City orders tenants to leave Vegas Block
Concord officials have ordered tenants of the Vegas Block on North Main Street in Concord to move out of the building by noon today.
Carlos Baia, deputy city manager for development, said numerous violations of fire and life-safety codes have made the building uninhabitable. The word “danger” is spelled out in capital letters on top of the orange eviction notices, posted on the doors at 148-158 N. Main St. yesterday to inform residents of the order.
“It’s just (because of) the extreme circumstance of this building that it has to be done,” Baia said.
But with barely 24 hours notice, tenants voiced concern about where they would live next. Baia estimated about 15 to 17 people live in more than 30 upstairs apartments, but he was not sure of the exact number because many of them do not have lease agreements.
“As if we’re going to afford hotels,” Kat Hutchins said. Hutchins, 18, and her boyfriend are homeless, and they’ve been staying with friends at the Vegas Block off and on for the past several months. The Vegas Block has traditionally been home to low-income residents, many of whom have been subsidized by Section 8 housing vouchers.
“There’s a lot of people who are going to be homeless,” Hutchins said. “A lot of people.”
During an inspection Wednesday, city Fire Marshal Sean Brown found the building in violation of 12 different sections of the fire code. Those issues include a faulty fire escape, holes in the walls and broken smoke detectors. Fire doors do not close properly, and part of the sprinkler system has been disconnected on the first floor.
“This is for the life safety of the tenants that are there,” Baia said. “You can’t have a five-story building of this nature without a fire suppression system and with holes in the walls. It could be a huge catastrophe.”
The building is also infested with cockroaches and bedbugs, Baia said. The windows aren’t functional. Plumbing fixtures are missing. The locks are broken. The floor joints underneath the former Siam Orchid restaurant are deteriorating.
“That’s not an exhaustive list, but that’s sort of the big-ticket items we found,” Baia said.
A health and safety hazard
Remi Hinxhia bought the building at a foreclosure auction June 23 for $975,000, plus about $100,000 in back taxes. Hinxhia also owns the neighboring property at 132.5-146 N. Main St., and he said he purchased the Vegas Block because its bedbugs were spreading into his apartments next door. He was the one to request the city inspection through his attorney, Michael Moyers.
In a letter to Baia dated Aug. 1, Moyers wrote that Hinxhia was concerned the Vegas Block was “a health and safety hazard.”
“The condition of the building is worse than (Hinxhia) thought it would be,” Moyers wrote.
As Hutchins and her friends carried garbage bags of belongings out of the building yesterday, they agreed the building is in deplorable condition. Hutchins pointed to bedbug bites on her bare legs, and they remembered the Tyrex suits worn inside by the city officials for protection.
“The place is falling apart,” Hutchins said. “You could be in there freaking making mac ’n’ cheese, and there will be cockroaches crawling in your food.”
Resident Jacob Klardie, 54, said Hinxhia had already told the tenants that they would be evicted. The original notice, however, gave until Sept. 14 to move out. Then, the city’s inspectors came through the building, and Klardie found himself standing on the sidewalk yesterday with an armful of empty cardboard boxes as fat raindrops began to fall.
“We don’t even have a tent,” Klardie said.
Klardie said he had money to pay rent, but he didn’t believe he could find a new place to live in less than a day.
“It takes a couple weeks,” he said.
Baia said the city is following all legal requirements in this situation, and the city’s human services department would give tenants a list of landlords and resources to find alternative housing. Chris Frost, 21, said he had crumpled the list into a ball in frustration when a police officer handed it to him earlier that day. He has lived in the building for two years.
“Half these places wouldn’t say yes until two week away” from now, Frost said. “I knew they would condemn the place. . . . It would have been nice to have” some notice.
Ellen Groh, director of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, said she was disappointed the Vegas Block residents were being told to leave.
“There’s no question that the building needs to be condemned,” Groh said. “But people are better off there than they would be on the street.”
She encouraged tenants to turn to the Concord Homeless Resource Center at 6B S. State St.
We can’t magically create housing for them, but we can certainly do what we can to hook them up,” Groh said.
‘From tough to worse’
These problems are not the first at the Vegas Block. The last owner, Emin Halilovic, bought the building for $2.45 million in June 2008, according to city records. At the time, Halilovic didn’t know the heat had been shut off because the previous owner was more than $20,000 behind on his bills to Concord Steam. Tenants also complained of inadequate hot water, elevator service and outdated windows.
A Merrimack County Superior Court judge fined that owner, Jason Ganem, more than $15,000 for those failures in 2008. In 2010, a judge ruled Halilovic would not have to pay damages for the days he also left his tenants without heat and hot water in fall 2008 and 2009, but he would have to pay his Concord Steam bill one month early every year. Attorneys Stephanie Bray and Dan Feltes from New Hampshire Legal Assistance worked on that case for several Vegas Block tenants.
Bray said the eviction would only send tenants “from tough to worse.”
“We are working on figuring out what advocacy can be done for the residents, both seeing if we can ease more time into this or help them get the assistance they need to make the transition. . . . The building has been and continues to be on our radar screen,” Bray said.
The Vegas Block is also well-known to the police. Last month, Lt. Timothy O’Malley said the Concord police have responded to 740 calls at that address since Jan. 1, 2011. Those calls amounted to nearly 1,000 hours of officers’ time, and they resulted in 176 offense reports or arrests. Those incidents included calls for assaults, drunkenness, theft and destruction of property.
Anyone who does not leave the building by noon could be escorted out by the police and charged with a misdemeanor, Baia said.
“We hope that would not be the case,” Baia said. “We’re prepared for that situation, and obviously we would try to do it with as much sensitivity as possible if we have to. . . . (The tenants) are living in these conditions. They’ve probably realized the building has a lot of challenges to it. We hope that when this is brought to their attention that they’ll be cognizant of the fact that this is for the best. This is for themselves and their loved ones.”
A man who declined to give his name walked out of the building yesterday afternoon carrying a cardboard box. When asked if he was a resident of the Vegas Block, he shoved the box into the trunk of a waiting car.
“Not anymore,” he said.
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)