The Johnson City Board of Dwelling Standards and Review plans to hear testimony from residents of the Haven of Mercy homeless shelter on March 11 as it again considers an order to temporarily vacate the building until the owners address multiple code violations.
Johnson City Attorney Sunny Sandos said officials have taken steps to ensure residents have the opportunity to describe how a temporary relocation would cause them immediate or irreparable harm.
That has included sending out individual certified notices to 35 residents plus a notice addressed to the general occupants of the building.
Sandos said the board members want to ensure they factor the concerns of tenants into their decision. Even though the city notified ownership of the order to close, Sandos said, the city learned at least one resident wasn’t aware until the day before the city was planning to close the building, which prompted the effort to involve input from individual tenants.
Sandos said the Haven of Mercy has not complied with the proper legal process for applying for and pulling permits for the work needed to correct building code violations.
“If there is still no evidence that the building has been made safe for humans to live in, continuing with an order to vacate would be within the purview of the board,” Sandos said. “The bottom line is that the building is safe for people to live in.”
In July, the city sent a notice of violation to the Haven listing building code violations identified in a June inspection. In September, a trades inspector returned to the property and determined work hadn’t been properly completed.
After months of back-and-forth and a hearing in October, the board decided on Jan. 28 that the building on Millard Street was unfit for human occupation. It ordered that it be temporarily closed while repairs were completed.
City officials originally planned to temporarily close the shelter on Feb. 19, but Haven of Mercy filed a complaint in Washington County Chancery Court claiming that the city hadn’t provided proper notice to residents. Chancellor John Rambo ruled that day that Johnson City should allow residents to remain in the shelter until Monday, March 1, while city officials certified the record.
“It appears to the court that there are individuals who are long-term residents who have not received notice consistent with Due Process that they would be required to vacate their residence,” the chancellor wrote in his order. “The record is not clear that these individuals were given notice that they have the right to address the Board of Dwelling Standards and Review.”
He added, however, that the city had made a considerable effort to address the relocation and care of residents.
On Monday, attorneys for Haven of Mercy voluntarily dismissed their complaint agains the city in Chancery Court, which came several days after the board rescinded its first order to vacate.
Sandos said the board rescinded its order so the city could provide thorough notice to residents. The city maintains that it followed the proper procedure and completed the due diligence required to notify residents.
Process and permitted work
Asked about the resident who didn’t know about the order to vacate, Amber Floyd Lee, an attorney representing the shelter, said the question of “who told what when” is irrelevant.
“There is a very clear notice process requirement the city failed to do,” Lee said. “It requires personal service or certified mail of an unambiguous notice to each occupant and interested party. The BDSR assigns its notice requirements to city staff. The city, not Mr. (Grant) Rockley, is required to give that notice to the residents.”
Lee added that work had been performed on the building before the Board of Dwelling Standards and Review meeting on Jan. 28, noting that Rockley retained an electrician who pulled a residential permit.
But, because Haven of Mercy is a commercial property, it requires commercial permits. Sandos said Tuesday the city is first waiting for the shelter’s architect to submit approved plans and stamped drawings. Once that’s done, licensed trade professionals will be able to apply for the proper commercial permits.
Lee also noted that the city has been “vague” about building code violations. On Feb. 25, she requested a list of necessary repairs in an email to development services staff.
“I fear that your question cannot be addressed as directly as I imagine you would hope,” Development Services Manager Dave McClelland wrote in response. “There is not a string of construction based violations that we have cited for correction. The need is much broader than that. The focus of action required for the Haven of Mercy ... is for construction permits to be applied for, issued, work executed, and inspected.”
Attorneys for the Haven of Mercy said in a press release Monday that work has been performed at the building over the years without city-issued permits.
To resolve the issues with the 100-year-old building, the homeless shelter has engaged architect Carl Gutschow with Thompson and Litton, Inc., general contractor GTL, Inc, electrical engineers Blaser Engineering, Trimble Company, Inc. for doors and Newman’s Heating and Air.
A GoFundMe page set up to help pay for repairs had raised more than $15,000 out of a $35,000 goal as of Wednesday.
Lee said Tuesday repairs are going “great” and that work has been ongoing, which has included resolving fire code violations that didn’t fall under the BDSR’s purview in January.
“The Haven understands the Board’s position that there is an increased risk of fire due to the cited code concerns,” Lee said in the press release Monday. “However, these are issues that can be remedied while the residents stay in their home. The risk of harm due to homelessness in freezing temperatures is greater.”