BRUNSWICK, Maine — Joe and Jackie Toth were evicted from their home of 40 years Wednesday.
The couple has paid their rent, managed the six-apartment building for other tenants, and lived on a fixed income since a fourth heart attack ended Joe’s 36-year career digging clams.
But without the landlord who abandoned the tenants at 77 Pleasant St., town officials said the building’s rotting wooden porch cannot be repaired, and the building’s seven tenants can no longer live in the dwelling.
“It’s a Catch-22 sort of thing,” Codes Enforcement Officer Jeffrey Hutchinson said Wednesday. “I can’t issue a building permit without the consent of the owner.”
In a notice to the absentee building owner, Hutchinson wrote that the damage to the porch eliminates one of the building’s two required exits, leaving town staff with no other option than to condemn the structure.
“It’s a clear code violation,” Hutchinson said, “to the point that [the building] can’t be occupied.”
Joe Toth, 57, said he offered to finance and make repairs to the porch in the absence of landlord Michael Gaul but was turned down.
“It’s no wonder why people go nuts,” Joe Toth said in his kitchen Wednesday afternoon. “It’s because of the red tape bull crap.”
Hutchinson estimated that a full repair of the porch could cost anywhere from $ 15,000 to $25,000 and said that there would likely be contractors in the area who would be happy to get the work. Without Gaul, however, nothing can be done. But that fact isn’t satisfying for Joe Toth, who spent Wednesday preparing to leave the apartment he and his wife have called home for four decades.
“The bottom line is that when you have somebody who is willing to fix something and make it right, you don’t wait for someone who is not coming through,” Toth said. “It would save a lot of heartache.”
The Toths and their dachshund-pug mix Lily spent Wednesday night at a Freeport motel, where the couple’s grandson booked a seven-night stay — time they will use to pack up 40 years of possessions.
Toth said that five other tenants also were evicted Wednesday, including a family of four and a single tenant upstairs.
“It’s just awful to be uprooted like this,” Jackie Toth, 69, said.
Hutchinson said Wednesday that the situation is uncommon: The rotting wood on the porch does not match the otherwise solid structure of the building, which Joe Toth said he’s been maintaining for years.
“When the pipes broke, I fixed them,” Toth said.
And in mid-2011, Toth said, he became the informal property manager when Linda Bancroft-Norden of the Portland based Aquarius Property Management handed over the building’s keys after she, too, lost contact with the building’s owner and was not being paid to manage the property.
Neither Bancroft-Norden nor owner Michael Gaul returned calls placed Wednesday.
Since the rotting porch caught town inspectors’ eyes two years ago, Hutchinson said, he has never spoken with Gaul.
“There have been situations where it is difficult to contact a landlord,” Hutchinson said. “But I can’t think of another situation like this. I just don’t understand it.”
According to town records, the building is owned by Gaul’s company, Paul-Murphy Investments LLC, with a mailing address in West Richland, Wash. Property tax payments, last made in October of last year, are up to date, according to town records, and will be due again in April.
Hutchinson said that the town can only take action on the property if there are years of unpaid taxes. As with a building at 16-18 Oak St. that was totaled but left standing after a fire last year, Hutchinson said, “the town’s hands are tied” in condemning the building.
“As long as the structure is vacated and secure — with doors and windows closed and locked — then there’s nothing else that the town can do,” Hutchinson said.
Since the Toths took over management of the property, Jackie Toth said, none of the building’s seven tenants have paid rent.
Instead of making their rent payments, Jackie Toth said, the couple has paid to keep heating oil in the building’s furnace.
With temperatures expected to dip below zero Wednesday night, Joe Toth said he was concerned about keeping the pipes from freezing.
“If the pipes burst, everything in here will be ruined,” Toth said. “All I can do is pray.”
Most everything in the apartment, Toth said, belongs to them and not the landlord.
“Even the stove and refrigerator are ours,” Toth said. “The only thing that belongs to the landlord is the carpet.”
On Wednesday, the first batch of Jackie’s belongings — including Elvis posters (lots of them) and paintings by one of her three daughters — was packed up and ready to move into a storage unit.
Hutchinson said that residents are not required to remove all of their possessions from the building, but Jackie Toth said she is concerned about burglaries at the property.
“You would think that they would want someone in here,” Jackie Toth said.
Public safety trumps property protection, Hutchinson said.
“Ultimately, our concern is that [the residents] are out,” Hutchinson said. “We’re not asking that they have all of their belongings out, they just need to stop living there.”
In a memo drafted Wednesday, Hutchinson compiled a timeline of problems with the building’s porch that began in January 2010.
Throughout that year, incremental repairs were made to the porch structure, but an assessment by engineer Peter E. Lincoln of Lincoln/ Haney Engineering Associates Inc. found that further rotting due to water damage “would only get worse with time.”
In a November 2010 letter from Lincoln to then-property manager Bancroft-Norden of Aquarius Property Management, Lincoln wrote that more extensive repairs would be needed for the building to reliably make it through another winter.
“If major repairs or, more realistically, total reconstruction are not undertaken during 2011, it is highly unlikely that I would suggest that it would be safe to allow this structure to be used through another winter,” Lincoln wrote.
Part of the wood rot problem, Hutchinson said, can be attributed to vinyl siding that was installed improperly years ago, allowing water to seep into the framing of the porch.
Temporary repairs were completed about a year ago to reinforce the porch, but those repairs were not sufficient to fix the code violation, Hutchinson said.
Packing up her bedroom into a cardboard box on Wednesday afternoon, Jackie Toth said that receiving the eviction notice has been traumatic.
“I’m not coming back here once I’m out,” Toth said. “I’ve had it.”
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