KELOLAND News Investigates Rundown Rentals In Vermillion


“It’s just getting worse since September; I think that’s all obviously mold,” renter Merideth Pistulka said.

Could you live for an entire school year in a house where when it rained outside, it rained inside?

That’s been the case for one University of South Dakota graduate student.

It may be a small, but it’s a college town and that means Vermillion has a lot of rental properties.  There are nearly 1,000 buildings that contain more than 2,400 apartments.  

They are all inspected by the city once every two years for code violations, which can range from peeling paint to more serious health and safety issues like mold from water damage to a lack of smoke detectors. 

Just to give you an idea of what kinds of problems the city finds at rentals, we combed through Vermillion’s rental inspection report for the last two years of 933 properties and found 601 properties had some sort of code violations.  

A lot of these are occupied by college students and parents may not even be aware of these issues. 

Here’s a snapshot of just a few of those properties not up to code.

A rental house at 437 Canby was built in 1946. It was inspected last June.  It needs new deck spindles and smoke detectors.  Inspectors also found peeling paint inside and out and called for that to be removed and repainted.  Plus owners were told to get rid of the garbage in the yard.  I spoke with owner Neil Melby who told me he is still working to line up someone to make the necessary repairs. 

If we head over to 15 E Cedar, built in 1979, there is a real safety issue especially when you’re dealing with college-aged renters.  In its fall inspection in 2014, all the bedrooms and floors in this house needed smoke detectors. According to the report, the deadline the city set to get them had passed.  Hard-wired smoke alarms are required by law in Vermillion.  

A more recent inspection in January of 325 Center, which was built 1900, found that the chimney needed repair.  The roof needed to be replaced, as well as the porch ceiling, paint, locks and an egress window were all required.

The house on Center is managed by Dakota Realty and Cedar is both owned and managed by that company.  Dakota Realty owner Hazen Bye refused to tell KELOLAND News if the repairs on either property had been made. 

Dakota Realty also owns one of the worst properties we’ve seen on the city’s list, where the ceiling is literally falling down.

From shoddy workmanship to real health hazards, graduate student Merideth Pistulka has been dealing with problem after problem in her rental home since she moved in last August.  She came back to South Dakota from California to get her Master’s.  She agreed to pay $650 in rent, plus utilities and signed a lease with Jana Bye from Dakota Realty, after presenting her with a list of things in the home that needed fixing.   

“I was very excited and I trusted her. And I shook her hand that day and I thought, ‘You know what? I’m so happy to be here,’ and then all of this happens,” Pistulka said.

“All of this,” includes a mold problem under the kitchen sink that Pistulka says made her sick and she needed medication.  Dakota Realty’s attempt to fix the problem resulted in new cabinets that left gaping holes at each end. 

“But the hole that leads down into never-never land is also bothersome to me,” Pistulka said.

Pistulka complained to the city, which did inspect the property last fall, and wrote up a list of eight code violations, including requiring a door on an upstairs bedroom.  But Pistulka isn’t satisfied with the landlord’s solution. 

“They know they should have done something with an actual door,” Pistulka said.

Pistulka says her landlord’s fixes have made her stop calling the city to enforce the building codes. 

“I was not really wanting to contact the city anymore and say anything because I was thinking, ‘How much worse can this get?  Will they do other weird stuff?’ I don’t have anywhere else to live right now,” Pistulka said.

And that water coming in through the dining room ceiling just keeps getting worse. 

“But now it’s sprung other holes as well. And it’s spreading down the rest of the wall.  I would really not encourage you to stand under that,” Pistulka said.

After seeing Pistulka’s house, we went to Dakota Realty and Property Management offices in Vermillion to ask rental agent Jana Bye about the problems.

Angela Kennecke:  Can I talk to you about 309 Prospect Street and some of the problems that Merideth Pistulka has had out there?
Bye: No, nope sorry about that. You can go down and talk to the city though… city code enforcement. 

I contacted building services at city hall in Vermillion and officials did not want to go on camera, but tell me they have served notice to the landlord, who now has 30 days to make repairs. 

“And that is my confusion, I still don’t understand why they keep getting more time–for one thing they’ve known since September that it rains in my dining room,” Pistulka said.

And there were not more answers from Dakota Realty owner Hazen Bye:

Kennecke: Can we talk about that property and what’s going on there? 
Hazen Bye: No, because we’re not interested. We know what’s going on and it’s not something we’re interested in talking about.
Kennecke:  We saw mold in the ceiling and water coming down. 
Hazen Bye: Thanks for your time. 

A few days after Pistulka took our news camera on a tour of her rental home, she woke up to find part of her ceiling had fallen down.  

“I just opened the door to the bedroom this morning, today is May 2nd. It looks like the ceiling has fallen through,” Pistulka said.

Pistulka is finishing up her finals and is making plans to move out. 

So what will the city do about the problems on the property Pistulka rents and other violations at other properties?

Vermillion building official Farrel Christensen says the city establishes deadlines for repairs, but only re-inspects a small number to see if they actually happened. When the property is up for inspection at the two-year mark, the city confirms the repairs have been done. The city says most repairs are made by the landlords.

If you’re a student, or you have a student who is thinking of renting property in Vermillion, you can check out when the property was last inspected and if there are any code violations online. Take this link to Vermillion’s rental inspection report going back to 2011.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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