For a relatively nondescript downtown building, the Howard Apartments receives a lot of attention. Tenants of the 80-room complex claim their landlord, a reclusive Anaconda resident, doesn’t care for the building. A recent series of events—including one case of hypothermia due to an alleged heating problem—has one tenant seeking legal action.
The controversy began over the summer when Mountain Water Company nearly shut off the building’s water due to unpaid bills. The incident created a rift between the building’s owner, Steve Wall, and his former property management company, Millennium Properties. Millennium canceled their contract over the issue.
“That was the final straw,” says Kris Schermele of Millennium. “I said, ‘You know, I can’t manage your property under these conditions.’”
Wall hired Luna Properties out of Bozeman in October. However, complications over the transition left the trash bill unpaid for a short time. In early December, the boiler went out for eight days, forcing residents to go without hot water. A week later the building’s electricity went off, allegedly causing tenant John Grigsby to suffer hypothermia as he slept in his own bed.
The Independent contacted Wall, but only via e-mail. According to Luna Properties, Wall doesn’t own a telephone and can be difficult to reach. He denied any wrongdoing. “[The] Howard is maintained in good condition,” Wall wrote. “Apartments, appliances, plumbing, et al are regularly inspected before a tenant moves in. Tenants have constant access to management to report any concerns, problems, or potential issues.” Wall declined to answer specific follow-up questions and referred further queries to Luna Properties.
Ellie Hill, director of the Poverello Center, estimates that as many as 20 of the Howard’s tenants regularly use her facility. She says they eat meals at the Pov, or borrow blankets when the weather turns cold. When the building’s heat went out last month, one resident borrowed a space heater. Hill says the recent series of events are emblematic of a larger problem.
“I feel comfortable saying that unequivocally every resident of the Howard complains to us about their housing,” she says. “They feel powerless to speak up, and worry about retaliation if they do. These are marginalized people and intimidated and paranoid by nature.”
Hill says she is helping Grigsby find legal counsel and hopes he’ll be represented by the end of the week. Grigsby was the only Howard tenant willing to speak to the Independent for this story, although others who live in the building have spoken off the record to the newspaper about their frustrations with Wall.
Complicating matters is the fact that certain parts of Grigsby’s story have been called into question. On Dec. 13, NorthWestern Energy reported a power loss that affected the Ryman Street blcok—temperatures dropped to minus 19 that day. The building only lost electricity for 65 minutes, but when it kicked back on, the surge tripped the circuit breaker to Grigsby’s room, as well as a few others on the second floor. According to Ernesto Fernandes, the building’s maintenance manager for 12 years, most affected tenants asked for his help to get the heat turned back on in their rooms. Grigsby was not one of them.
Grigsby says he didn’t notice as the temperature began to drop and he went to sleep in the early evening. He awoke in the middle of the night to freezing temperatures and figured he’d be fine if he covered himself in more blankets. He did, but he says doctors later told him he suffered hypothermia that first night, causing him to spend two more days slipping in and out of consciousness. Hypothermia induces a detached, groggy state and Grigsby says he wasn’t clear-headed enough to help himself.
Fernandes eventually checked on Grigsby and found him incoherent and alone in his room. He also alleges he found three empty bottles of Smirinov vodka and a window broken from the inside. Grigsby claims the cold broke the window, something Fernandes says he’s never seen happen before. Fernandes called an ambulance and Grigsby was taken to St. Patrick Hospital.
Becky Restum, the property manager at Luna Properties, says the building is not neglected. But she does acknowledge Wall is a somewhat grudging owner.
“He actually inherited this trust that his great uncle left behind,” Restum says. “And he was left with all these properties and nobody in his family wants to deal with them.”
That’s not good enough for Grigsby. He maintains that Wall is to blame for his hypothermia and if things aren’t corrected, something worse could happen.
“When winter came, he’s renting to us and we’re paying rent and he’s not taking care of the building,” Grigsby says. “And I got hurt as a consequence of that. I got hurt severely.”