Broken windows, black mold, faulty utilities and haphazard repairs have left tenants of several local apartment complexes feeling frustrated, angry and out of options.
Eucalyptus Real Estate, an Oklahoma City-based property investment firm, has quietly purchased the Four Seasons, Bluestem, Parkview and State Street Apartment complexes as well as the Riverview Condominiums. A quick search on Eucalyptus owner Lew McGinnis brings up a long list of similar complaints — some resulting in tragedy.
The Gazette made several attempts to contact McGinnis for comment. Those requests went unanswered.
Former Bluestem resident Destiny Siegrist discovered she was not alone in her frustrations earlier this summer when trying to get repairs scheduled in her apartment.
Siegrist had lived in the complex when it was owned by Hornet Residential, owned by Lawrence-based real estate investor John Salvino. The complex changed hands last year, and since the transition, tenants have had a much different experience.
“The last owners were really great,” Siegrist said. “They would upkeep the apartments. Like, if my AC went out with the old owners, they would have replaced it immediately. The only reason why we still renewed our lease is because they were still here when we renewed our lease, but it was kind of, like, spontaneous. And then, all of a sudden, (McGinnis) owns like five or six properties.”
Siegrist said her problems first started in April, just a few months after Eucalyptus took over the property. She found mold growing in the apartment. Siegrist said she notified the property manager right away about the issue, since she is sensitive to certain types of mold.
“I can’t touch the stuff because I have allergies to it,” she said.
Her calls went ignored and the problems persisted. As the weather grew warmer and more humid, the mold problem worsened.
More mold, leaks
It wasn’t just Siegrist that was having issues.
Jane Smith — a pseudonym given for a former tenant of State Street Apartments who spoke to The Gazette on the condition of anonymity — said her family has dealt with a number of issues.
She said when her family first moved into the apartments, they were owned by Thomas Property Management of Emporia.
“We lived here for almost a year and a half,” Smith said. “When we first moved in, we walked through and noted different things that needed repaired and they would basically make a list and would be right on top of it for the most part. When they sold it, I would say it just started going downhill immediately. We would call the office and wouldn’t get answers. We’d leave messages and wouldn’t receive phone calls. We’d actually get a better response if we contacted the maintenance men directly because they would go to the office and we’d get a better response that way.”
Smith said the last straw for her family was a leak that developed somewhere in the building that resulted in a large hole in her kitchen ceiling.
“There’s a hole in the kitchen ceiling that they came and cut out,” she said. “It was leaking and it still was leaking [when we left]. We had it covered with plastic bags to keep the mold from coming in.”
The leak started on May 20, Smith said, when she was 39 weeks pregnant. They contacted maintenance immediately, who came over and put a bucket on the floor. By the next day, the leak had worsened.
“We called them and let them know and the maintenance guys showed up again and started cutting into the ceiling to find the leak, and from that moment on I had a headache,” she said. “You could see and smell the mold, that mildewy smell. They tried to deny it and all that and it was very obvious, but it was very obviously mold.”
Heat causes severe issues
Meanwhile, Siegrist’s problems at Bluestem had continued to escalate.
As temperatures started to increase, her air conditioning unit went out. She again contacted the property manager and was told a repair ticket would be submitted. The unit sat in disrepair as temperatures began to climb.
The temperature in Siegrist’s apartment reached the upper 90s, making it uncomfortable not only for her, but also her aging cat. The extreme temperatures inside, she said, caused her cat to go into heat stroke and resulted in a visit to an emergency veterinarian.
“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever had to deal with, because I really thought I was about to lose him,” Siegrist said. “He was just — his eyes rolled back in his head, he was convulsing. I really thought he was going to die that day. So I’m very lucky that he didn’t, because I know other people that also had similar situations with their animals that did die. Pets are family.”
Siegrist made several more requests for help, resorting to making daily phone calls and visits to the office as her schedule allowed. The manager, who Siegrist believes left her job with Bluestem sometime earlier this summer, was understanding at first and then became progressively more frustrated with Siegrist as time went on.
“At first she was sympathetic, and then she kind of got dismissive, like I should just accept the fact that I don’t have AC, and have mold and stuff like that,” Siegrist said.
Feeling as though her concerns were not being heard, Siegrist began talking to other tenants, family members and friends. Her parents urged her to contact Emporia Fire Station No. 1 to get connected with someone who could help with her landlord issue. Siegrist said she was given the information she needed to get started and realized she had rights of which she had been unaware. Siegrist began the process of filing a 14/30-day notice of landlord noncompliance, which states that if a landlord continually fails to meet maintenance or contractual agreements, the Kansas Residential Landlord and Tenant Act gives a tenant the right to break their rental agreement legally.
To do so, Siegrist had to provide written notice of her intent to vacate her apartment prior to the end of her lease and what repairs were needed in order to comply with both her rental agreement and the City of Emporia’s Minimum Rental Housing Code. The notice stated she would be moving out before her next rent date unless repairs or actions to make repairs were undertaken within 14 days after receipt of the notice.
“Assuming you were a good tenant (paid each month’s rent on time, didn’t damage the landlord’s property, etc.), the landlord should not pursue you for future rent and should return your security deposit,” the city’s policy states. “If you give the notice and decide not to move, make your plans well-known and communicated to the landlord in writing. Unlike the similar notice from tenant to landlord, Kansas law does not tie the Notice of Tenant Noncompliance to rent-paying dates; they can be for any thirty (30) day period. Always keep a copy of the 14/30-Day Notice for your personal files.”
After submitting a copy of her 14/30 notice, Siegrist said she received an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent. Upon showing receipts of on-time payments, she was told the notice was sent by mistake, but Siegrist believed it may have been a retaliatory measure.
Jena Johnson, general manager for Hornet Residential, said her office continued to receive calls from former tenants since Eucalyptus took over some of their property. Johnson said McGinnis purchased the properties in May 2018, but many of the tenants were still grandfathered into their old leases through 2019.
“I have so much empathy for the people that live there,” she said. “We sold it in late May last year, and those are my residents that live there. Some of them are families that raised their children there. They, you know, have been there for a long time, so when they call asking for help, I refer them to the city.”
Johnson said the complaints she has received are similar to what Siegrist experienced, with mold growing in vents and broken air conditioning units that are left in disrepair.
“Nobody’s doing anything,” Johnson said. “I feel that these are still my people, even though I haven’t taken care of them in over a year, and I have tried the best I can to help.”
Another common complaint Johnson has received over the last year is tenants not receiving their security deposits upon vacating their apartments. According to state law, security deposits must be returned to tenants within 30 days of the end of a lease unless notice is given by the leasing agent to the tenant about why the deposit has been withheld. Johnson said her hands were tied.
“We transferred all of [the tenants’] security deposits to Eucalyptus management as part of the sale,” Johnson said. “I feel for the people I know, and there’s not anything I can do about it.”
Johnson said she has reached out to McGinnis and Eucalyptus personally about the issues, and the lack of response between the leasing company and local tenants baffles her.
“I feel there’s a total lack of communication with the company,” she said. “I spent a lot of time with Lew. He comes off as a very professional, very nice person.”
In the months since we first started investigating this story, Siegrist and Smith have both found new housing, but the experience was enough to spur Siegrist into action.
She started a Facebook group for tenants frustrated with Eucalyptus Real Estate and has been helping others learn about their rights as tenants and what they can do if they are caught in similar situations with the company.
“I felt powerless at first,” Siegrist said. “I thought I did everything possible between the city code services, health department and I was just like, ‘Well what more can I do?’ Cause they’re obviously not going to do anything. That made me feel a little bit — just even a smidge — more powerful in the outcome of the situation.”
Siegrist said the most important advice she has for other renters is to document everything.
“I’ve been telling everybody else to take photos, take videos of everything, because they’re going to try to make it as easy as possible for them to deny it,” Siegrist said. “And it’s usually going to be evicting the tenant. So, now they all know about it, too, and they know what to look out for because I am sure I’m not going to be the only one that they put a notice on the door for.”
— For more information about local tenant rights, visit www.emporia-kansas.gov/index.php/landlord-tenant-info.