The elevator in Sitka’s only high-rise apartment building has been off intermittently – for over 15 months. The situation – although not necessarily illegal – is at best inconvenient, and at worst discriminatory for tenants who may struggle with seven flights of stairs.
For the last two months, KCAW has been investigating the complicated web of regulations that allow a residential elevator to remain broken indefinitely.
Downtown Sitka’s skyline is small but striking. The distinctive St. Michael’s Cathedral in the center of Lincoln Street always draws the eye, juxtaposed against a snow-capped Mt. Verstovia behind it. But there’s one building that overshadows the spire of St. Michaels — an eight-story structure striped in sea foam green and sandy beige.
It’s the Cathedral Arms building, and it’s the largest apartment complex in town. It was built in the early 1950s.
“It’s a sweet old building, and it’s got a lot of character…there’s a lot of good things about it,” says Owen Kindig. He moved into the building in the spring of 2018. He says at first things were good. The views were great, and at $895 a month, it was comparatively affordable for a one-bedroom apartment. Its location was unbeatable. On the corner of the 7th floor, he had a view of Sitka Sound to the south, and Mt. Edgecumbe to the west.
“We had the two best views in Sitka,” Kindig laughs. “And we had, initially, a cordial relationship with the landlord. Things worked out well.”
But by the summer of 2019, things had changed. Kindig opened an AirBnb to rent out the apartment when he and his wife were traveling. Around the same time, the building’s lone elevator started having mechanical problems. Often, it was out of service – without warning. Kindig says he didn’t mind the exercise, but climbing six flights of stairs bothered his guests.
“We had problems, because they needed the elevator. They were coming in with suitcases. Often they were elderly, and they needed to have the elevator,” Kindig says. “And when the elevator wasn’t working, we didn’t get good information from the landlord.”
And Kindig started to notice some of his neighbors were struggling as the elevator went out of service for longer periods, sometimes weeks at a time.
“We knew one person who was, you know, disabled, and couldn’t walk up the steps. And I don’t know how they managed,” Kindig says. “It seemed impossible for them to manage. And yet, they were still there when we left.”
The Kindigs moved out in the fall of 2019. Since the winter of 2020 through March of 2022, tenants say that the elevator has been off. This spring they invited me to visit Cathedral Arms, and I discovered for myself that it was still off.
I spoke with six tenants who currently live in Cathedral Arms, and two who recently moved out. They all said they had no access to the elevator for somewhere between 13 and 16 months. All except Owen Kindig asked to remain unidentified in this story, some for fear of losing their housing.
I also spoke with the owner of the building, a local businessman named Kelly Pellett (KCCR Properties LLC) , who declined to comment. The elevator, however, I’ve learned has been on intermittently since I spoke to him. Then, on April 4, the state Office of Mechanical Inspection (OMI) issued a “cease and desist” after an investigation determined that he may have been operating the elevator without a valid certificate. Until the owner makes the necessary repairs to get the elevator recertified, the state says the elevator must remain off.
The tenants are frustrated with the situation. Some said they’d approached city officials, reached out to Alaska’s congressional delegation, and called state agencies – all without success. That’s because it’s not necessarily illegal for a multi-story apartment complex to go without a working elevator for over a year. And the reasoning is not straightforward.
“When it comes to civil things where there’s not an immediate threat to life and safety, the Alaska public — the Sitka public — doesn’t have much appetite for enforcement that’s really compulsory,” says Scott Brylinsky, a former Sitka building official.
Brylinsky says the city and state do enforce regulations dealing with life and safety. For example, at the Cathedral Arms – years ago – the state fire marshal required the building’s owner to install an exterior fire exit. It was an expensive, but necessary addition.
But an out-of-service elevator doesn’t fall into that category. Sitka has never adopted Chapter 11 of the International Building Code (IBC), which spells out accessibility requirements for buildings, including elevators. And Brylinsky believes that adopting these codes retroactively in Alaska is politically and practically impossible, due to the burden it would put on private businesses.
“There’s so many places that it can be an issue that I don’t see in a libertarian state, like Alaska. You get the government coming in and telling businesses they have to make changes by a certain date or get shut down, or be subject to enforcement action, or be fined,” Brylinsky says. “It just would never work.”
Sitka’s current building official could not comment for this story. Municipal administrator John Leach released a statement confirming that Sitka has not adopted the accessibility requirements in the IBC, and stating that the city believed that matter fell under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, and that tenants could file complaints with the US Department of Justice.
At the state level, Alaska’s Office of Mechanical Inspection certifies elevators for operation as long as they meet certain safety standards. Although no one in the OMI agreed to an interview, in an email, the state’s Chief of Mechanical Inspection, Scott Damerow, said they inspected the Cathedral Arms elevator last July (2021- nine months ago). It did not pass inspection, so they placed it fully out-of-service, pending repairs to bring the elevator back up to code.
Damerow said as far as OMI is concerned, shutting off an elevator is considered “an acceptable alternative to an expensive repair or retrofit.” Once the owner makes repairs to put the elevator back in service, Damerow says they’ll inspect it. But until then, it’s out of their hands.
Pictured Right: A photo provided to KCAW from inside the Cathedral Arms elevator on a day in early March after tenants reported that, after more than a year with no access, the elevator had been turned back on and they were able to ride it to their apartments. Days after KCAW received these reports, the state OMI issued a “cease and desist” after an investigation revealed that the elevator may have been put back into operation without a valid certificate.
Municipal Administrator Leach is likely right that this is a matter covered under federal law – but maybe not under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“The fact that it’s been like this for so long, and they have been trying to get help is concerning,” says Leslie Jaehning. She’s a staff attorney with the Disability Law Center of Alaska. Jaehning says it’s a common misconception that the ADA covers all residential housing. Rather, it covers public accommodations.
However, most privately owned apartment complexes are covered under the much older Fair Housing Act. The FHA prohibits housing providers from discriminating against people with disabilities.
“So if somebody is not able to access their home, you know, because…their disability makes it unable to go upstairs or things, that is discriminatory,” says Jaehning.
She says under the FHA, if a building has an elevator, the landlord must keep that elevator in working order and repair it quickly if it breaks down, to ensure tenants with disabilities have equal access to their homes. That, or provide a reasonable accommodation.
Jaehning also says there may be even more protections if the landlord gets subsidies for providing housing to low income tenants. She says tenants who believe they’ve been discriminated against can file a complaint with the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights.
But what about the tenants who don’t have disabilities? Do they have any recourse?
What does the ADA cover?
“ADA normally covers public accommodations, places like theaters or restaurants, banks, things like that. Where the ADA does apply in relation to housing is government owned housing, or certain privately owned facilities,” says Jaehning. “So areas of public housing, like student and faculty housing and nursing homes, or if housing get some sort of federal grants, you know, or federal or state monies, then that will sometimes trigger the ADA to cover the housing.“
“Probably not under the Fair Housing Act, though I would say that the definition of disability under the Fair Housing Act is very broad,” says Dan Coons. He’s an attorney with Alaska Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm that provides free civil legal services to low-income Alaskans.
“There may be some good arguments that state landlord tenant law applies, and that the landlord has a duty under state landlord tenant law to make these kind of repairs,” says Coons.
He says another step tenants can take is filing a civil suit, if they believe the state’s landlord tenant law is being violated.
“It’s a matter of going to the courts and the tenants asserting their rights under the state Landlord-Tenant Act through a lawsuit, but that’s not a small undertaking. It takes a lot of work to get a lawsuit like that in front of the court successfully.”
Compelling a landlord to make repairs under state law through the courts could be both costly and time-consuming. And it doesn’t help tenants right now, who are holding out hope that the elevator will be fixed soon.
“I think that a landlord has a responsibility to the people he serves to keep them healthy and safe,” says former tenant Owen Kindig.
It’s been more than two years since Kindig lived in Cathedral Arms, but he still worries about his former neighbors. He hopes someone will step in to help them.
“I think it’s unsafe. It’s a nuisance, it’s a danger to the people who are living there to not have a working elevator.”