The city council on Tuesday declared the Oak Manor apartment complex a menace and ordered it torn down unless the owner can produce viable plans in two weeks to remediate the property.
Mayor Keith Gaskin broke a 3-3 tie in favor of immediate abatement, following a more than half-hour discussion with representatives of the property owner. All council members agreed the property was derelict and needed significant repairs. The disagreement was whether to give the owner more time to fix up the complex and how much time to give him.
Oak Manor Community, located at 901 11th St. S., has 13 buildings with 61 total units. Currently only 18 residents live at the complex, occupying only two of the buildings, and the other units are vacant.
Building Codes Director Kenny Wiegel said the dilapidated complex needs “extensive” exterior and interior repairs, and owner Robert Merchant, of California, was notified in September the property’s condition violated city code. The city has also “red-flagged” the complex, Wiegel said, meaning the city must inspect any units rented to new tenants before they can receive utility service.
Steve McEwan, a Columbus attorney representing Merchant, pleaded with the council to give Merchant a chance to remediate the property and said there was a plan to bring the structures up to code by February. Merchant has already spent roughly $140,000 on two new roofs there and had permits for two more. Once the roofs were repaired, other exterior and interior improvements could begin.
The property fell into disrepair over the past 18 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, McEwan claimed, since federal and state relief measures protected tenants from eviction if they didn’t pay their rent.
“He would like to beg your forgiveness and be allowed to get this fixed up,” McEwan said. “I believe he’ll do it. I’ve known Robert a long time, and when he starts trying to work on something he usually tries to get it finished.”
Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Stewart, in whose ward Oak Manor is located, rejected McEwan’s plea, as well as the notion the problems at the complex were only 18 months in the making. She said she had received complaints on the property for years, ranging from living conditions to criminal activity rampant at the complex.
“It’s not habitable. It’s rotten. It’s moldy,” Stewart said. “And some of the units the tenants live in, they actually have to get pans and buckets when it rains. It will cost more money to rehab that than it will cost to tear it down and start over.
“Residents in that area have complained for years, and the owners have made no attempt to do anything to fix that,” she added.
Merchant also owns Eveningside Apartments.
‘Pushed down and hauled away’
Rod Lowe, the lender for the property who joined the meeting from California via Zoom, also begged the council to give Merchant an opportunity to “show good faith” in fixing the property. If Merchant didn’t, Lowe said he would foreclose and fix it up himself.
“It’s of no benefit to me or to this council to tear this property down at this point,” Lowe said. “It’s serious for me because there is a lot of money that was loaned to him years ago on this property that I don’t really want to lose. If you tear it down, I’m going to lose it.”
Lowe noted, at one point, the property could be rehabbed for “a couple hundred thousand dollars.” Stewart took particular exception to that claim, saying it would take more like $4 million to $5 million.
Wiegel didn’t give his own estimate but agreed with Stewart that “a couple hundred thousand” was too low. Even though he said the property had been neglected since well before the pandemic, a serious renovation effort could rehabilitate the property, possibly even by February, he said.
“It needs a major renovation, not a Band-Aid on a heart attack like I think has been going on for years, but I will say in my opinion the buildings are structurally sound,” Wiegel said.
Stewart remained more blunt and less optimistic.
“The rehab for that is to have it pushed down to the ground and hauled away,” she said.
McEwan noted the tax value — the city collected nearly $10,000 in ad valorem taxes on the property in 2020 — would go away if the “improvements” were torn down. Stewart noted Merchant had not paid his taxes on the property for 2018 or 2019.
After trying to assure the council Merchant — who did not join the meeting in person or via Zoom — would rehab the property if given a chance, Lowe seemed to back away from that position as the discussion drew closer to a vote.
“I’m not here to defend Robert,” Lowe said. “I’m just here to protect my investment.
“I don’t know if he can handle this kind of stuff,” he added, referencing Merchant’s absence from the meeting. “He’s been dealing with some issues. He’s way overweight. The virus has scared the heck out of him. He hasn’t really done much in the last year, year and a half.”
Stewart moved to tear down the complex, with Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacqueline DiCicco offering a substitute motion to give Merchant three more weeks to present a plan. After that motion failed, Taylor’s motion for immediate abatement passed with Gaskin’s tie-breaking vote. Ward 2’s Joseph Mickens and Ward 5’s Stephen Jones voted with Stewart, while DiCicco, Ward 3’s Rusty Greene and Ward 4’s Pierre Beard — citing support for giving Merchant more time — opposed.
Jones added the stipulation the council might reconsider if Merchant produced a viable renovation plan by the council’s Nov. 2 meeting.
City Attorney Jeff Turnage told The Dispatch state law does not obligate the city to help relocate displaced tenants in cases where a property is condemned. However, in this case, Gaskin said he hopes the council would consider assisting the 18 Oak Manor residents who could be displaced.
“These people have been living in terrible conditions,” Gaskin told The Dispatch after the meeting. “I think the city should help them find something.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.