Friday, Feb. 11, 2005 | 10:58 a.m.
A case that traveled a circuitous route before a North Las Vegas inspector cited 59 violations of housing and safety codes at one complex earlier this week draws attention to a stalled reform of that city's oversight of rental apartments.
The reform would require inspectors to perform annual checks of the estimated 23,400 apartments rented out in North Las Vegas, instead of waiting for tenants to complain about problems.
City Manager Gregory Rose proposed the change in August, but said earlier this week that staff is still researching how to set up the new system as cheaply as possible.
Meanwhile, the situation at the two, one-story rows of five apartments each on East Lake Mead may be repeating itself in thousands of rental apartments across North Las Vegas, where health and safety issues exist, but many tenants don't notify authorities about those problems, according to city officials.
"I definitely think people are falling through the cracks -- people who are ... afraid to make the call and living in conditions that are unsanitary and unsafe," said Sheldon Klain, code enforcement manager for the North Las Vegas planning and development department.
"The proposal (by Rose) would help out low and moderate-income people ... and get at some of the slumlords," Klain said.
The East Lake Mead case shows that it isn't always clear who's responsible for the conditions found in rental apartments, however.
Russell Ricciardelli, who charges $350 a month rent for the apartments he bought in 1989, said, "When people don't own something, they don't take care of it."
He said "90 percent" of the violations noted in Tuesday's inspection by a North Las Vegas official -- no smoke detectors, latches missing on bars in the windows -- are the fault of the tenants at 508 E. Lake Mead Blvd.
The current system at the building safety division of the North Las Vegas Public Works Department is set up to respond to complaints, and it is unclear how long the problems in Ricciardelli's apartments existed before someone complained last week.
Ricciardelli, who said he has been a landlord for 25 years, said that most of his tenants "would never complain about the bars on the windows or anything like that -- most of them are illegal aliens."
Five of the tenants to whom the Sun spoke on Tuesday confirmed that they wouldn't ever make a peep about those problems because they are afraid of consequences ranging from rent increases to deportation.
Though no definitive total exists for the illegal immigrant population, North Las Vegas has the highest Hispanic population in the Las Vegas Valley, at 37.6 percent in the 2000 Census.
Tuesday's inspection came after a tenant of the apartments heard North Las Vegas mayoral candidate Andres Ramirez speak on Spanish-language radio, complained to Ramirez about the condition of the apartments, and Ramirez relayed the complaint to city officials.
Rose's proposal would change the city's system to one where inspectors check the municipality's rental apartments on a rotating basis, instead of waiting for complaints.
A similar idea is being researched in Las Vegas, according to Orlando Sanchez, director of the Las Vegas Neighborhood Services Department. Las Vegas currently has one code enforcement inspector who responds to complaints at 52,405 apartments, though other inspectors are called in to help handle certain complaints, Sanchez said.
In North Las Vegas, Klain currently fields complaints related to such problems as debris or abandoned cars. Terry Kozlowski, an inspector at the building safety division of the public works department, handles complaints related to health and safety, and was at East Lake Mead Tuesday.
But Klain would oversee rental apartment inspections if Rose's proposal is approved by North Las Vegas City Council in the future.
That proposal was based on charging property owners $50 per apartment for mandatory annual inspections of every apartment for rent in the North Las Vegas area.
But Rose tabled his proposal while his staff studies similar systems in locations such as Fort Worth, Texas, and Santa Ana, Calif., to see if there's a way to charge landlords less.
"Our intention is to have the city council consider it at a future date at a lower cost," he said.
When he announced the idea in August, Rose said to the Sun, "There are a number of rental units (in North Las Vegas), especially in the more mature areas, that aren't meeting a minimum standard."
Klain said the "more mature," or older areas, which are usually cheaper and rented by low-income residents, tend to produce fewer complaints, even though they may have worse conditions.
Ricciardelli said the property he owns on East Lake Mead is about 60 years old and is not very different from many in the older section of North Las Vegas.
"Drive around North Las Vegas, look at all the old properties that are not up to code," he said.
Last year, Klain's division received 3,106 complaints. Kozlowski said she received 223 complaints last fiscal year, July 1, 2003 to June 30, 2004.
Rose said the reason for proposing a change in the current system is that "we have reason to believe landlords are not investing in dwelling units and health and safety violations exist."
At East Lake Mead this week, owner Ricciardelli said he supported the proposal of inspecting rental apartments for violations so that tenants don't have to report such problems.
"I think it's a good idea -- as a safety issue, it could save lives," he said.
On Wednesday, Ricciardelli said he had already fixed the bars on the windows and installed smoke detectors in his apartments -- the most serious safety issues. According to the city's report from the inspection, he had until March 10 to fix the other problems.
But he also said that such problems, at least in his experience, are the fault of the tenants themselves.
He said he has seen tenants rip out smoke detectors to avoid hearing an alarm every time they cook.
Tenants also remove interior latches from bars on windows, he said, making it impossible to exit through a window if there is a fire. They think it will make them safer from break-ins, he said.
Nevertheless, four tenants at the property Tuesday said they had lived in their apartments less than a year, and that some of the conditions noted as violations were present when they moved in.
One 19-year-old man who said he moved in only a week ago and who only offered his first name -- David -- said he never would have thought to call city officials about the bars on his windows, the smoke detector or the uncovered water heater in back of his apartment because he didn't want to draw attention to himself.
"I don't like to be that kind of person," he said. "I don't want people pointing fingers at me, saying, 'He did it.' "
David also said he was more intent on talking to the apartment manager about getting his kitchen sink fixed -- a problem he said he didn't point out to Kozlowski when she passed through hours earlier.
Jesus Perez Garcia, 22, said she moved into her apartment a year ago and found it without a smoke detector.
She also mentioned other problems in her apartment, including a bathroom sink detached from its base, and said she "always forget(s) to mention those problems" to the manager.
Her friend, Teresa Valenzuela, said she had moved in a month ago to an apartment several doors down. She said she installed a smoke detector, "but it fell."
She said previous tenants had nailed the bars of her windows shut, but she removed the nails because she is claustrophobic.
Valenzuela said she would never complain to authorities about such issues.
"I'm afraid -- maybe the owner doesn't want to invest and the city winds up pressuring him and then we all get kicked out. Then where are we going to go?"