Families forced to vacate Santa Rosa apartments

Attorneys are seeking action this week against two Santa Rosa property owners after the city ordered tenants in their moldy Bennett Valley apartment building to vacate. Rising rents leave the tenants with no place to go.|

Sonoma County tenants’ rights attorneys are seeking legal action this week against two Santa Rosa property owners after city code enforcement officers ordered all tenants in their Hoen Avenue apartment building to vacate because dangerous mold spores were discovered in the air.

Nine families must be out of the Bennett Valley Townhomes building by Tuesday morning - a week after Santa Rosa code enforcement officers issued a mandatory order to vacate their premises following inspection officials’ reports that the building is plagued with mold, rat infestations and other unsafe conditions, including inadequate heating and leaky roofs and windows.

The most recent reports, ordered by Santa Rosa code enforcement officers this month and released last week, show dangerous levels of mold in each of the building’s 10 units, of which nine are currently occupied.

Residents in the two-story apartment complex said they have notified building management about problems with mold, rats and other substandard living conditions for years. Prior complaints document insect and rodent infestations throughout the property, shoddy heating units, leaky plumbing and holes in the structure, including behind stoves and heaters.

Prompted by those complaints, Santa Rosa code enforcement officials first issued notices to property owners informing them that they must clean up hazardous living conditions last January. One year later, health and safety code violations persist.

That discovery prompted city officials to shut down the building entirely until it is brought up to code. Residents were told Tuesday that they had one week to vacate.

The violations are the latest in what lawyers representing tenants in substandard housing cases call an escalating problem in Sonoma County. The tight rental market, with a 1.5 percent vacancy rate and rents that have jumped 30 percent from last year, has forced tenants who live in squalor to choose between keeping silent about problems, searching for a new place to live, or complaining - an option that has put some low-income people at risk of eviction, said three Santa Rosa tenants’ rights attorneys.

Without the tenant protections that are in place in other Bay Area cities, such as San Francisco and Oakland, people can be kicked out with two months’ notice or less - and they can be evicted without being given a reason.

Code enforcement officials and lawyers familiar with the issue said furthermore, property owners and investors - paying attention to the rebounding housing market - are upgrading their residences, then raising rents.

“The amount of investment coming in and the tight rental market are exacerbating in a tremendous way the substandard conditions people are living in,” said Edie Sussman, an independent practice lawyer specializing in habitability cases. “When they do complain, there are often cases of retaliation against those tenants, and this disproportionately affects poor people and people who are undocumented. They’re fearful of speaking up and being taken advantage of by property owners.”

Residents at Bennett Valley Townhomes raised concerns about the problems for years, as far back as 2005. Seeking legal help, residents renewed their complaints last month after their rents were raised nearly 50 percent - from $1,000 per month to $1,450 as of Dec. 1, 2014.

“We shouldn’t have to live like this,” said Juana Paniagua, a stay-at-home mother of three, who lives in one of the building’s apartments.

While tenants said they reported mold growing in the bathrooms, on ceilings and along windowsills for years, lawyers representing two of the building’s owners said neither property managers nor owners had any knowledge of problems until city code enforcement inspectors walked through the units last month. Since then, property owners have worked to bring the building up to code, officials said.

“Nobody ever knew about any mold problems,” said Jamie Sternberg, a lawyer with the Law Offices of Kimball, Tirey & St. John LLP, who represents two of the building’s owners - David Silver and Jamie Clifford. “The first time we heard of anything was when the tenants started withholding rent.”

Lawyers, representing the tenants, advised their clients to stop paying rent to force landlords to fix their housing problems.

Code enforcement officers confirmed last week that the building, at present, is not safe for tenancy.

“We inspected the units and discovered what appeared to be issues with water intrusion, like mold,” said Michael Reynolds, Santa Rosa’s senior code enforcement officer under the city’s Community Development Department. “And we found rodent feces along with other signs that rats or mice have been getting into the units.”

Now, two Santa Rosa attorneys, representing all nine families at the Bennett Valley apartment complex - 35 people total - are suing the property’s new and former owners. The latter are Tadgh T. McSweeney and Kathleen Wood.

The lawsuit, filed last Thursday in Santa Rosa by Sussman and another tenants rights lawyer named Joshua Katz, seeks financial damages from current and former property owners for emotional and physical harm for all nine families. Lawyers representing the tenants allege that physical problems, including asthma, and emotional distress are directly linked to the building’s unsafe and unhealthy living conditions.

Sussman and Katz are also seeking emergency shelter assistance for the families.

“These people having been living in these conditions for years, breathing in mold spores, living with cockroaches and rats and broken heaters, and now they are going to be out on the streets,” Sussman said. “We’re asking the owners to please put up these residents in their other vacant apartments while the unsafe conditions are fixed.”

Clifford and Silver, who are part-owners and affiliated with the limited liability companies listed as official owners of the building at 4050 Hoen Ave., have declined to relocate tenants in their other properties. Instead, they’ve given each family $2,740, the two months’ rent required by law, and offered to waive the two previous months of rent that residents have not yet paid. The owners have also offered each family an additional $1,251 in cash in exchange for leaving their apartments permanently.

Sternberg said her clients are willing to work with the tenants, but repairs could last as long as nine months.

“At this point, we don’t know even know what other units are available,” Sternberg said. “And we’ve already told the tenants what we are willing to provide.”

Sternberg said her clients are asking all tenants to permanently vacate, citing lengthy repairs and higher rents.

“It’s still being discussed amongst the parties, but rent has increased, and these people don’t want rent increases,” Sternberg said.

Rents for the Hoen Avenue apartment building doubled since last month. Prices were listed last week on the website for Renaissance Housing Communities, one of the holding companies, as $500 higher than the previous rate.

The website listed a two bedroom for rent at $1,995 on Wednesday, up from the previous rent increase from $1,000 to $1,450. Late last week, all properties listed at the Bennett Valley Townhomes site were removed from the property owners’ website, and the new rental listing was taken down.

When asked about the raised rents, Sternberg declined to confirm the increase.

“I don’t know anything about that,” she said. “But rents were substantially below market, and the landlords would like to bring them up to market rate. They’ve already made significant repairs and improvements to the property totaling in the range of $100,000.”

Sternberg said she didn’t have details about repairs. Property owners did not return repeated calls last week requesting comment.

Reynolds, Santa Rosa’s top code enforcement officer, said, however, that the property owners have responded promptly.

“They’ve done exactly what we have expected of any responsible property owner,” Reynolds said. “They immediately hired a firm to perform the mold testing that we required.”

Since mold analyses of the apartments found multiple types of mold spores in each of the building’s units, according to inspection reports dated Jan. 2, Sternberg said the property owners expect to tear out carpet, inspect flooring and remove mold from ceilings and other structures in the house once tenants are vacated.

“It could take a long time,” she said.

Meanwhile, tenants are scrambling to find a place to live. Sussman said property owners are only required to provide tenants with two months of rent, but no lodging or other assistance.

“These people are going to be out on the streets if we can’t help them,” Sussman said.

Sussman and Katz plan to ask a Sonoma County judge for emergency relief Tuesday.

For residents like Paniagua, and her neighbor Karla Orozco, who also has three children, the situation is dire.

“We have nowhere to go,” said Orozco, whose situation was made more complicated two weeks ago when she had emergency surgery to remove a brain tumor. “I can’t sleep; my head is hurting,” she said.

But the mold is causing more than stress for Paniagua and Orozco. Children in both families have been diagnosed with asthma, conditions their mothers say have been caused or made worse by mold, cockroaches and rat urine - all of which are medically linked with causing breathing problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“He has difficulty breathing,” said Paniagua, motioning to her 10-year-old son on a recent day. “It’s the hardest on him.”

Staff Writers Robert Digitale and Eloísa Ruano González contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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