After a months-long fight with the city over the living conditions of as few as 18 residents at the 90-plus room Ridgewood Retirement Community, Ridgewood is moving to repair broad swaths of the largely uninhabitable retirement center. But whether owner Samuel Pinter of New York is just trying to buy time before the city shuts his facility down completely is an open question.
As of press time Wednesday, Sept. 4, city building official Boyd Meier said his office had not received a work plan from Ridgewood staff, but that Ridgewood will likely be entered into a work program the morning of Thursday, Sept. 5 at which time the retirement community will have 150 days to remedy its many code violations. However, city staff will not know if code violations still exist and until a re-inspection of the facility is done on or about Monday, Sept. 9.
If Pinter and Ridgewood do not meet the city’s deadline, which has yet to be set, they could fine Pinter $2,000 a day for every code violation that exists.
Community Development Director Chris Boone, who overseas building code violations, said the city is giving Pinter the benefit of the doubt until he proves he isn’t interested in fixing the facility. In a conference call between city staff and Pinter the week of Aug. 16, Boone said the conversation was anything but pleasant and might be a sign of things to come.
“It was tense and it didn’t go very well,” Boone said. “Basically the way the conversation went is we outlined the violations he had, and we were anxious to see the work being done and anxious to see his contractors in here to start pulling permits. The way conversation ended was that he was going to get back with us at the end of the following week to let us know whether or not he was going to shut the building down or whether or not he was going to do what it takes to get it compliant. It was a fairly long and intense conversation.”
Since then, Boone said Ridgewood’s maintenance worker — who doubles as a security guard and lives in one of Ridgewood’s air-conditioned rooms — is undergoing the process by which he will become a licensed contractor who can repair the facility on his own.
In May, The Examiner first exposed unlivable conditions at Beaumont’s Ridgewood retirement home, finding former residents who feared for their lives after health department citations and, more recently, city building code violations that have yet to be remedied.
According to health department inspections obtained by The Examiner in May, Beaumont’s Environmental Health Division found the Ridgewood Retirement Community’s kitchen, pool and other amenities were completely unsanitary and unsafe, prompting a letter to Pinter that addressed the infractions.
The documents state Ridgewood had a kitchen that was “in very bad condition and very dirty. Coolers and refrigerators were not working properly and mold was found on the food left inside these coolers.” The walk-in cooler was at 80 degrees and had spoiled food inside. “Front refrigerator, 70 degrees; pork in front refrigerator, 96 degrees,” the health inspector states.
Former residents said Ridgewood catered its meals or bought fast food while the facility’s kitchen was closed.
According to the health department, at least two kitchen employees were not certified to handle food. The city’s health department also cited Ridgewood for mold in numerous locations, especially near areas where a leaky roof has inundated parts of the facility.
In the end, responsibility for Ridgewood’s violations rests with Pinter, a New York businessman who owns similar properties across the US. Pinter has had his share of legal troubles in recent years. He was ordered to pay $44.8 million for federal mortgage fraud in July 2010 in a U.S. District Court in New York. Closer to home, Pinter was fined $100,000 by the city of Houston regarding a property later condemned by the city for plumbing, electrical and structural problems, prompting then Mayor Bill White to call Pinter a “slum landlord” in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.
But now that he’s in Beaumont, Pinter may be up to his same tricks. Since the May inspections by Beaumont’s health department, The Examiner obtained city building code inspections that reveal Ridgewood’s owner has done little to the facility since he was first warned of the violations.
According to an Aug. 14 letter to Pinter from the city obtained by The Examiner, city inspectors said, “The second floor of the structure has been condemned and is unfit for human occupancy. The air conditioner has not been repaired and the lobby/common area maintained a room temperature of 86 degrees upon inspection. The kitchen was ordered to close due to cooking appliances and vent-a-hood not working properly. No permits have been issued to repair the structure. During the inspection made today, an electrician was found making repairs without a permit and was ordered to stop working immediately until a permit was issued.”
In the two weeks since the Aug. 14 letter to Pinter, Boone said Ridgewood has fixed the vent-a-hood and some other minor code infractions that don’t require a permit to fix. He said Ridgewood’s kitchen has since reopened, but other major code violations, including a leaky roof and exposed electrical wiring, still exist. Boone said the city still needs to re-inspect the facility and hold them accountable with a deadline to complete the work.
There might be some flexibility in whatever date the city gives Pinter to complete the work. According to Boone, as long as Pinter and Ridgewood present the city with a reasonable plan of action to dispose of the code violations, Boone said the city will work with Pinter to keep the facility open and not impose the $2,000-a-day fine for code violations that still exist.
“The idea is A, see what they’ve done so far and give them a little bit of time to make these repairs and improvements, and B, then look at this work plan and see if its reasonable.”
In an interview with a corporate manager who identified herself only as “Faye,” she said former manager Tara Windt — who has since been fired — is to blame for Ridgewood’s current state of deterioration. Faye claimed Tara pilfered money given her by Pinter to repair the damaged roof and other amenities.
“I don’t see how Tara could just let all of it get that way,” Faye said. “It just looks like she doesn’t care about the residents, that’s all.”
Faye admitted Ridgewood’s second floor, roof, lobby and pool are still in dire need of attention, but said her residents don’t deserve to be put in the middle.
“I have patients in there that are strokes, heart attack, high blood pressure,” she said. “Some are very, very nervous.”
According to Faye, at least 18 residents are living at Ridgewood, but with no AC and flooring in many units, the vast majority of Ridgewood’s 90-plus rooms are unlivable.
“We’ve moved all those people downstairs,” she said. “We’ve done window units on them.”
If Ridgewood were to completely repair the entire facility, city inspectors say the price would be steep. Estimates vary, but according to Boone, the electric work alone would cost some $10,000. Add multiple areas that had roof leaks, according to city building official Boyd Meier and the replacement of flooring and sheetrock damaged by mold or moisture throughout the second floor of the facility, and one sees the price tag isn’t small.
In the end, it seems only time will tell if Pinter is truly serious about fixing Ridgewood and providing his residents with a better quality of life.
“It sounds like they’re trying to do what they’re supposed to do, but it could just be buying time and blowing smoke,” Boone said.