St. Petersburg couple in financial dispute with landlord after apartment ceiling collapsed

Terrier Properties has decided not to renew the couple’s lease after they demanded compensation for damages.

click to enlarge The ceiling collapsed in Wendy Castro and Mark Smalley's apartment on July 31. - Wendy Castro
Wendy Castro
The ceiling collapsed in Wendy Castro and Mark Smalley's apartment on July 31.

The first panic-filled question that went through Wendy Castro’s mind when she came home to a collapsed ceiling in her St. Petersburg apartment was, “Are my cats alive?”

On the night of July 31, she and her partner Mark Smalley came home to their unit at Bamboo Apartments in the Historic Old Northeast District to a scene of chaos. The fallen ceiling left debris all over their belongings. But for Castro, what mattered immediately was finding her pets.

After sifting through the debris and what Castro described as “weird brown sludge,” she found her cat Ronnie under the bed. He had peed from being startled by the collapse, and it was all over his fur.

“I was just so glad he and my other cat were alive, I love him them death,” Castro told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.

After the relief of her cat surviving washed over her, Castro and Smalley, who both teach at public schools for a living, started assessing the damage.

Their mattress was ruined and an Xbox was destroyed along with various school supplies that they bought out of their own pockets, plus thousands of dollars of other valuables. It took hours for emergency maintenance to arrive.
click to enlarge The debris from the collapsed ceiling all over the bedroom. - Wendy Castro
Wendy Castro
The debris from the collapsed ceiling all over the bedroom.

The couple had to leave their house that night and drive to Castro’s mother’s house in Brandon, FL. She barely got any sleep before driving back to St. Pete to teach Spanish to high school students on the first day of school.

Terrier, which manages dozens of properties in St. Petersburg, put them up in a hotel for about a week while repairs were made. After the repairs, Castro made an itemized spreadsheet of lost items for Terrier Properties, which manages the 12-unit apartment complex. The total amount of damaged goods amounted to $3,751, Castro said.

She also claims that repair people for Terrier threw away and damaged several of their belongings. In August, Terrier told Bay News 9 that the couple would be “compensated for any losses.”

But for nearly three months, the couple has struggled to get Terrier to meet them at their requested amount of damages. Via emails shared with CL, Terrier’s highest offer to Castro was for $1,237, after initially offering less than that.

“The part that really hurts my feelings is every time I've been to the office, I have been treated like I don't matter, and like I'm just garbage. You know what I mean? Like I'm just replaceable,” Castro said.
A selfie of Castro and Smalley. - Wendy Castro
Wendy Castro
A selfie of Castro and Smalley.
Peter Ford, managing broker for Terrier, told CL that Castro has “started a campaign of terror” against the company since the ceiling collapse.

He said that Terrier wanted evidence of all of the destroyed items that were listed, but Castro claimed that some were disposed of by the management company. Ford also said that Castro’s lease says  tenants are responsible for items inside the property, and both he and Castro acknowledged that she doesn’t have renter’s insurance.

Still, Ford said that the company initially offered to cover compensation for the items, but didn’t realize that Castro would ask for thousands of dollars in damages.

He claims roof issues are not what led to the ceiling collapse. “It’s not because of any issue with the roof, the roof is brand new,” Ford said. “It's just that it's an older building from the 1940s.”

Ford then corrected himself and said that a new roof was installed sometime between 2010-2012.

He said the brown sludge Castro mentioned might be old insulation from 80 years ago that may have fallen from the ceiling. The central heating and air may have been blowing moisture onto that insulation for a while, leading to the collapse, Ford added.

He said that it was most likely a type of insulation called “rockwool” that is not harmful. But the Environmental Protection Agency found some short-term health effects from rockwool, including: Reversible irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat is associated with direct dermal exposure and inhalation.

Questioned about those health effects, Ford said his mention of the rockwool material was just speculation and said he would look into confirming what the cause of the collapse was.

“The facts are that a portion of the ceiling fell for no apparent reason,” Ford said.

City of St. Petersburg code enforcement records show that the ceiling was repaired without a permit.

To back up his claims about Castro harassing the company, Ford shared a text thread in which an employee of Terrier sent a picture of Castro’s mattress with “Terrier is a slum lord! :)” spray painted on it, outside of the apartment complex.

In the same text thread, the employee said that there were people who were harassing them about the situation. Ford said that if behavior like that continued, they should call the police.

Castro said she painted the mattress because the company left the ruined mattress with bags of debris in their bedroom for them to return home to, which she sent CL a picture of.

An employee of Terrier who also lives at the property called to ask for it to be removed, Castro said, and was told that Terrier couldn’t address issues like that on the weekend. So Castro moved it outside and painted it, and she says that the company picked it up that weekend.

Ford also claimed that Castro planned to disrupt the company and shared screenshots of Mark Smalley talking with a person online about making appointments with the company at multiple locations to put the company on the spot about the safety of the properties.

Castro said these discussions never led to the actions they were discussing, but that the conversations were justified either way.

“If [the conversation] was misinterpreted, I think our response would still be valid, because we lost stuff we’ll never get back, almost had our pets killed and were continuously disrespected,” Castro said. “This supposed ‘campaign of terror’ is just the consequence of their negligence biting them in the back.”

Ford said that he decided to not renew Castro’s lease after what he claims is continued aggression from the tenants following the ceiling collapse.

“She just gives more threats or demands more blackmail, or harassment to my staff,” Ford said. “That's when we gave her the notice of non-renewal because I've had enough.”

The landlord said he always tries to work with tenants and has patience with them.

“We worked through the pandemic with all these tenants and we didn't evict anybody for non-payment of rent,” he said.

But St. Petersburg Tenants Union has been keeping track of Terrier for years and pointed to Pinellas County Court records that show six writs of possession issued by the court to Terrier Management LLC tenants for non-payment during the moratorium period.

Ford did not respond to a request for clarification about the evictions.

About The Author

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia previously wrote for the USA Today Network, The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Scalawag Magazine, and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 

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