Families forced to vacate Santa Rosa apartments
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.”