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Renter's roof, patience wear thin

Two weeks after reporting her problem, leaks in her dining room and bedroom closet still aren't repaired.

By SHARON TUBBS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Barbara Mack had just come home from church on July 15 when she noticed water trickling from the ceiling above her dining room table.

She picked up the phone.

"I realize it is raining, and there is nothing you can do at this time," Mack remembers saying to her maintenance man's answering machine. He probably wouldn't come out that night, but surely he'd appear in a few days, she thought.

Days went by without response. A worried Mack called the Clearwater Fire Department. A worker came to her home and shut off a circuit breaker as a safety precaution against the constant water, she said.

But two weeks later, the leak in the dining room and another in the bedroom closet persist. No one has fixed the problem. It was a week and a half before the maintenance man even stopped by to check it out.

"I haven't been able to eat, sleep since Friday," Mack said this week. "I'm not getting any response. I'm just at my wits' end."

In the background, she hears her nemesis: Drip. Drop. Drip. Drop.

In the scheme of things, Mack's problem is slight. Her silk blouses and wide-brimmed church hats have been ruined by the water, but she will live.

And so will many other renters who contend with the same hard-fought battles over minor repair needs, one renters' advocate said.

"One of the most common problems that renters face is getting repairs made," said Mark Ferrulo, director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group, a non-profit organization that lobbies for renters' rights among other issues.

Two weeks is far too long for a leaky ceiling, Ferrulo said.

"Two days would be too much," said Ferrulo, who added that the leak could be a safety hazard.

As far as Jim Morris is concerned, Mack's reaction to the situation is laughable. He's the maintenance man who doubles as on-site manager for the 110 units at Sherwood Gardens Apartments.

Morris went to Mack's apartment to check things out for the first time on Wednesday -- 11 days after her initial call. From what he saw, all Mack needs is a bucket to catch the drips and some thick plastic to cover her clothes and furniture for a while.

When Morris arrived, he saw that Mack had taken the clothes from her closet and sprawled them throughout the house, as if she had a major dilemma, Morris said, chuckling.

"It was actually funny to me," he said. "And I don't mind saying that."

Besides, at least two other tenants in Sherwood Gardens have leaks worse than Mack's, Morris said. They aren't complaining, he said.

Morris said he got at least one of Mack's phone messages. And, yes, his son told him of the time Mack stopped by his home. But Morris fixes the air conditioning and the heating. "I don't do roofs," he said.

He has called a few roofers to come look at the problem, Morris said. One is coming out Monday. Two more roofers are scheduled to come by on Tuesday, Morris said.

Mack says she is stressed out by the ordeal. The July 15 drip in the dining room stopped a few days later. But on July 21, it rained hard again. She came home and found the clothes in her closet soaked from a leak there.

The dripping and the soaked carpet in her closet have created an unbearable stench. Mack keeps the closet door closed to contain the odor. Dresses, hats and shoe boxes are scattered throughout the two-bedroom apartment. A friend is trying to wash some of the water stains out.

Mack, a 49-year-old customer service representative for an insurance company, said she had to cancel her renter's insurance last year when she was out of work.

Why not just move?

"If you move every time a landlord intimidated you, where do the renters' rights come in? Why do we have all these Florida statutes?" she asked.

So, Mack called and sent letters to the apartment manager, the apartment owners, City Hall, the county consumer protection department, the health department, the city building inspection department and every media outlet she could think of. "I called everybody except the governor and the president," Mack said.

Still, drip, drop.

Mack probably won't get any reimbursement for the damages, unless she takes the landlord to court, Ferrulo said. "The onus is on the renter to get reimbursement," he said.

Morris, meanwhile, says he's doing the best he can to get the problem fixed. When he went to Mack's apartment on Wednesday, Mack's cousin threw him out, frustrated that he did not think it was a big deal.

"She seemed real nice," Morris said of Mack. "Then, all of a sudden, she just burst up."

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