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Tenants of partially collapsed Iowa building say complaints were ignored

An apartment building that partially collapsed on Sunday afternoon can be seen Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa. (AP Photo/Erin Hooley)
An apartment building that partially collapsed on Sunday afternoon can be seen Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa. (AP Photo/Erin Hooley)
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Three people are still missing and feared dead after a portion of a six-story, 116-year-old apartment building in Davenport, Iowa collapsed Sunday evening.

Authorities said Friday they completed their search for survivors in the structure, so they’re moving to shore up the building and start recovery efforts.

No deaths have been reported yet.

They’re unable to say if they’ve recovered any human remains, but said there’s a high probability three men – Branden Colvin, 42, Ryan Hitchcock, 51, and Daniel Prien, 60 – were in the building at the time of the collapse.

The incident has been marred with confusion over reports from the city’s fire and rescue crews.

Seven people were rescued from the structure Sunday evening, and 12 more were escorted out. Later, two more were rescued – including one woman who was removed from the fourth floor hours after officials said they were going to start setting up for demolition because the structure is unstable and could completely collapse at any time.

First responders said at the time they announced plans for demolition, the building showed no signs of life, and needed to come down quickly in order to avoid damage to surrounding buildings or injuring rescue crews.

But that didn’t stop family and community members from protesting outside the site, accusing the city of trying to tear down a building that still possibly had survivors inside.

It’s unclear why the reports were conflicting, but officials say they’ll investigate that.

The 18-year-old son of Colvin, Branden Colvin Jr., has been waiting outside the building since it collapsed.

“If they told me I could, I’ll run in there right now,” he told CNN. “I haven’t slept. I’ve been out here for three days, at night, all night, waiting for anything.”

The cause of the collapse hasn’t been determined, but an investigation is ongoing.

City permit records indicate inspectors were aware of a brick facade that separated from the interior wall, and appeared “ready to fall imminently.”

An engineer wrote a letter just days before the collapse on May 24, saying the interior wall of the building appeared to be losing stability, “causing deformation.” City officials did not issue an order to the some 50 tenants to vacate because a structural engineer hired by the building owner assured the building wasn’t in imminent danger of collapsing.

Repair work started the next day, but it was not completed before the structure came down.

Recent and former tenants are speaking out, claiming there were several issues with the building over the years, from cracks in the walls to water leakage and toilets not bolted to the floor. The residents told NBC News they tried several times to contact management and file complaints, but they were ignored.

“The tenants of this building are pretty active,” said Rich Oswald, the city’s director of development and neighborhood services. “They’ve called the city numerous times with complaints.”

Still, after two assessments by an outside engineering firm hired by the owner, the building was deemed structurally safe.

Andrew Wold is the owner of the building. His company, Davenport Hotel L.L.C., said in a statement, “Our thoughts and prayers are with our tenants.” He’ll be required to pay for the cost of demolition, and is being fined by the city for failing to maintain the structure in a safe manner.

Wold is due in court June 9. City code sets maximum fines for certain infractions. Officials say it’s unclear if criminal charges would be filed in this case, but it’s always possible, along with civil litigation.

In the meantime, officials in Davenport are still trying to figure out the safest and most respectful way to demolish the structure with the possibility of human remains inside. Davenport Mayor Mike Matson said the city is on daily calls with the Miami-Dade County Fire Department in Florida, which worked on recovery efforts after the 2021 Surfside Condominium collapse in Surfside, Florida, which killed 98 people.

One of the lead attorneys for the Surfside victims, Jeffrey Goodman, told the Quad-City Times of the Davenport collapse, “...responsibly owned, properly managed and maintained structures – no matter their size or age – do not suddenly and violently collapse.”

While it remains unclear who or what is to blame for the structural failure in Davenport, it’s a refresher that renters have a slew of rights under landlord and tenant laws.

These vary from state to state, but general Iowa Code states, “The landlord shall comply with the requirements of applicable building and housing codes materially affecting health and safety” and “make all repairs and do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition.”

Aaron Sokolow is an attorney at Washington, D.C.-based firm Battino & Sokolow PLLC, which handles civil litigation and landlord/tenant matters. He said he hasn’t dealt with a full building collapse, but partial collapses that render a building inhabitable “actually aren’t that uncommon.”

Sokolow solely deals with D.C. law, but said D.C. tenants have multiple options if they’re concerned about something in their unit.

In D.C. and many other jurisdictions, in order for a landlord to obtain a basic business license, the city has to send out a certified inspector to conduct a safety inspection. That’s not the only inspection. Based on the location, landlords must conduct safety inspections every so often – whether it’s annually, every two years or every five years.

Concerned tenants can request additional inspections, too.

“At any time, the tenant can call the Department of Buildings and request, perhaps, a more robust inspection,” Sokolow said. “So, the tenant is saying there are problems. And if the landlord wants to prove that there aren’t, you can hire your own independent inspector to inspect and write a report.”

In D.C., there’s a program that provides inspectors for free, but Sokolow added, “If there was a different jurisdiction where that wasn’t supplied by the city, I would recommend the tenant just pays out of pocket.”

Other routes tenants can take in D.C. include filing a claim in housing conditions court or filing for damages under the Consumer Protection Procedures Act.

In general, Sokolow said, “If a tenant can prove that there are problems that the landlord knew of and failed to fix, then that tenant ought to consult local legal counsel to determine whether there’s recourse against the landlord.”

The building in Davenport was over a century old.

Sokolow said he’s encountered landlords who own old properties who said repairs were needed, but the tenant agreed to pay a reduced amount of rent without those repairs. In D.C., that is not recognized as a viable exchange, and “the tenant is still entitled to full protection under the law and entitled to a safe and habitable housing unit that fully complies with the housing code.”

Sokolow reiterated the importance on the part of the tenant to put their landlords on notice of potential safety issues and repair needs – and put it down in writing. Yet, it’s still on the landlord to be aware of his or her property and any possible issues. Most landlords are also required to make timely repairs, so if the landlord fails to do so, a tenant could argue he or she doesn’t owe the full contract rate of rent for the time period in question.

That way, Sokolow says, if the landlord files a claim for non-payment of rent, the tenant can defend on the basis of the allegation of housing code violations. The city or jurisdiction may also be able to step in and ensure a landlord is making timely repairs.

Hypothetically, if the city failed to do that and knew about problems with a property and was required under state law to look into it, a tenant may have basis for a negligence claim, though it varies whether a jurisdiction can have immunity in certain cases.

One example of this is the 2016 “Ghost Ship” fire in Oakland, California that killed 36 people and severely injured another person. Oakland paid more than $32 million to settle claims that local officials knew the Ghost Ship had fire risks and people lived there without permits.

Oakland admitted no liability, but settled the case “because of the cost-benefit analysis.”

At the end of the day, Sokolow said renters should know they have rights and assert them, because they’re entitled to quiet use and enjoyment of a residence. Even if something may not appear to be a major safety concern, it’s worth saying something.

“Safety comes first,” he said. “If you have an inkling that something is unsafe, trust your intuition. Get it checked out. If that requires calling an inspector, if it requires calling a contractor, that’s definitely a good idea.

“If you believe that the landlord is failing to comply with the law, failing to keep the property safe and failing to make repairs after having notice of it, certainly it’s worth pursuing. You should not live someplace that is potentially unsafe.”

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