Death spurs cleanup at illegal apartment

  • Mon Jul 12th, 2010 9:39pm
  • News

By Bennett Hall Gazette-Times

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Three months after the death of a tenant in an illegal basement apartment triggered a cleanup order by the city, remediation work continues at Rudy Wehrmann’s house at 719 S.W. Fourth St.

Takaoki “Jim” Kouno, 65, died of natural causes April 7 in the tiny basement room he rented from Wehrmann. The rental unit had previously been deemed uninhabitable by the city because it had no toilet, no running water, no kitchen, no windows and inadequate fire exits.

City inspectors got a warrant to search the two-story house, which includes two other apartments plus Wehrmann’s living area, and a detached garage that also had a history of illegal occupancy.

They found numerous health code violations, including large amounts of rotting food and cat feces in Wehrmann’s ground-floor living area. In the basement and garage, they found milk jugs filled with human urine and plastic bags containing human feces.

Inspectors also cited a number of fire code violations, including exposed wiring, heavy use of extension cords, lack of adequate smoke detectors, and piles of flammable debris in the back yard. On April 15, the city declared the building dangerous and ordered Wehrmann and his tenants to vacate the premises. The house and garage were boarded up, and Wehrmann was told to clean the place up or tear it down.

Corvallis code enforcement supervisor Chris Westfall said the initial 30-day deadline has been extended twice, and Wehrmann now has until July 28 to remedy the sanitation problems.

Westfall said progress is being made.

With help from his three out-of-town siblings, who co-own the house, Wehrmann has hired NorthWest HazMat of Springfield to clean up the property. Workers have been removing garbage from the buildings and hauling away junk from the yard. They’ve also ripped out soiled carpets and disposed of tainted furniture.

When the cleanup job is complete, it will have to be approved by a county health inspector.

Wehrmann said the cost to abate the sanitation issues was estimated at about $5,000.

But more work remains to be done before the city will allow Wehrmann to move back in. Once the house has been sanitized, Wehrmann will still have to take care of the fire hazards noted during the initial inspection in April and any structural issues that may have come to light after the initial cleanup was done.

“I’m not sure yet what we’ll find,” said Westfall. “Ultimately what we’re looking for is to resolve the fire hazard conditions and any contributing factors to that.”

Policing the illegal rental units is another matter.

Corvallis officials have warned Wehrmann repeatedly over a period of years not to allow anyone to live in the basement or the garage because they don’t meet minimal health and safety standards. In 2006, a judge fined him for ignoring those warnings.

But under the city’s code enforcement policy, there is no mechanism for punishing repeat offenders or checking periodically to make sure they’re complying with the law. As in previous cases, the only way the city would step in is if someone complains.

“If those concerns arise again, we will respond on a complaint basis,” Westfall said. “We would not do any surprise inspections.”