BENTON HARBOR — A resident of New Harbor Condominiums in Benton Harbor is breathing easier today thanks to Berrien County Treasurer Bret Witkowski.
Andria “Miss Ann” Jackson, property manager of the condominiums, was heating her unit with a kerosene heater that wasn’t being properly ventilated, exposing her and her cat to potentially lethal carbon monoxide poisoning. She said her unit hasn’t had electricity for months. She lives in one of the 43 units now owned by the Berrien County Treasurer’s Office due to nonpayment of property taxes.
When Witkowski was informed of the situation Friday, he immediately visited her to assess the situation and within less than two hours, had bought an extension cord and electric heater to replace the kerosene heater.
Why did he do it?
“I didn’t want her to die over the weekend,” he said.
He said the county may or may not pay him back for the supplies.
“I had to do it,” he said. “I’m not going to wait for the process when a life is involved.”
But it’s only a temporary remedy. Jackson said she’s worked for the 90-unit, three-building complex that is commonly referred to as the Captain’s Quarters for the past 15 years and used to get paid $70 a day. But she said she stopped getting paid regularly on May 10, 2018, when city officials posted yellow condemnation notices on each door.
“They know they should pay me,” she said. “... I was maintenance. Anything go wrong, we fixed it. It was wonderful.”
Now, she said she sleeps with her winter coat on and has to charge her cellphone in her car.
The complex was condemned shortly after the water was shut off for the second time in less than a year. The first time was in September 2017. Both times, city officials said the water was shut off due to nonpayment of the water bill. At the time, they said the complex owed $56,000 in water bills.
Tenants do not pay water bills individually. Instead, the water bill is supposed to be paid by the owners through the New Harbor Condominium Association out of the rent received from the tenants.
On the same day the complex was condemned, former Berrien County Trial Court Judge John Donahue ordered that the water be temporarily turned back on. The condemnation notices gave tenants 30 days to vacate the property.
But the condemnation notices weren’t enforced and the case has been going through the court system, with Berrien County Trial Court Judge Donna Howard presiding after the retirement of Donahue.
Tenants hoped that the situation would improve after a court-appointed receiver took over in September 2018. They were told that he would assess the buildings and possibly come up with a plan to fix them.
Instead, the receiver resigned in June.
Meanwhile, the conditions at the condominium complex have been steadily declining. Jackson said no one lives in the back building. She said the other two buildings have water, but no hot water because the gas was turned off to the hot water heaters over a year ago.
She said only two people remain in her building, which has no electricity. The other building has electricity, but less than 10 of the units have tenants.
In June 2018, it was estimated that up to 170 people lived in the complex.
Phillip McCallion, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and former tenant, said he moved out this past summer because he was told the complex was being closed down.
“There is no sign that anybody is going to come in and fix it up,” he said.
Gary Edgar, the former manager of the complex who used to own 48 of the units, said getting anything done was difficult because the property’s 14 owners could rarely agree on anything.
He said the 43 foreclosed condos are all his. He said he now only owns five, with people living in three of them. He said two of his tenants pay rent most of the time while the third tenant is a squatter, but he doesn’t have enough money to go through the legal process to evict him.
Edgar said he told the other owners a year ago that the complex needed to be winterized, but no one listened to him. So on top of all the repairs that need to be made, he said now there is water damage from broken water pipes.
Witkowski still has hope
Many people have lost hope that the complex will be saved, but not Witkowski. He is looking for someone to buy the 43 units his office owns – someone who can renovate them.
The units didn’t sell at the July auction for the minimum bid of $144,000, which would have paid off the owed property taxes. Witkowski said he didn’t put the units in the second auction because they could have been bought for $50 by someone who had no intention of fixing them up.
He said anyone who would like to buy the condos needs to prove that they have the money to fix them up and have a timeline for when the work will be completed. In addition, the plan needs to be approved by city officials.
If no one buys the units, he said they will eventually be turned over to the county’s Land Bank, which has more flexibility in negotiating.
He said the 43 units are scattered throughout the three buildings.
“It’s like a checkerboard,” he said. “... It’s not an ideal situation. We’ve never owned part of a condo before.”
Anyone who would like to submit a plan for the condos can call Witkowski at 983-7111, ext. 8569.
Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege