Whitehall News

Commons at Royal Landings

Units being inspected for safety, health

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JOSHUA A. BICKEL/THISWEEKNEWS
Rose Neefe sits on her couch in the living room of her apartment March 16 at the Commons at Royal Landings in Whitehall. Neefe, who moved to Whitehall from Las Vegas with her husband, Robert, in September, uses an electric fireplace and plastic over the windows to keep warm.
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Whitehall city officials seek to inspect all units at the Commons at Royal Landings for health, building and safety code violations following the Feb. 27 death of a 4-year-old boy who suffocated after climbing onto a stove that toppled onto him.

A spokesman for the 250-unit apartment complex at the southwest corner of South Hamilton Road and East Broad Street said management is cooperating with the city's efforts but that all violations were remedied within months after the current owners acquired the site in September 2011.

Also at issue is whether the landlord or the tenant is responsible for providing heat to individual apartments.

Whitehall city attorney Mike Shannon has said it is the owner's responsibility, but attorney Mark Weaver, a spokesperson for CSN Realty, the New Jersey-based owners of the apartments, said natural-gas service is strictly a contract between the tenant and utility company.

Shannon said the responsibility of providing gas, as well as any potential unrelated violations, would be determined in conferences between city officials and CSN Realty representatives.

"We hope to have a schedule in place (soon) to inspect all the units," Shannon said.

The potential for code violations at the apartment complex were raised following the death of 4-year-old Carlos Mullins Jr., who on Feb. 27 climbed onto an open oven door, causing the oven to tip over and pin Mullins, suffocating him, according to Whitehall police.

The oven was open to heat the apartment and Mullins' mother, Lawanna Mosley, 25, was asleep in another room when the accident occurred. Another child awakened Mosley, who called 911, police said.

On Feb. 28, the city issued a warning of a code violation for Mosley's unit, claiming the owner is "ordered to provide heat supply for all rentals" and that "cooking appliances shall not be used ... as a means to provide required heating."

Identical warnings were issued Feb. 28 to three other units at the same address in the 4600 block of Eastway Court.

Weaver challenged the notices, saying the violations cite an incorrect section of code and that, ultimately, the owners are not responsible for providing heat, only the means to deliver the heat.

"Some leases include heat, ... but (residents at the Commons at Royal Landings) are responsible for their own heat," Weaver said. "If they don't pay the bill, the heat is shut off."

Weaver said he disputes the city's claim that the boiler in Mosley's or any other apartment was inoperable.

If no natural gas was being provided, it was because bills were not paid or equipment was misused, Weaver said, adding that Mosley had been warned Feb. 18 when repairs were made to a thermostat at her apartment not to misuse the thermostat and not to use the oven as a heating source.

Sam Shamansky, an attorney speaking for Mosley, said his client has been focused on recovering from her family's tragedy since Feb. 27 and denies Mosley is culpable for her son's death.

"(Moseley) is a victim who has suffered an unimaginable tragedy," said Shamansky, who rejected the idea that his client had misused the thermostat.

"The family is still in shock," said Shamanshy, who did not rule out the possibility of a civil complaint or lawsuit in connection with Mullins' death.

Separate and apart from any possible civil action and potential code violations at the apartment complex, Mosley hasn't been charged or cited for her son's death. Charges of negligence could be presented for a grand jury to consider, though, Whitehall police Sgt. Dan Kelso told ThisWeek.

Some tenants at the Commons at Royal Landings said although they have electricity, gas and heat, the owners are not always quick to address other problems.

John Martin, 61, said he has lived at the apartment complex, under many owners and managers over the past 30 years.

"My mother used to live there, ... my girlfriend from the seventh grade over there," Martin said, pointing to apartments from the courtyard of his Eastway Court apartment building.

This was the first winter, Martin said, that he did not lose at least one of his three utilities.

"It's not uncommon (for electricity, gas, or heat) to go out for no (apparent) reason," he said.

Martin said although management has responded to his requests for repairs, such as a new garbage disposal, response has been slow, and he criticized management for not being more diligent about the removal of abandoned vehicles from parking lots, ensuring that those living in the apartments are those on the lease and an overall lack of care.

"There was a time you saw cops in here once or twice a week; now it's twice a day," Martin said.

Takara Ray, 29, said she began living at her brother-in-law's apartment several months ago after he left with his infant son because the apartment had no heat.

"They need to shut (these apartments) down," said Ray, who said the oven in her Eastway Court apartment was corroded and she instead used a space heater.

Robert Neefe, 74, of Eastway Court, takes care of his sister and said although he has heat, it is still nearly impossible to keep the apartment at a comfortable temperature because of insulation problems the owners have not addressed.

"They told me to buy a (space) heater," Neefe said, adding that doing so has caused blown fuses, and because the owners lock fuse boxes, tenants must wait for a replacement fuse to be installed.

The Commons at Royal Landings appears to have been on the city's radar prior to Mullins' death. City records show numerous warnings of code violations were issued at the property, but a majority of those were issued when the property was known as Fairport Gardens.

"Since (CSN Realty bought the property in September 2011) dozens of violations were fixed and occupancy rose from about a 70-percent vacancy rate to a 4-percent vacancy rate," Weaver said. "Inspections were done at each new lease."

Whitehall records show warnings issued in 2013 include those for weeds, sidewalk disrepair, littering, at-large animals and automobile-related offenses, all of which, Weaver said, are outside the scope of safety- and health-code infractions.

Several violations in 2012 referred to "unsafe structures" but cited lack of hot water to an apartment.

Weaver said that was a utility issue, not one of safety.

Conditions that included mold, roaches, water damage, damaged concrete, broken glass, broken exterior lighting, lack of working smoke detectors and other violations are listed in a lengthy report from Whitehall to the Commons at Royal Landings in November 2011, but all refer to violations noted in 2010 and since have been fixed, Weaver said.

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