AUGUSTA – Nine residents of a Laurel Street apartment building had to find new places to live Friday with just a few hours’ notice when the city deemed the building unsafe and ordered them out.
As they were packing up their belongings, tenants said they all had found other housing, many in other units owned by their landlord, Larry Fleury, owner of River City Realty.
Tenants of the 12-unit building at 9 Laurel St. said it was stressful and unfair to be told Friday morning that they had to be out by 3 that afternoon, through no fault of their own.
“I’m a disabled veteran,” said tenant and Army veteran William Thorp, who planned to stay with friends who helped him pack his belongings onto a trailer on a hot Friday afternoon. “I’m stressed. The way they’re doing this isn’t right. You should at least have 24 or 48 hours’ notice. Not ‘By 3 o’clock, you’ve got to be out.’ “
Code Enforcement Officer Robert Overton said the building was deemed unfit for occupancy because it was found to have “significant Life Safety Code deficiencies and some structural problems with the exterior porches and stairs.”
He said the city rarely takes the step of immediately ordering tenants out, but had to take action in this case because the conditions and code issues at the building made it unsafe for tenants. Overton said it was also unsafe for any police or firefighters who might have to respond to an emergency in the large building at the corner of Laurel Street and Morton Place.
The building’s defects include the lack of a central fire alarm system, inadequate ways to exit some apartments, and structural concerns about porches and stairs.
“There was no one item that led us to the point we felt it was necessary to vacate the building. It was more the cumulative effect of many items,” Overton said. “We didn’t feel there was any amount of time tenants would be safe staying there while repairs are made. It’s for the safety of the tenants and any first responders who may need to come in there.”
Building owner Larry Fleury said he’d had substantial improvements made to the building in the last week. He said porches and stairs there may not be new but are structurally sound.
Fleury said the city is being heavy-handed by declaring the building unfit for occupancy.
“I have great tenants there. I’m so sorry to disappoint these people,” Fleury said. “I think (officials) could have given me an opportunity to work with them, rather than put nine people out of housing. There was a substantial amount of work that took place this week. Maybe it’s not perfectly the way they want it. It’s not brand new, but you can jump up and down on the porch and stairs. It’s probably more structurally sound than it was 20 years ago. This was very heavy-handed.”
Peter Coltart, who lived in his apartment at 9 Laurel St. for two years, said he was moving to a Cedar Street building also owned by Fleury, who he said has treated him well.
He said tenants were given 24 hours’ notice that the building was going to be inspected, but none of them thought they’d have to move out Friday.
“It’s surreal. I didn’t wake up this morning thinking I’d have to move out,” he said. “We’re pretty close here. We’re friends.”
Don Ladson, who has lived in the building for about nine months, said he was moving to another Fleury-owned building, on Gage Street. He said he didn’t see why the entire building had to be closed, and he said there were no safety concerns in his apartment. He didn’t want to leave Laurel Street, and he hates moving.
Overton said the building was inspected by officials from the code enforcement office, the Fire Department and the State Fire Marshal’s Office. He said the inspection was scheduled after an exterior inspection was conducted last week, after a call from a probation officer who expressed concern about the condition of the stairs.
He confirmed some work had taken place at the building in the week between the two inspections, but “the problems with the building are more than could be taken care of in a few days of work.” He said some of the work was painting and cleaning, not structural.
Overton said the city would work to make sure the displaced tenants found suitable housing.
Fleury, owner of many apartment buildings in the city and president of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, said he had fire escapes put on the building many years ago, as well as a new roof and plumbing, and has had it rewired. He acknowledged the fire escapes may not be up to current code, but said when they were installed, the city approved them.
Fleury said he will have the required work done to bring the building up to code. He has owned the multiple-story building since 1984. According to city records, it was built in 1900 and is valued at $168,200.
“I have no choice. I have to,” he said of bringing the building up to code. “I’m not going to be irresponsible and let that building sit there and rot. We understand the city feels pressured, because there have been so many fires. I understand that and am willing to sit at the table and work with the city, but don’t take away our income (that would allow me) to do the work.”
Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at: