City gets its fair share of false complaints from renters

NASHUA – Nelson Ortega’s expression was skeptical as he listened to the man complain about the deplorable conditions at his Tolles Street apartment.

Standing at the counter of the city building department, Ortega, one of two city code enforcement officers currently working at the department, studied the letter the man had brought to him.

As the man continued to list the issues in the building, Ortega stopped him mid-sentence.

“I told you to address the letter to your landlord,” Ortega said, explaining the code department’s policy of requiring tenants to notify their landlord in writing first before taking any official action.

The man protested, arguing what did it matter? He was making a complaint.

“I thought I could get some help here. Isn’t that your job?” he shot back at Ortega.

His jaw visibly tensing, Ortega took the man’s letter to a nearby copier and told the man that he was going to accept it, but that he had not followed his instructions.

“And that is what I explained to you the last time you were being evicted,” Ortega said.

It was the end of his workweek, and Ortega shook his head as he walked up the stairs to his office with the letter.

“That is just one of the things we deal with here,” he grumbled, referring to the “bogus” complaints that tenants bring to the department when they are behind in rent.

It is the biggest annoyance of the job he has held with the city since 1998, Ortega says, explaining that it’s a huge waste of time for the short-staffed department.

Besides the fact that he had already been through a similar experience with the man before, at the same residence, the man’s letter was a dead giveaway. It detailed a long list of complaints, some going back almost a decade, typical in such eleventh hour situations.

“If you come to me with one complaint, allright. But the minute you throw five or six at me, eight or nine, that’s when I go ‘hmmm,’ ” Ortega said.

On average, Ortega and fellow code enforcement officer Tom Malley handle about five to 10 bogus calls a week, they say.

“It is not that it is wrong for them to call,” Ortega explains. “It is that they are calling for the wrong reasons.”

Such tenants live in unsavory conditions for years without complaining, he said, but when eviction proceedings for nonpayment of rent start, their rent is increased, the tenant wants to break a lease or just plain wants get back at a landlord before moving out, they call the department.

In many of the eviction cases, tenants are looking to get code violation paperwork to take to court, he said.

“They are usually surprised, or act surprised, when I say, ‘No,’ ” Ortega said, explaining that the department’s policy requires that the tenant notify their landlord of nonemergency issues, in writing, first.

The letter must also give the landlord a reasonable amount of time, typically two weeks, to correct the problem before the department will get involved, he said. Some of the tenants are thousands of dollars in debt to their landlords, Ortega said, adding that the highest amount of back rent he has come across in such situations is $26,000.

“And these tenants had the nerve, when asked, to tell me that they were not being evicted,” Ortega said.

For every minute they spend on a bogus call, Ortega or Malley could be addressing a legitimate issue. Those complaints keep them busy enough, Ortega said. The department handles between 250-300 complaints a month.

Bad plumbing, heat and hot water problems, broken stoves, leaking ceilings, sewage backups, trashy yards and furniture accumulation are all common housing complaints the department receives. The most common complaint depends on the time of the year, Ortega said, adding that heat complaints take the top spot every winter.

State law requires landlords to provide and maintain a room temperature of at least 64 degrees between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., and at least 68 degrees for the remaining hours.

“During the summer, it is trash, furniture left out, unregistered vehicles,” Ortega said. “We get it all.”