Tenant-landlord disputes over Sonoma County housing conditions can drag on for years
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.