Tahlequah Daily Press

November 27, 2013

Rooming house residents target mayor

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Residents of the Stepping Stone Rooming House in Tahlequah continue to take aim at Mayor Jason Nichols, whom they hold largely responsible for the facility’s imminent closure.

But continuing investigations into the condition of the residential complex indicate it probably should have been closed well before now.

“We knew there were problems at Stepping Stone, but without confirmation, without cause, it’s difficult to verify those reports,” Nichols said Tuesday. “But now that we had that cause, and once we were aware, we had a legal obligation – and a moral one – to go take a look. We have taken this lesson to heart and recognize we need to be more vigilant about these kinds of violations.”

Stepping Stone residents claimed last week that they are being unfairly targeted because of a child’s death at the facility.

Three-year-old Dakota Sanders was found dead there on Nov. 19. Dakota lived in a room with his mother and her boyfriend, both of whom are now jailed for his murder.

Tahlequah Fire Chief Ray Hammons visited Stepping Stone a few days after Dakota’s death to conduct a facility inspection at the request of city officials. After the fire chief’s inspection, Nichols was told of several violations, including an inoperable sprinkler system, a lack of adequate restroom facilities, poor wiring, and more.

State fire officials validated the city’s concerns Monday after their own walk-through of the facility.

While Nichols is largely being blamed by the facility’s residents for its likely closure, the mayor said the city can’t ignore the situation.

About 30 people live within the 28 rooms at Stepping Stone, and either pay from their own pockets, or through some sort of government benefit, $450 to $500 per month. They now have to be out of the rooming house by Dec. 6.

“I think some people may have it in their minds that we’re shutting down a homeless shelter,” Nichols said. “We need to remember this is a for-profit venture that’s charging $450 a month for a room. The operators of this place are getting a pretty good deal. From everything I’ve had reported to me – and I have seen some pictures – it’s obvious that not a lot is going back into reinvestment into the property itself.”

Looking for new homes

According to Nichols, existing law could have forced immediate action and closure of the rooming house, but city officials wanted to give residents more time to find new homes.

Robert Clark, who helps Emma Presley run Stepping Stone, says the Cherokee Nation has placed four tenants into new homes. Several have been offered beds at the O-Si-Yo men’s shelter and at Hope House of Cherokee County.

At least one businessman has offered to help by allowing some residents to stay in a rental home before they have enough money for a deposit. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has also been contacted to help if appropriate.

In a Facebook post last Friday, one resident of Stepping Stone estimated about 95 percent of its tenants have found somewhere to go.

Nichols said he has contacted a local behavioral health service that he heard has an emergency housing program, and is also talking with local pastors about the potential need for help in placing residents. Other city employees, he said, are trying to find avenues of assistance for the residents.

Clark and tenants of the rooming house refute Nichols’ claim that he’s trying to help, and say the mayor hasn’t stepped foot onto the property since their troubles with the city began last week.

Nichols said he’s typically not hands-on in the city’s code enforcement process, and is now involved only because of the residents’ need for more time.

“We’re waiting to see if he’s going to pull up here and pick up these tenants,” Clark said of Nichols. “They don’t have cars, and it’s cold outside. They have to walk to look at a rental home in freezing temperatures. This is the truth; I’m not trying to play the sympathy card here.”

Clark said he’ll be taking money from his own pocket to help residents get to their new homes.

State report shows              violations

Officials with the Oklahoma State Fire Marshal’s Office visited Stepping Stone Rooming House Monday to conduct its own inspection of the facility and confirmed the city’s findings.

A copy of a report filed after the visit shows the rooming house had 16 violations. Several photos are attached to the report, showing areas inside the facility that are in violation of health and safety regulations.

According to the state, managers at the rooming house would need to replace the fire sprinkler and fire alarm system; provide proper exit doors with working emergency hardware; remove temporary wiring and extension cords while bringing all wiring up to the National Electric Code; install a proper hood and duct-suppression system; provide fire extinguishers; repair some ceiling issues; repair leaking roofs; install emergency lighting and illuminated exit signs; repair plumbing; and properly vent fuel-burning equipment.

“The state fire marshal verified what our staff said; in fact, they were verbally critical of us for providing any time at all for the residents to get out. They said it should have been evacuated immediately because of the fire safety concerns.”

According to the state’s report, the Stepping Stone property belongs to Julia Hullinger, though Presley said last week that she has “had the mortgage” on the site for several years. Presley has been managing the rooming house since 2007.

Clark said Tuesday that his name is not listed on any documents that might exist relating to ownership or lease of the site.

Presley told the Press last week she faces an “impossible situation” and doesn’t have the funds to pay for necessary upgrades.