Editor, Daily Press:
In the past few weeks, there has been a lot of controversy regarding the Stepping Stone rooming house. It is a sad fact that all places for living are not perfect and meet all of the codes that the city over the years has decided upon in order to help provide a safe, secure and healthful place for the residents of the city to live.
The death of the small child, Dakota Sanders, was a terribly tragic event. I can only imagine what the poor child had gone through in his short life. The fact that he was evidently killed at the Stepping Stone rooming house triggered a number of protective agencies to be at the rooming house and those who look after the welfare of the residents found it to be lacking in many areas.
A decision was made by various agencies that this was not a healthful nor safe place to live and should be closed and vacated by a certain date. Naturally some of the residents were inconvenienced and felt they had been thrown out in the cold. As of Dec. 4, virtually all of the residents are in more acceptable housing, and this was mostly the result of Mayor Jason Nichols and others in management of the city finding acceptable housing for the residents. With this having been done, it is apparent the city has a heart and is doing everything possible to help make Tahlequah a pleasant, attractive and safe place to live.
Is this the end of the story? The answer is an emphatic and loud no! I had occasion to go into one of the rental “houses” on Basin Street, just north of the recycle center. I could not believe the squalor those rental units provide, with rents between $400 and $500 per month, and possibly more. The unit I went in had an oversupply of bugs, the floor pulled away from the walls, tin patching the floor, extreme filth, holes in the walls, roofs in horrible shape, no air conditioning, no screens on the windows, few screen doors, and on and on and on.
The reason I was there was that a young couple with a month-old baby was living there with another family. I bought a gallon of bug spray and a few cans of expandable foam to try and close some of the holes that led directly to the outside, as I was afraid of the baby being bitten by the insects and bugs in the house. In my opinion, this entire area should be demolished, as the owner surely has made a fortune from these shacks.
With the exposure of the Stepping Stone rooming house bringing the deplorable rental housing situation, this square block or so of houses should be thoroughly inspected by the city’s compliance officer and condemned, if necessary. If we recall, there was also a shooting death there recently. This is not the only slum in the city.
Over the years, it seems these types of rental properties have degraded while the city officials kind of winked and nodded. Perhaps this was a result of the “good ol’ boy” kind of thinking. I am sure a lot of the properties that would not meet even the most basic needs of the renters have virtually anonymous owners. All of this makes one wonder about the rental housing catering to the NSU students, and if the university has any concern about its students living in substandard housing. If not, then an “approved” housing list could be made available to the students so they could be assured they would not get into a lease that would be hazardous to their health.
For example, if the Stepping Stone had 28 units rented at $500 per month, the income would be $14,000 per month or $168,000 per year, and the Daily Press reported that bugs had taken over and the owners said they could not control them. Perhaps a professional exterminator could have held them in check. There is a Freecycle spot on the Internet where people can either give things away or ask for unwanted items. The rooming house was always asking for free stuff on the site, which would tend to make one think there was very little money going back into the business.
It is time for all residents to become outraged with the availability of rental housing in the city and demand they all meet the minimum standards for safe and healthy living. Perhaps a city ordinance could be enacted, stating that anyone with over five rental units have a mandatory annual inspection by the city compliance officer. Any rental owner with fewer than five units would be inspected upon a complaint from the renter or other interested party.
Many of the renters are getting some type of housing aid, and this would indicate the agencies such as the Department of Human Services, state of Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation and others are not inspecting the properties before providing rental assistance and paying the rent or a portion of it. With the above instances, it is apparent someone is dropping the ball.
Mayor Nichols should be commended for taking a stand on improving the rental housing in the city, which has been a long time coming. Nobody should have to live in squalor that is neither safe nor healthy nor free of bugs. Please consider a mandatory inspection for rental units in the city limits.