she did not have rent money when Walden confronted her about it, and he told her “Well, you are going to have to give me some head.”

Walden settled the sexual harassment suit in 2008, and was required to pay $175,000 to his victims, and was barred from coming into contact with his tenants for eight years.

So, the short answer is that Walden did not have to register as a sexual offender because he was not convicted of sexual abuse – he reached a settlement in a sexual harassment case.

In case you haven’t been keeping up, Walden was arrested on Monday for entering a tenant’s apartment while she was sleeping. She woke up to find Walden rubbing her leg.

– Leann

Morgantown landlord charged with entering without breaking and conspiracy

Gary Walden, a 61-year-old Morgantown landlord previously accused of sexual harassment, was arrested Monday for “entering a tenant’s apartment uninvited and rubbing her leg,” according to an article in today’s Dominion Post.

(photo credit: The Dominion Post)

Walden was charged with entering without breaking and conspiracy. His bond was set at $15,000, and he was held at North Central Regional Jail as of Monday afternoon. As of today, Jan. 22, he seems to have been released.

The resident of Dunkard Avenue apartment, located in Westover, called police on January 17 and told them that she woke up in her bed and found Walden touching and rubbing her leg. She was also missing $900, according to the criminal complaints.

Walden and another man, 55-year-old Robert L. Wilson of Westover, told police they were at the apartment at the time of the incident. Walden told police that he was there to collect rent. The accuser and another person confirmed rent wasn’t due for 15 days.

Wilson was arrested Saturday for without breaking and conspiracy, but is free on $5,000 bond. He had assisted in changing the locks the day before the incident occurred, and an employee of Walden’s gave him the master key after the locks were changed, according to the article.

This was not Walden’s first time inappropriately touching tenants. According to the article:

Walden settled a civil lawsuit in early 2008 by paying tenants he allegedly groped $175,000, and paying a $50,000 fine for violating the West Virginia Fair Housing Act. He also signed an agreement that restricted his contact with tenants to emergency situations and required him to file reports with the Human Rights Commission when he has contact with tenants.

Later that year, the commission filed a complaint accusing Walden of violating the agreement, but West Virginia Deputy Attorney General Paul R. Sheridan said a ruling is still pending, according to the article.

UPDATE: (Feb. 22, 3:08 p.m.) I found an article from Walden’s 2008 sexual harassment case – Landlord Settles Sexual Harassment Suit

UPDATE (Feb. 23, 10:00 a.m.): New post with more background information on Walden – Morgantown landlord Walden has history of harassment

– Leann

The Players: Morgantown Code Enforcement

Today I’m going to focus on another important “player” in the off-campus housing issue –  Morgantown’s Code Enforcement Division.

What is code enforcement and what does it do?

The code enforcement division is made up of inspectors who check rental properties to make sure they are up to the city’s code.

Morgantown, West Virginia has more than 7,600 registered rental units and between 3,000 to 3,500 landlords. You can find a complete list of all rental units registered with the city here.

Morgantown’s Code Enforcement Division is supposed to inspect each of the city’s thousands of rental units once every three years.

Once a landlord is registered with the city, he/she must make an appointment with the code enforcement office to have all units inspected. The landlord must pay $25 per unit for an inspection. If the landlord doesn’t make an initial appointment, or an appointment within 30 days of the previous letter of compliance expiring, then the code enforcement office will schedule an appointment for the units.

What do Code Enforcement officers look for during inspections?

Code enforcement checks housing for safety issues. The biggest code violation is smoke detectors, according to Chief Inspector Mike Stone. Stone said that every time an officer comes back from an inspection, there’s always a smoke detector violation on the form.

There are four main problems with smoke detectors:

  1. Batteries in smoke detector are dead
  2. Batteries were removed from smoke detector
  3. A plastic bag has been placed over the detector
  4. There is no smoke detector where one is required

The first three issues are the tenants’ responsibility. If they don’t keep working batteries in the smoke detector, they could be fined $500. Also, some tenants place a plastic bag over the detector to prevent it from going off when smoking or cooking, according to Stone.

A landlord can be fined for not having smoke detectors in the proper places. All bedrooms must have a smoke detector, and one must be present outside of the bedrooms. They are not necessary in a kitchen unless the kitchen is the room right outside of the bedroom. Each floor must have at least one smoke detector. If a smoke detector is in a room that it’s not required to be in, it still must have working batteries, and that is the tenant’s responsibility.

Officers look at other safety issues, such as electrical wiring (Is the wiring done properly? Are wires frayed?), extension cords (these should not be overloaded with numerous items) and exits (exits should not be obstructed).

What happens after the inspection?

After the first inspection, the landlord and tenants have three weeks to fix any problems – it depends on whose responsibility it is. After three weeks, a code enforcement officer returns to see if the violations have been fixed. If not, then the landlord or tenant can be taken to court.

When are code enforcement cases heard?

Code enforcement officers are in court every Tuesday from 8 a.m. until noon, and every Thursday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

In the future, I plan to attend at least one of these court hearings and take notes to report on how they typically work.

-Leann


Things to know before signing a lease

I’ll admit that I had no idea what I was doing the first time I signed a lease. My first two years of college I lived with my older brother who took care of finding the place, signing the lease and paying bills. Before my junior year he had to move for work, so I decided to find a place with a couple of friends.

We knew we needed three bedrooms and a washer and dryer. But we kind of forgot about air conditioning, to look into how the place was heated and if there were parking spaces.

Surprise, there were no parking spots! The two of us who had cars ended up renting spots down the street for about $80/month. Oh, and there was no air conditioning, which is pretty common with older rental units in Morgantown. And the gas heaters, which I lovingly called “death traps,” were very, very old, loud and smelly.

I actually don’t know why we decided on that place, other than the fact that it was a five-minute walk from campus. When we went to see it, it was trashed – piles of fast food wrappers filled the living room floor. Dirt and leaves were all over the entryway, since there was no screen door to keep debris out. This was a learning experience. I was definitely more careful when I looked for my next apartment.

I ran into this article from The Athens News yesterday – “The Top 10 Thing To Know Before Signing A Lease.” While this publication is based in Ohio, it does have some helpful tips for anyone looking into renting for the first time.

The Athens News suggests asking:

  1. What type of lease is it?
  2. What amenities does it include?
  3. When are the move-in and move-out dates?
  4. What utilities are included with rent?
  5. What are the terms of subleasing?
  6. When is rent due?
  7. Is there a security deposit?
  8. Are they pet-friendly?
  9. Can I decorate the place?
  10. Ask questions and more questions.

You should definitely come up with a list of requirements you have when looking for a place to rent, and a list of questions you want to ask. I know it’s difficult when you’re on the spot after looking at an apartment, and you’re flustered and can’t think of any questions. Here are a few things from my personal experience that you might want to also look into:

  • If there is a pet deposit, will it be refunded? One apartment I looked at had an $800 nonrefundable pet deposit because the carpets were always replaced when a pet owner moved out. (I honestly don’t think that place even had $800 worth of carpet in it to begin with.)
  • What happens if a roommate stops paying rent/breaks the lease? You may think your friend would never do this to you, but so did I, and it happened. And I almost lost my security deposit until that person finally paid off all their rent. This should be written in the lease, but make sure to ask – you may be forced to live with a stranger if your landlord decides to sublet that empty bedroom or paying extra.
  • Look for cable, phone and electrical outlets. You don’t want to only have one outlet in your room for your computer, lamp, alarm clock, phone charger, etc.
  • Is there a washing machine and dryer? Are they shared with other units? Are they free to use or coin operated?
  • Is there parking for each roommates’ car?Is it on-street or private? Where can visitors park? Some neighborhoods in Morgantown have Blue Line Parking, which is affordable and pretty easy to find in some areas. Unfortunately, there’s nothing about Blue Line Parking on the city’s website, so I’m going to go off track for a second and explain what it is:
    • For $5 per year, you get a permit sticker that allows you to park in spaces that have blue lines on the curb – they look like handicap spots, but they are not. The city has a book that lists every rental unit that it eligible for Blue Line parking permits, and the number that is allowed for each unit. When signing up, you must have proof of residence. You also receive one guest pass per rental unit, which hangs from the rearview mirror.
  • Is there central air? If not, are there windows where you can put in an air conditioning unit with outlets nearby? It’s against the city code to plug an a/c unit into an extension cord, and the cords are typically pretty short, so you want to make sure that there’s an outlet close enough to reach. Also make sure that window is easy to open and not painted closed. Yes, that happens.

Once you decide on a place, you may want to walk through with your landlord and write down all things that need repaired – holes / repainting / broken cabinets / stains on the carpet – before you begin moving in your things. Date the list and make a copy for both yourself and the landlord so that if those things are never fixed it’s not taken out of your deposit.

Have any helpful tips I left out? Leave them in the comments!

-Leann