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Full Coverage: Stuck In Squalor

On a Tuesday night in July, after returning from his job driving a truck for Jackson Family Wines, Armando Perez and his wife gathered in their living room with about a dozen of their neighbors from their west Santa Rosa apartment building.

For three hours, the group traded stories about problems in their rented units at Walnut Creek Apartments. They shared photographs documenting the issues: mold on walls, cockroach and rat infestations, broken heaters and stoves, faulty electrical wiring and holes in the walls.

Before the meeting, Perez, 43, a sturdy man who pulls 14-hour work days hauling grapes during Sonoma County’s hectic harvest season, said he had asked his building manager for repairs three times over a two-month period. He was fed up.

“One night we were cooking, and the stove started sparking. … It burned me,” Perez said, speaking in Spanish through a translator. “That was it. I lost it.”

Perez collected 39 signatures over the summer from other tenants in his building, a sprawling 144-unit complex on Jennings Avenue near Marlow Road. The tenants planned to again press their case with Santa Rosa code enforcement officials, a course of action they said they’d taken numerous times over the past decade without results to improve their living conditions.

“They wouldn’t do anything,” Perez said of the city’s response to past complaints made by tenants. The group, which filed its complaint with the city in August, has since sought legal representation from Jeff Hoffman, a local attorney who specializes in tenants’ rights cases.

Tenants at the Walnut Creek Apartments say they are hoping to remain in their homes.

The issues at the Jennings Avenue property represent one of 253 unresolved substandard housing cases across Sonoma County that were examined and tracked over the past six months by The Press Democrat as part of a yearlong investigation into poor rental housing.

As with many of those cases, the ongoing dispute between tenants and landlords at Jennings Avenue reflects the often recurrent nature of problems that, together or separately, qualify housing as substandard under state health and safety laws. Such problems include mold, leaks, broken heating, malfunctioning appliances, and vermin infestations — all issues reported at Jennings Avenue as far back as 2002, according to city inspection records. Other city inspections reported problems in 2005 and 2013, records show.

Richard Parasol, who co-owns the building with his wife and two other people, acknowledged that checkered history, as well as health and safety violations at the property. He said that in such a large complex, things are bound to break, but repairs are made as needed.

“We keep the building in top condition. … Any maintenance request goes to the office, and (property manager) Sabino (Rodas) takes care of it immediately,” said Parasol, an original owner since the complex was built in 1984. “If there is a faucet that is dripping, it is taken care of. If there is an appliance that doesn’t work, we change it.”

Parasol said, however, that the extent of the problems reported by residents at the Walnut Creek Apartments over the past 13 years was inflated by tenants. The same goes for new violations verified by the city in December and January, he said.

“I don’t think there is any validity,” Parasol said, claiming the latest case stemmed largely from retaliation by tenants in response to $200 rent increases issued in October for roughly a third of the property’s units.

“Look, we fixed the old problems, and the only reason people are complaining now is because we raised their rents,” Parasol said.

The Jennings Avenue case also reflects the challenges that code inspectors across the county confront in protecting tenants from unresponsive landlords. Short of government action, residents living in substandard housing are banding together or stepping forward on their own to turn up the heat on unresponsive landlords. Some are seeking legal assistance to force repairs, with some cases escalating to lengthy civil lawsuits, code enforcement officers and tenants’ rights attorneys said.

“We hear from people all the time who say they’ve got raw sewage coming in, roach infestations, rodents, things aren’t working properly, and unfortunately the property owner won’t do anything,” said Mark Maystrovich, a veteran Santa Rosa code enforcement officer. “There are landlords out there who threaten and scare people with eviction, so a lot of the times, we’re the last resort. People call us crying and saying they don’t know where else to go.”

But finding an attorney to take tenant cases can be challenging.

“There’s only a few of us who do this kind of stuff,” said Edie Sussman, a prominent Santa Rosa tenants’ rights attorney. “Even we can barely keep up on the calls.”

Real estate groups and attorneys representing landlords acknowledged that there are some landlords who flout government rules. But tenants also embellish problems in their units and use such complaints in an attempt to get away with not paying rent, representatives for landlords said.

“I have found in my 39 years in this business that sometimes both sides lie,” said Charles Jensen, a Santa Rosa attorney who represents landlords in eviction proceedings. “Depending on how bad things are in the place, sometimes landlords are lazy, sometimes they’re stupid. But often, tenants complain because they got behind on rent and they just don’t want to pay. Then I’m in for a hell of a fight with someone like Edie Sussman.”

For the predominantly low-income and Latino families living in substandard housing in Sonoma County, speaking up can be a fraught exercise that some tenants’ rights advocates and renters said risks reprisals from landlords.

Some tenants living in the Walnut Creek Apartments said they were afraid to complain, while others said they were blamed for the underlying conditions in their units. Many said they decided to come forward after realizing others in the complex were living in similar conditions.

“We don’t really know what to do, but we’re tired of staying quiet,” said Jose Velasquez, who lives in the building with his wife and young daughter.

Actually getting repairs made and code enforcement violations resolved can take years, The Press Democrat found as part of its investigation.

Registering an official complaint with a code enforcement agency is the first step.

After Santa Rosa officials received the latest complaint from Walnut Creek tenants last year on Aug. 24, Ceci Sevilla, a city code enforcement officer, visited the property Sept. 29. Subsequent inspections have confirmed most of the reported issues in at least 16 units. Sevilla issued violation notices in December and said there could be additional inspections.

“We knew there were more complaints, but some people, we think, are afraid to come forward,” Sevilla said, adding that the city nonetheless is working with the property owners to address the problems.

Parasol, who is 80, dismissed allegations of retaliation on his part and said his property manager is responsive to tenant complaints.

“Sabino is very diligent when he receives any complaints,” Parasol said. “And we have two full-time maintenance workers and two part-time workers who take care of anything that comes up.”

Parasol has not yet addressed the new violations, according to Sevilla. A landlord in Parasol’s situation could resolve an open code enforcement case by partly taking care of the problems. Parasol indicated that he intends to make any ordered fixes when the city concludes its investigation into the extent of the substandard housing issues at the property.

Nevertheless, Parasol said he alone cannot address the problems, referring to the mold as well as leaks and the cockroach and rat infestations.

“When the tenants take showers, they do not ventilate, and that lets vapor into the air, and mold grows on the outside, so it can get in on the inside,” Parasol said. “And we have some people who are not very clean. That creates an environment for bacteria and everything else.”

Hoffman, the California Rural Legal Assistance attorney who is representing some of the Walnut Creek Apartments tenants, said tenants often are unfairly blamed for poor housing conditions that they have no control over and no way to fix.

“This is a problem, especially in serious or life-threatening situations, and people can’t just up and move,” Hoffman said. “It seems fundamental — having a place to go home and feel safe where you sleep, having a place to cook and eat. It’s a very basic aspect of our lives. But unfortunately, the code enforcement officers who people turn to for help can’t handle all the calls, and tenants who are evicted have to prove that they were terminated for exercising their right to ask for repairs. … It’s difficult.”

But there are also tenants who choose not to pay rent and claim health and safety code violations where none exist, said Kadin Blonski, a Santa Rosa-based attorney who represents landlords in eviction court.

“They want to stay in the apartment and get away with not paying rent,” he said. “And the landlord gets labeled a slumlord. Most of the time, it’s mom-and-pop landlords who are just trying to run a business.”

State civil codes and health and safety laws spell out rules that landlords and tenants must follow with rental housing. Tenants are responsible for paying rent and keeping the environment clean and ventilated. Landlords are required to address problems in a timely manner.

In Sonoma County and throughout California, disputes arise when one side doesn’t do its part. Local attorneys and government officials say the matter can get murky, and department managers can cite those tenant-landlord disputes as reasons they don’t get involved, even if the living conditions are making people sick or putting them at risk.

“It’s hard to say whether it’s a huge issue, but by the time I hear about it, it’s because someone is not holding up their side,” Blonski said. “But what often gets overlooked in this debate is that many times, substandard housing issues are manufactured by the tenant.”

Neither local attorneys who represent landlords in substandard housing and eviction cases nor tenants’ rights advocates could name landlords in Sonoma County who seek to profit by collecting rent while neglecting tenants’ complaints and putting off repairs. An analysis of the 253 unresolved substandard housing cases on file late last year in Sonoma County did not turn up any property owner’s name more than once — an indication that it is hard to single out any one landlord as a bad actor.

Attorneys on both sides, as well as Santa Rosa and county code enforcement officers, however, acknowledged that there are some landlords who consistently flout government rules.

Two local attorneys who specialize in tenants’ rights cases, Sussman and Josh Katz, say that some of the landlords they’ve confronted cannot afford upkeep, while others are elderly and may not understand their responsibilities.

Increasingly, Sussman and Katz said, they are dealing with landlords who are becoming more brazen in ignoring tenant complaints because demand for rental housing is so high.

“Landlords can just raise the rents to get people out or serve them with a 60-day eviction notice to get out,” Sussman said. “The people who are most affected by this don’t have any political clout. They’re not honored or valued in this county because they’re poor, so they’re silenced and sometimes retaliated against.”

The lack of follow-up by short-staffed code enforcement divisions leaves some cases to fester for years, The Press Democrat found in its investigation.

One such case involves former Santa Rosa Planning Commissioner David Poulsen, who on his website identifies himself as a luxury Sonoma County real estate broker for Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate. Poulsen is a defendant in a substandard housing lawsuit set to go to trial this year.

Sussman and Katz are suing Poulsen for allegedly knowingly renting out an unsafe house on Faught Road in Santa Rosa while ignoring tenants’ repeated complaints about problems at the site. The lawsuit also names Michael Mugridge, who at the time managed the property at 5231 Faught Road. Photos included as plaintiffs’ evidence in the lawsuit show cockroach infestations, extensive mold, and structural problems with the exterior of the house.

The lawsuit alleges that Poulsen willfully let the property fall into disrepair for more than two years, leading to defective plumbing, faulty electrical wiring, a leaking roof, lack of adequate heat, degradation of the walls and ceilings, mold and bacterial contamination and other issues. The suit also alleges that Poulsen and Mugridge harassed the tenants, Oralia Gomez Robles and Luis Enrique Alavez Mata, who lived there with their two children from 2011 to 2013. They were forced to move out in August 2013 after the property was relinquished to Sterling Bank & Trust as part of a 2012 bankruptcy settlement, according to court records.

Poulsen did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Reached by phone in late December, he said he did not have time to answer questions and quickly hung up the phone. He did not return numerous follow-up phone calls.

His Santa Rosa-based attorney in the case, Malcolm Barrack, also declined to comment on behalf of Poulsen.

“It is inappropriate to be trying this case in the press,” Barrack said. “We have a trial date, and I don’t think it would be responsible to comment.”

Barrack also represents Mugridge, who managed the property under Burbank Rentals, LLC, during the entire time the plaintiffs in the lawsuit lived at the Faught Road property.

The case was slated for trial this month, but it has since been pushed back.

Mugridge said in an interview that the blame lies both with Poulsen and the former tenants.

“There is a case to be made on both sides, but no, the tenants’ complaints didn’t get ignored,” Mugridge said. “When tenants put them in writing, I addressed them. I had authorization from the owner to make fixes up to $300. But it was also hard to get David Poulsen on the phone.”

In his 2012 bankruptcy, lenders filed claims on at least 15 properties in Sonoma County that Poulsen owned or had a stake in, according to court records.

Poulsen has been targeted before in code enforcement notices on substandard housing violations and tenants’ lawsuits, according to Sussman and Katz.

Sussman, who has dealt with such cases for nearly four decades, said the conditions at the Faught Road home rival the worst she has seen. She spared few words in calling out Poulsen.

“He is the very definition of a slumlord,” she said.

Mugridge said, however, that Poulsen authorized a number of fixes at the property, including installation of a new electrical system and repairs to a broken heater and stove, as well as a fresh coat of paint for the interior.

“Whenever I got him on the phone, I explained to him what needed fixing and he gave the green light,” Mugridge said. “But getting landlords on the phone is not always easy.”

This report was produced as a project for the California Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the Center for Health Journalism at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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