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White tags, mismanagement: Residents scramble for housing from deteriorating Mason City apartments

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White tags, mismanagement: Residents scramble for housing from deteriorating Mason City apartments
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Jordan Showalter slightly labors when he talks.

He's 57, but his heavy breathing would fool you into thinking he's much older.

Since 1981, when he was discharged from basic training in Great Lakes, Illinois for what he says was a medical condition, Showalter's bounced around the country as a painter.

Some of his first gigs painting were in Clear Lake where he says he had an office behind a car wash. He did work in Iowa Falls at the Princess Grill and Pizzeria, which is listed as a historic place on the National Register. He spent time in Las Vegas painting, taking in the night life, and claims to have painted for Siegfried and Roy. He said he helped to work on the Southbridge Mall and recalled a time when he got black paint all over his face and didn't notice until he'd gotten home.

But in the interim, Showalter's life has been pared down. He's had kidney disease, colon surgery, hand surgery, two toes cut off and both eyes worked on.

"I try to get church when I feel good," he said.

He attempts to keep in touch with his daughter and his parents, both of whom are still alive (mother, 83, in Garner; dad, 86, in Britt). Showalter himself admitted his life out at Key West Apartments, formerly Regency Terrace, is "secluded." 

At this point in the process, what's left of the former Regency Terrace Apartments complex feels wholly secluded. Most of the 50 or so tenants who were around in the summer are now gone.

A white-tagging of the building for health and safety concerns, not long after the property changed hands to Quad Cities Accommodators LLC in late-October, sent many residents packing right away. The old owner, Eric Schulz, was described by several residents as inattentive to any issues at the property. New manager John Wiese said Schulz would "sign up anybody that could come up with a couple hundred dollars down just to get into the place."

Schultz, whose office is in Dubuque, did not answer seven calls to his office. Mason City officials and Regency residents who did on-site odd jobs for him didn't have contact information for him except for the office number. After several rings, the call cut into a dial-up modem sound.

That inattentiveness became clear once Raymond Quayle, Mason City's housing inspector and zoning administrator, arrived to the former Regency Terrace just before sale from Schulz to the Quad City group. Since inspections occur on a rotating five-year basis and he was last out about 2014, Quayle wasn't aware of the "litany of problems" that Wiese said they found.

Quayle noted that ceilings in multiple bathrooms had rotted out. The roofs didn't have any holes in the tops so each individual bathroom would have to be vented out.

"But they aren't," Wiese said. "They are vented up to the ridge gap, and that’s it. So when you stand up in the crawlspace up here, all the ventilation goes up and carries all the way back and forth through this whole building."

As a result, warm, damp air has no place to go and potential airborne illnesses can more easily travel.

Quayle, surveying his options with Wiese, realized that they would have to put any demolition to a standstill.

What the two settled on, as the best course of action, was for the city to take the property.

When Wiese pressed on what would happen next, it was made clear to him that some folks could get a couple of weeks to move. Those on HUD, in order to not lose their benefits, would need a whole month.

Finding new housing

James Conway, 64, is one resident on HUD with a 30-day notice. He's still struggling to find new housing. He says that he hasn't received any deposit funds back and management hasn't said much other than to tell them to "get out."

Who owes what for deposits and who paid what for rent has proven difficult to track. According to Wiese, several residents and police records, a burglar broke into an apartment building in mid-October and made off with a laptop that housed rent rolls. No leads were ever found on the case. 

A veterans rep is assisting Conway, who worked as a "tunnel rat" for the Army as a 17-year-old in the Vietnam War. But it's wintertime and relocating is proving difficult, even more so if you own a dog like Conway does and don't have any family members to help out.

Conway's originally from Kansas City, and his main mode of transportation is a red and black bike with a cart attached.

He's says the bike is what keeps him looking young for his age.

A fellow Vietnam vet, Lyle "Butch" Laird, is also struggling to find alternative housing. In the past, he fought in the Củ Chi District but now is attempting to trek out to Colorado to stay with his son and meet the two grandchildren he's never seen.

Of the few people still left out at Regency, he comes across as the leader. Laird knows where almost everyone's at. He drives Jordan Showalter when he can, although occasionally his back hurts too much to move around a lot.

Before the change of ownership and the white tags sent so many packing, Laird says everyone would come over to his place to drink beer and watch football. He's a fan of Denver Broncos and swears if the Kansas City Chiefs are even mentioned. Now, his television's on as incidental background noise. It plays Jerry Springer reruns while he flips through pages about landlord/tenant law and court documents.

In between his shuffling around, he'll take a timeout to say that what the city did with the white tags is "bulls- - -."

White Tagging

The issue of the white tagging, which happened not long after the complex changed hands, is at the heart of the lawsuit Diane DiPietro Wilson filed against Mason City and the Quad City Accommodators. The case is still sitting at an injunction which city attorneys argue is "illegal" and "enjoins the city from its legitimate powers to protect the health and safety of citizens."

In court on Dec. 17, Wilson disputed those allegations and said that the individuals at Regency "are entitled to a chance to be heard."

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In court that day, there was only one witness testifying on behalf of the Regency plaintiffs.

Darachelle Johnson is in the same place as some of her peers.

She still hasn't found alternative housing. A recent surgery caused her to lose her job. She says she tried going to Section 8 housing for help but was denied from moving up the list.

"They said if they did that, landlords would 'be more prone to letting their properties go' and more people would be able to get on Section 8," Johnson said.

She characterized that as "stupid." Johnson had never spoken in court before Monday but called the experience "liberating."

During the examinations and cross-examinations, Johnson asserted that her windows didn't leak. She never saw any mold or asbestos. There wasn't an uncovered electrical switch in sight. She doesn't know lead paint but "probably would notice because of bronchitis."

She testified that she didn't even know about the white tagging until she came home from surgery to find the health and safety notice. 

But Raymond Quayle, the housing inspector, who has been at his kind of work for 13 years and is "trained and schooled in it," argued that the problems were there.

"Any apartment built before 1980 would contain asbestos," Quayle testified. And though the city didn't take samples at the Regency site, the city inspector repeatedly asserted that asbestos had to be there.

"We don't require a sample when I know there's asbestos present," he said.

And if the white tags were a bit vague, as several residents said, Quayle argued that's because there's "nothing in the ordinance that requires advertising every hazard on an actual placard." 

Getting help

While those placards still hang on the faux wood doors of their residency, other Regency tenants are finding places to live. 

Deb Starkey, 58, only moved into Regency in July, was still unpacking when the city white-tagged her door with a health and safety warning. She said she didn't even know what the specific concerns were until she went to see legal aid, more than a week after she received the notice. She used to clean apartments for Regency and did find mold in several of the vacated units, but it was never a problem where she lived. 

Finding housing was a difficulty because Starkey is on disability from multiple back and shoulder surgeries, but her and her girlfriend managed to find another place.

"But without her, I would be homeless," Starkey said. 

Cathy Burtness, executive director at the Mason City Housing Authority, said that former residents like Starkey have contacted her office for help. She said that some people on rental assistance programs have been able to relocate but others are still looking. Those individuals on assistance have 60 days to look for alternative housing but can stretch that out to 120 days to look for replacements that qualify for the housing authority program.

In her recollection, the Housing Authority hasn't had to deal with this degree of vacating before.

"Not in this large of capacity," as she put it.

After the Housing Authority's most recent inspection of the property, in Summer 2018, Burtness said that she stopped referring people there (at least three people) and ceased paying Eric Schulz, the former owner, for "substandard housing."

She said that one particular tenant referred to management as "lazy." From letters she received from Regency Terrace renters, Burtness found that there were at least 20 vacant units. And when all of that was sold, vacant units and all, Schulz reportedly failed to inform numerous residents.

With how Schulz handled things, Burtness believes that city inspection didn't do anything wrong with how they proceeded.

"(Quayle, the housing inspector) tried to work with us and give as much time as we thought appropriate," Burtness said. "And I talked with our HUD representative too and explained the situation, and we don't want federal taxpayers' dollars paying for dumps."

In fact, Burtness said, that this is a relatively good thing and that it's lucky that "it was only half full."

A lucky one

Jordan Showalter, the painter and sometime church-goer, sits at home with the blinds drawn and the lights off, TV powered down, breathing heavily. He's finding some luck in his life.

When he was painting, he had maybe one or two complaints. Showalter says he has a friend from his business days who'll pick him up and take him to the casino when he wants.

He'll call Mason City the "middle of nowhere" before backtracking.

"Mason City's been good to me," Showalter said.

He thinks he has a bead on housing in Waterloo where his son and grandbaby are. His daughter's around but she's focused on getting her nursing degree through an online program. Even without a phone or much assistance, transportation, or otherwise, Showalter seemed confident he'd make it out alright.

"I think I'm still walking for a reason," he said. "I make people happy. I have a good time. I'm always in a good mood."

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