Water shut off to apartments: Owner hasn't paid city overdue $10,000 bill

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Water has been shut off at a fourplex full of tenants known as the Country Place Apartments since Dec. 28.

Initially, the water would have been shut off before the Christmas holiday by the City of Sealy, but one of the tenants begged them to at least wait until afterward.

Yvonne Zavala moved into her apartment in late May or early June.

Zavala received a letter from the landlord immediately following her move-in stating to tenants, “be more conservative with the water… The water bill has been extremely high…. If this continues to be a problem we will have to increase your rent.”

The letter is dated May 10, 2015 and signed Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Ortiz. Ralph and Linda Ortiz live in Oakland, Calif., and owe the city more than $10,000 for water.

Before Zavala moved into Unit C at 1013 Gunnison Street, no one held residence in there for at least four years. Issues with her unit supposedly existed well before she made her residence there but were never corrected.

Zavala also lacks heating and air conditioning but has learned to deal with it. The building itself is falling apart, tenants say. Rent is supposed to cover water and trash collection. Zavala said she has asked her landlord to at least pay the water bill.

Ortiz blames high water bills on her tenants in her May 2015 letter.

The problem with the water in the building seems to be bigger than consumption, Zavala said to city employees who came to the building on Tuesday, Dec. 29.

“It’s huge; 600,000 gallons of water,” City Manager Larry Kuciemba told Zavala and her neighbor, Denise Basey, who lives below her in Unit A.

Kuciemba, Mark Velasquez, director of public works, and Warren Escovy, director of planning and community development, all arrived at the fourplex around 4:30 p.m. to speak with the tenants.

The water bill last month for the fourplex was $2,500. The account with the city is now in access of $10,000. Once it hit that level, the city was forced to take action and shut off the water.

The city worked up a payment plan with Ortiz back in June or July for $412 per month plus the current month’s bill, Kuciemba said.

On Monday, Dec. 28, Kuciemba told Ortiz in a phone conversation that she wasn’t abiding by the payment plan and her bill was in excess of $10,000. Ortiz told Kuciemba she is not going to take care of it.

“This is a $10,000 water bill … and now they could care less,” Kuciemba said.

“Evidently, they are not paying the city and they’re taking the money and running,” he said.

The tenants’ fourplex is a small portion of the many buildings seated in a large complex, which stretches down Gunnison Street off Eagle Lake Road and U.S. Hwy 90 West. Even though all of the buildings represent a community, almost every one has a different owner. Linda Ortiz and her husband are one of many who own a slice.

Most of the tenants have only met Ortiz once, some never.

Any documentation, leasing agreements or otherwise, to necessitate residency were done through the mail. Payment is given to Ortiz through the mail as well.

Water issues began for Basey after Zavala settled into her apartment and began to use the faucets.

Zavala had a water leak in her bathroom earlier this year that shot out from the pipes. She called Ortiz but the owner told her she was at a funeral and could not do anything. Zavala’s fiancé fixed the leak at the time without issuing a charge to the owners, or asking for a one-month rent reduction.

Water can still be heard audibly throughout the apartments. Leaks in Zavala’s unit flow down into Basey’s apartment into the electrical fixtures. This leakage has persisted for approximately six months.

All access points to water have been cutoff by tenants to stop the leaking throughout the building.

Water is still setting in a light fixture in Basey’s kitchen. The leaks also became problematic in Basey’s bathroom where a hole was created that required sheet rock to cover it up.

Velasquez said their descriptions are obvious proof there is a leak within the structure and that is the origin of the excess water consumption.

“She probably even isolated where the issue is,” he said of the patchwork Basey had to perform.

A much larger dilemma might exist with the electrical. The tenants have also either cut off electrical control points or restricted use where the water habitually travels, but the wires are still live, Velasquez said.

At first, city leaders thought to turn on the water, at least temporarily, to trace the problem.

“For safety, we’re not going to turn it (the water) on. …Electricity and water do not mix and it may make this place even worse. And I don’t want to put you in danger,” Kuciemba said to the residents.

“The city incurs a lot of different liabilities if we go in there,” Velasquez said of entering any of the dwellings and offering remedy without owner consultation.

Basey asked if the city could locate Ortiz and issue a fine or a legal fix to force proper compliance as the owner.

At the moment, the property has been foreclosed upon. The city is on the hunt for the mortgage company charged with the property’s foreclosure. That company would then become the legal owner, Kuciemba said.

“She (Ortiz) is not the legal owner if it’s been foreclosed on. We’ve got to talk to somebody that is the owner,” he said.

According to Austin County Appraisal District’s record, the property is still owned by Ralph Ortiz, as of a Dec. 30 search. Kuciemba also left a voice mail for Linda Ortiz, in the presence of Escovy, asking whether she was still the legal owner of 1013 Gunnison Street and, if not, who has taken over ownership.

In the meantime, the tenants go without water. They are forced to buy gallons worth at the store for those moments that having no water is not an option. Zavala counts herself lucky that her 22-year-old son recently moved across the complex to his own apartment. She and her other 12-year-old son make use of his place for showers.

“I don’t know where we’d be … just without water,” Zavala said when asked what she would do without her oldest son’s apartment.

“It does create a health and welfare issue, but that’s why we need to contact the owner,” Velasquez said of the state of the building.

Rectifying the situation won’t take long but locating the owner is of the utmost importance prior to that, Kuciemba said.

They’ve spoken with realtors and now have the foreclosing party narrowed down to Ditech Mortgage Corp. and Nationstar Mortgage as possible mortgage lenders who are attempting to locate a realtor to sell the property.

“Every time we open up another bag here’s another thing that comes out,” Kuciemba said.

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