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Hammer may fall on hoarder, neighbor: Duluth condemns duplex over fire concerns

Fire officials were not only concerned about this duplex but the danger it could pose to neighboring closeby neighboring structures. (Bob King / Forum News Service)1 / 2
City fire officials condemned the duplex at 120 W. 5th St. for human habitation on Tuesday, Nov. 8, because of clutter in the upstairs unit. Although the tenant of the downstairs unit, pictured here, is not at fault she soon may be forced from her home. (Bob King / Forum News Service)2 / 2

DULUTH — Shelly Louks, a disabled senior living in Duluth's Central Hillside neighborhood, learned this week that she soon may be forced out of her home, due to a neighbor's clutter.

For more than a year now, Duluth building safety officials have been working with the tenant who lives in the unit above Louks in the duplex they share.

Karl Wyant, the owner of that duplex, said the building's upstairs tenant has lived in her unit for about 10 years now and has been a good renter but for one fault.

"The only negative thing is that she is a hoarder," Wyant said.

"That hasn't been a problem for me per se, but the city makes it a problem," he said.

Greg Smith, a housing inspector for the Duluth Fire Department's life safety division, said that in February, the unit was flagged as unsafe because of blocked egresses and the sheer volume of material stored there, creating concerns about the amount of fuel it could provide in the event of a fire.

"I would say that if there were an active fire in that upstairs cluttered unit, it would take less than a minute until the smoke and the heat would become so great that anybody in there would be dead or unable to escape, and it would quickly burn through everything. That's why we're concerned about the lower tenant's unit," Smith said.

Wyant acknowledged the upstairs tenant is unorganized and has a lot of stuff in her unit, but questioned Smith's assessment of the fire danger.

"I utterly believe those fears are overblown," he said.

Louks said she feels caught in the middle and said: "That fire inspector is trying to put pressure on my landlord through me. That's what he told me when he came and knocked on my door, because I was just devastated. I said: 'Now I've got to move.' I said, 'You can come in here and see I'm no hoarder. I have very little.'"

Louks doesn't know where to turn.

"I can't go nowhere. I'm severely disabled. I'm elderly. I live on Social Security and I'm on Section 8. I don't have the money to move," she said, noting that she wouldn't even have enough money for a security deposit.

"The only other place I can go is to live in my car," said Louks, the owner of a 2003 Buick Century. She noted that she'd have to share the vehicle with her three cats: Dolly, Little Boy and Tigger.

Louks said she has a bad back, is partially paralyzed and has inoperable hernias, as well as an ileostomy.

Smith said he has run out of options.

"We've worked with the owner and the tenant to try to get her to comply. We condemned it because she wasn't complying, and then she went through two appeals, one with the Board of Appeals and one with the City Council," Smith said.

The condemnation was upheld by the City Council in July, but it granted the woman an additional 90 days to work to resolve the city's public safety concerns.

The woman declined to comment on the situation when contacted by the News Tribune at that time.

On Oct. 16, after that extension had passed, Smith again inspected the unit for the final time and found it to be in unacceptable condition, prompting him to formally condemn the whole building on Tuesday as unacceptable for habitation.

"Because of the existing fire danger, because of the excessive fire load in her unit, that affects the lower unit. If a fire were to start upstairs, it would burn so fast and hot that the downstairs tenant would be in danger," Smith said.

The city has made a good-faith effort to resolve issues with the unit, said 3rd District City Councilor Em Westerlund.

"I do know that we tried our best to give her some extra time to follow up, but this issue has been known about by life safety for over two years now, and I know they've tried their best to assist and that we've got a pretty strong documented record of the different ways and efforts that were made to help her," Westerlund said.

Wyant received a letter Wednesday notifying him that his rental license for the property had been revoked, and the building must be vacated by Dec. 18 or he could face an additional fine of $1,000 per day beyond a $500 revocation fee that has already been levied against him.

Wyant said he's stuck in a difficult position. He can't lawfully remove the materials the city has flagged in the upstairs unit, as they are not his property, and he doesn't feel that evicting his tenant is the right thing to do either.

"They say hoarding is a mental illness now. So I'm not about to evict someone for having a mental illness. I've been encouraging her gently to reduce the amount of stuff she has, and she's been complying with that," Wyant said, suggesting that the tenant has made substantial progress since Smith's last inspection Oct.16.

While Smith agreed Wyant can't forcibly remove property from the upstairs unit, he said the landlord needs to step up: "He has eviction options he could pursue if he wishes to. Again, we don't want to force anybody out, but we have to think of safety. That's where we have to put our stick in the ground and say that we need it to be safe for both the upstairs tenant and the downstairs tenant. And he's responsible at the end of the day to get that done."

Westerlund said she sympathizes with both the tenants and Wyant.

"I think he's in a difficult situation as well. I think it's a fine balance to strike, especially when we start bringing in issues of mental health and wellness and different conceptions of what that looks like. But at the end of the day, the landlord is the one who is going to be held liable for the state of his units," she said.

Short of eviction, Smith said the upstairs tenant still could choose to bring her unit into compliance before the Dec. 18 deadline.

"That's what we've said to the owner and this tenant from the beginning: This could literally end tomorrow if you brought me in, and the storage was reduced to a level that we were comfortable with for safety purposes, the condemnation would be lifted, the revocation would be lifted, your license would be reinstated, and that's it. We'd be done," he said.