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Low income rentals a tricky scene in Berlin

March 11, 2011
BERLIN — The search for low-income housing in Berlin can be problematic. Prospective tenants are as likely to find a good landlord and property as they are to find themselves in multifamily houses where the landlords do not provide basic maintenance or reliable heat.

The problem of maintenance and heat — or its lack — can be a tricky situation for tenants to navigate, according to Andre Caron, housing coordinator for the City of Berlin. Caron said that the historically low cost of some multi-family buildings has helped perpetuate the problem the city has with some less than conscientious landlords.

Some of the buildings sell so cheap that they are transferred in cash transactions. Caron said that a building sold for $10-$15,000 can make the purchase price back in rent in around 10 months, leaving the landlords with no incentive to fix the problem. There have been cases where landlords will buy properties, run them until they are shut down for code violations and then take the money they've made and move on, Caron said.

While some tenants face issues with maintenance, this time of year heat is a more pressing issue. Although New Hampshire law states that every habitable room must be able to be kept at 68 degrees, many Berlin tenants have horror stories about being left in the cold.

Autumn Osta, a former tenant in a building owned by Joe Dimauro claims that he is one of the landlords that does not regularly provide his tenants with oil, even when heat is included in the rent. She also said that charities like the Salvation Army will not allow funds to go to Dimauro's tenants because of his poor maintenance record.

June Desmond, a social service worker at the Salvation Army, said the issue of disbursement does not follow the landlord per se, but is dependent on the condition of the buildings. Desmond said her agency requires certificates of compliance, stating that a building is up to code before they release funds, though she admitted that many of Dimauro's buildings do not come up to code.

Dimauro is not the only one. Joe Martin, the city's housing inspector, said that he typically sees about 20 complaints a month. "It's worse in the winter, especially in situations where there isn't heat," he said. "Some landlords only put in five gallons of heating fuel per night, and a lot of the time the rent money gets used for other things."

The Salvation Army isn't the only agency that tries to hold these landlords to a standard. Darlene Caldwell, the housing coordinator for the Berlin Housing Authority, said that if there is a complaint about a landlord in their program not providing heat, they are given a chance to address the problem. After a second complaint, if it's found to have merit, the Housing Authority abates four days' worth of payment. A third complaint results in all payment stopped until the landlord creates a plan to keep the building heated, she said.

All three — Caron, Martin and Caldwell — agreed that one of the biggest keys to making sure a landlord is held accountable is communication. Tenants need to tell the landlord if repairs are needed or if there's a problem with the heat. Caldwell said that part of the problem is that tenants talk to everyone but their landlord about the problems. The BHA receives calls from tenants who say they have no heat, but it's surprising how many times the landlord has not been contacted, Caldwell said.

BHA executive director, Mary Jo Landry, said that she thinks landlords are often grateful to hear from tenants about issues in the buildings so they can be addressed.

That's not always the case though, according to more of Dimauro's former tenants. Kim Stuart and her husband Gabriel rented from Dimauro at two locations — 702 Glen Avenue and 496 Western Avenue (which Dimauro no longer owns). Kim said the Glen Avenue apartment was in shambles. "The ceiling was falling down and we had mice problems." Despite the fact that her husband used to work for Dimauro, the problems got so bad that she called Martin's office to file complaints.

Gabriel's take on the situation wasn't that Dimauro didn't want to fix the buildings, but that he took on more projects than he could handle. That's a sentiment that Dimauro's wife Christine echoed. "Joe has too much on his plate and too many tenants with not enough time," she said. She's lent her hand on occasion to fix problems but admitted she is not handy enough to address them all.

Osta said it is unfair that these low-rent apartments are not maintained better. "I can't afford anything other than these apartments and I think the apartments should be kept up," Osta said, noting that low-income renters shouldn't have to live with mice and no heat.

In multiple family homes, landlords are required to use licensed plumbers and electricians, according to Martin. That doesn't always happen though, Osta said. She claimed that licensed laborers weren't used to fix problems, which just perpetuated the existing issues. "You don't need licenses to do everything," Dimauro said.

Christine said that she doesn't have anything to do with the buildings anymore because she was sick of acting as a go-between for the tenants and Joe — especially with six kids to take care of. Many of the tenants agree, however, that things ran more smoothly when Christine was involved. "When I was out of oil, Christine tried to help me," Osta said.

According to the city, Dimauro owns more than a dozen properties in Berlin, all under multiple property management companies, which bill to his Corbin Street address. His wife explained that he decides where the rent goes and she takes orders from him. She added that she does not agree or disagree with what Joe does, but did make sure the buildings had oil when she was involved and also did what maintenance work she could.

"I'm not going to say Joe is the best or worst landlord in town, but there are tenants who play hopscotch and the landlords lie to each other to get tenants out because the eviction process takes so long. The landlords won't tell the other landlords the problems they have with the tenants just so they can get the tenants out and not lose all that money." In Christine's estimation many of the problems lie in the system, which makes eviction so difficult. "The City needs to make changes and the bad tenants need to be thrown out," she said.

The eviction process can be costly and lengthy, Christine said. People being evicted tend to not pay their rent for the three months that the eviction takes, she explained, and the bills on the property still need to be paid. She pointed to the eviction process in Florida as an alternative. There, she said, tenants have to pay their back rent just to get a hearing and are put out within a month of being served with eviction papers.

Dimaro drew media attention in Florida in 2005, when the "Palm Beach Post" reported that the city of Lake Worth had declared his properties — which housed some 30 tenants at the time — a public nuisance and ordered him to evict his tenants. In another story, it was reported that he had brought a libel suit against Lake Worth code enforcement chair, Pam Wynn, after she had accused him of bribery. The board member who he was alleged to have bribed, Ed Rieck, later recanted and Wynn resigned after losing a bid for mayor.

Scott McCabe, a journalist who wrote for the "Palm Beach Post" at the time and covered the issues with Dimauro said, "He's a very smart guy and he doesn't back down from a fight...he took the city on." McCabe added that he had found Dimauro to be "...honest to the point where it can be detrimental."

According to McCabe, Dimauro had told him that he registered his buildings in Florida with companies in Nevada and Delaware to disguise who the true owner was. He said that Dimauro had told him this helped him avoid having to pay for code violations, and it also helped him avoid liens the city would try to take out on his mortgages. McCabe added that he wasn't exactly sure how that had worked, but that it had gotten Dimauro out of paying fines.

Martin said that here in New Hampshire, Dimauro is doing something similar, but Martin declined to elaborate on the situation.

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