At approximately 9 p.m. on March 29, MSU student and Abbot Manor resident Nicholas Verbanic checked his email. After multiple unanswered calls to maintenance for repairs to his apartment, he finally received an answer about the damage. It wasn’t a response to his concerns, but rather a note telling him he would have to vacate his apartment by 5 p.m. the next day.
“My initial reaction was just shock,” Verbanic said via email. “I didn’t think they would ask us to leave our apartments that quickly. I read through the email in disbelief and it still feels surreal that I was living in a different place less than a week ago.”
He wasn’t the only one. Scores of residents were told to vacate Abbot Manor by the same time as Verbanic after an inspection by the city deemed the building unsafe to live in. Among the city’s findings were extensive mold and water damage and falling drywall.
“My apartment had large cracks in the wall, which led to a couple extremely high bills to pay to heat the apartment,” Verbanic said. “We were on the top floor of the building and had to keep a pot underneath an area of the ceiling to prevent water from destroying our belongings.”
Furthermore, the area where water leaked through the ceiling developed a “high concentration of mold.”
“We also didn’t have a working vent or window in the bathroom so there was a buildup of mold and mildew in the shower,” Verbanic said. “We called for maintenance to repair our apartment many times and they would either not come or they would just look at the water damage and say they would get someone to come and look at it later.”
He said there might have been earlier repairs.
“It looked like there was water damage before on the ceiling, but it was painted over and possibly repaired in the past,” Verbanic said.
The city found 16 violations in its January routine license renewal inspection for rental properties, which occurs every 13 months. The city then sent a violation letter to the property manager of Abbot Manor, and from there the property manager typically has 30 to 40 days to make corrections to the violations, housing and university relations administrator for East Lansing Annette Irwin said.
“We had a re-inspection scheduled for February, but there was a miscommunication with our office and the change in address we were supposed to be notifying the property manager,” Irwin said. “It is our understanding that the occupants didn’t know we would be coming back to do a re-inspection, so we had to reschedule.”
The city sent its violation notice to the owners’ information, which was WestPac in California.
Irwin added she didn’t think the local property manager had been made aware of the violations by the owners.
On March 28, Irwin and the fire marshal followed up on falling drywall at Abbot Manor and alerted the local property manager to let tenants know the city would be coming to the building the following day. On March 29, the building inspector and fire marshal found there was a larger issue, Irwin said.
From there, management alerted tenants that they needed to leave the building.
Verbanic and his roommate John Owens, also an MSU student, needed to evacuate quickly, and with less than 24 hours to do so they were sent into packing mode, trying to gather up as much as they could. But when it came time to finally move out, the process was anything but smooth.
“The process of moving out was absolutely horrible,” Verbanic said. “There was only one maintenance man helping over 40 people move out of an apartment with no moving trucks on site. We had to call Two Men and a Truck to come out and help because there was no way these people would be able to move out by the expected 5:00 p.m.”
That was just the start.
Verbanic and Owens were told they would be relocated to The Rocks, an apartment complex owned by Chandler Crossings, which WestPac, its parent company, owns. WestPac also owns Abbot Manor. The two signed a lease for two bedrooms and one bathroom and expected to live like that for the time being.
“We walked into an apartment where three other people were already living in and were told we might have to share one bedroom and live with three other roommates, which was not what we signed for in our lease for 2 bedrooms and one bathroom,” Verbanic said.
After an hour the two found a duplex to live in. They weren’t the only ones who found trouble. Another student, Sean Reiter, reported finding mold, water shooting up from the floorboards and a rotted towel in the new apartment his girlfriend was to live in after she vacated her apartment at Abbot Manor.
WestPac CEO Patrick Smith issued an apology through public relations firm Truscott Rossman in the form of a release, which states “First, let me extend my sincerest apologies to our residents who have been affected. I want to assure them that we’re doing everything we can to quickly address the situation and return everyone to their apartment units. This is not a normal situation for us, and we’re intently focused on making everything right.”
The problems Verbanic and others experienced, however, might have stemmed from management issues, as the girlfriend of Owens told Verbanic that she had lived in Abbot Manor before and that “she noticed after the management switched she struggled to get someone to come and make basic repairs to her room.”
To follow up on that claim, The State News called the number Mr. Smith left as a contact for management and received a voicemail that said the number belonged to The Rocks. A message asking for comment on the Abbot Manor concerns from students went unanswered as of Wednesday.
MSU College of Law Housing Law Clinic director Brian Gilmore did not respond to requests for comment. Nonetheless, the Housing Law Clinic does have a downloadable resource guide for tenants and landlords.
In the resource guide, under the section “repair and maintenance,” it states “under Michigan law, the landlord has a duty to keep the rental property and all common areas a.) fit for the use intended by the parties; b.) in reasonable repair during the term of the lease and c.) in compliance with the health and safety laws.”
This hinges, on two things, according to the guide.
“The nature of the problem itself, and whether the landlord’s duty to repair has been modified – either by the tenant’s conduct or by mutual agreement,” it read.
Reasonable repair, however, isn’t defined by the law and would have to be decided by judge or jury. The landlord is not liable for repair if the damage done is caused by “willful neglect or irresponsible conduct or lack of conduct has caused the disrepair or violation of health or safety laws.”
Furthermore, the tenant has responsibility to promptly notify the landlord of maintenance problems.
When it comes to WestPac’s rights in the situation, East Lansing City Attorney Thomas Yeadon said he didn’t think he could comment on the situation but did outline the process for Abbot Manor going forward.
He said the city would have to set hearing dates for the owners of Abbot Manor who would have the chance to contest the city’s ruling that the building violated city ordinance.
In the press release it was written that the “The third floor sustained the most damage and residents were already in the process of being moved from that floor prior to the building being closed.”
Verbanic said that is a lie.
“This statement is just not true,” Verbanic wrote in the email. “I did not know anything about this prior to the email I forwarded to you. I had no idea I was going to be moving out of my apartment last week until the message was posted on my door.”
Mr. Smith of WestPac continued in the press release saying that Abbot Manor was a new purchase for WestPac and that WestPac was committed to improving its buildings in East Lansing was going to “make it right.”
Attempts so far to make it right included waiving rent for the month of April and paying the moving costs of its tenants. However, Verbanic said in an email he had not heard anything from WestPac about rent being waived, but did say he asked WestPac to pay the bill for his use of Two Men and a Truck to move.
“I am still in shock at what has happened over the past few days,” Verbanic said via email. “I cannot believe a company would allow for this building to be inhabited with college students and wouldn’t even give us time to move out. They definitely knew there were problems and they definitely could have given us a heads up.”