Heating problems plague apartment complex in Mercer Island

Tenants at 77 Central team up to address issue with city and property management company.

A coterie of Mercer Island residents have turned up the heat on a property management company over what they say has been insufficient action in fixing a lingering problem.

According to a city document and some tenants of the 77 Central downtown apartment complex, there has been lack of adequate heat in their units since October 2022. Four residents have formed a grassroots effort to help fix the complex problem, which continues to this day, by issuing complaints and offering to collaborate with property management company Cushman & Wakefield representatives.

Following a series of failures in the HVAC system’s compressor zones that knocked out the heat, the company provided portable space heaters and towers, according to the document and former resident Bob Gilbert, who lost his heat in December 2022.

“But they still weren’t sufficient to overcome the cold,” he said, noting that people were wrapping themselves in clothes and blankets and using their ovens for heat while experiencing 50-degree temperatures.

With the absence of heat in their apartment units and the lack of required repairs, tenants of the 171-unit property located at 2630 77th Ave. SE began alerting Cushman & Wakefield’s site manager in the time frame of Oct. 24, 2022, according to the city document.

The following month, concerned tenants starting sending email complaints to Don Cole, the city’s Community Planning and Development building official. In turn, Cole pointed them toward the state’s online page for its Landlord Tenant Act to issue complaints, and he also inspected some apartments upon tenants’ requests.

From November 2022 onward, contractor Auburn Mechanical has been working to fix the HVAC system while dealing with coolant leaks in some of the seven compressor zones, and at some points, waiting to receive replacement parts such as coils, air handlers, heat exchangers and more. At times, some zones were up while others were down, and a host of apartments were without heat while other residents had their heat restored.

According to the city report, the building’s HVAC system experienced difficulties in fall 2021 and the Hermanson Company completed repairs between May and July 2022. During that time, Cushman & Wakefield purchased seven portable space heaters. In March 2023, Auburn Mechanical told Cole that the system was nearing the end of its useful life, and they’ve had a tough go at completing repairs and needed more time to finish the job.

Cushman & Wakefield has received several violations from the city during the ongoing matter, including its HVAC system failing to provide room temperatures of at least 70 degrees in up to 38 apartments, based on the evidence in the city report, and renting out an apartment with a non-functional HVAC system.

In an appeal, Cushman & Wakefield noted that it “provided remedial heat for tenants,” “complied with all laws set forth” and “could not complete needed repairs due to circumstances beyond its control.”

The Reporter reached out to Cushman & Wakefield, and a company spokesperson said they have no comment on the situation. The city also informed the Reporter that it couldn’t comment on the issue at this time.

A recent update on the issue came in the form of a May 3 city decision and order document, in which Hearing Examiner John E. Galt explained that if Cushman & Wakefield doesn’t complete the required corrective actions by June 2, civil penalties will begin to accrue the following day. The decision stemmed from an April 26 public hearing on Zoom that featured testimonies from four 77 Central witnesses along with Cushman & Wakefield representatives.

Former resident Bob Gilbert feels that although the hearing examiner kept the order intact from the March 3 revised notice of violation — which was appealed and a new compliance date set — he’s given Cushman & Wakefield extra time to complete the repairs and escape a fine.

As stated on the former compliance date of March 17, possible fines after June 2 will begin for each violation at $100 per day (accruing for every day after the compliance date), $250 per day after 30 days, $500 per day after 60 days, up to a maximum total penalty of $50,000 for each violation. In its closing statement at the May 3 hearing, Cushman & Wakefield’s counsel “asked for an additional 30 days to allow for arrival of the remaining, needed parts.”

Former 77 Central resident Alicia Litts dealt with heating and air-conditioning issues along with odor issues from the trash chute in one of the two units she and her husband resided in. It’s been a heartbreaking situation, she said, and they’ve recently moved out of state. They would have stayed in the building longer for her husband’s job, but left sooner because of the unsatisfactory conditions, she said.

Litts, who lived at 77 Central for 364 days, shared her thoughts on the hearing examiner’s decision.

“C&W has the ability to appeal the decision and order, and if so, the fines are stayed. Thus any real penalties against C&W are pushed again to the right to possibly never be realized,” Litts said.

Gilbert, who has stepped forward as a spokesperson for current residents because some of them are concerned about retaliation, resided at 77 Central with his wife from August 2021 until Feb. 15, 2023.

The former building contractor who worked for 35 years in the technology field said that 77 Central — which opened in 2008 — was an enjoyable place to live until the heating issue arose.

“Things kind of went downhill from there,” he said, adding that they connected with Cole (the city’s Community Planning and Development building official) through Gilbert’s contacts with the city and his membership with CERT (Community Emergency Response Team).

After Gilbert and his wife received a certification letter from Cole regarding the heating matter, they were able to break their 77 Central lease and relocate to a home on the Island.

“But I continue to lead the fight for the people that were left,” Gilbert said.