WHEELING - When the phone rings in Theresa Garrett's office these days, the person on the other end often has an increasingly familiar story to tell - that of being told they must leave their apartment because someone from the oil and natural gas industry is willing to pay hundreds more per month to rent the space.
Such calls began trickling in 18 months ago as the local drilling industry began reaching a fever pitch, but Garrett - executive director of the Wheeling Human Rights Commission - said she now hears this complaint an average of three or four times per week. She said she received two on Friday alone, one from a woman Garrett said was told she must vacate the apartment in which she has lived for the past 15 years by the end of November because the building's new owner plans to rent the space to someone who will pay twice the monthly rent she currently does - a sum she can't afford.
Garrett discussed this issue following the commission's monthly meeting Monday, during which she presented commissioners with copies of the group's newly updated Landlord/Tenant Handbook - which provides general guidelines on the rights and responsibilities of property owners and those who rent from them.
Photo by Ian Hicks
Wheeling Human Rights Commission Executive Director Theresa Garrett looks over the commission’s newly updated Landlord/Tenant Handbook in her office Monday.
Upon hearing those stories, Garrett can do little more than lend a sympathetic ear. The commission may only investigate reports of discrimination based on race, religion, ancestry, sex, handicap or familial status - and, she said, as long as the landlords give tenants at least a month to vacate the apartment, they're doing nothing wrong in the eyes of the law.
It's Economics 101 - supply and demand. As out-of-state gas drillers and pipeliners move into the area, demand for available housing skyrockets, and the number of available units drops. This adds up to higher rent costs, which oil and gas workers may be able to afford but some Ohio Valley residents cannot.
"If your landlord wants to make more money, that's their prerogative. ... If the lease is up, the lease is up. There's nothing illegal about it. ... It's great for the property owners, but it's terrible for the people who have lived here for years ... I just really feel bad for them."
Although Garrett can't offer displaced tenants what they really want - a way to keep their apartments - she does often direct them to the Landlord/Tenant Handbook, which offers information on U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-subsidized rental property and public housing offered through the Wheeling Housing Authority.
It's been several years since the handbook was updated, according to Garrett. The 102-page booklet includes chapters on the federal Fair Housing Act, the legal rights and responsibilities of both landlords and tenants, the city's building code and local organizations that provide various forms of assistance.
Garrett said changes to the handbook since it last was updated include current information on Wheeling's building codes, as well as a 2010 federal law requiring that contractors working on homes built prior to 1978 be certified in preventing contamination due to lead-based paint.
It also gives current income guidelines for public housing in Wheeling - for example, a single person must make $28,650 or less to be eligible, while someone with a family of four must make $40,900 or less.
Garrett said the commission had 500 copies of the handbook printed. The booklets are available in the commission's office on the third floor of the Courthouse Annex, 51 16th St.