Santa Rosa tenants settle substandard housing claim for Sonoma County record of $2.7 million

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The PD investigated substandard housing in Sonoma County in a series of articles published in 2016. Read them all here.

Former residents of an east Santa Rosa apartment complex who suffered years of living with mold and vermin have agreed to settle their lawsuit with the owners for a Sonoma County record of $2.7 million.

The terms involving 36 ex-residents of Bennett Valley Townhomes at 4050 Hoen Ave. came to light this week in court documents. They are expected to become final after a Sept. 12 hearing before Judge Rene Chouteau to determine if the agreement is fair to the 16 children who lived there.

Advocates said the deal brings justice to those who endured slum conditions while also forcing the city to look more closely at its housing stock.

“The lawsuit didn’t just help the clients. It helped the community,” Edie Sussman, an attorney for the residents, said Wednesday. “It reorganized Santa Rosa’s code enforcement and brought attention to the housing crisis in the county.”

Under the terms, Renaissance Housing Communities, which took ownership in 2014, will pay $950,000, and former landlords Tadgh McSweeney and Kathleen Wood will pay $1.75 million. They are locked in an ongoing dispute over the sale of the property.

Neither Renaissance president David Silver nor the company’s principal, Jamie Clifford, immediately returned calls Wednesday seeking comment. A lawyer for the company declined to talk.

Residents of the 10-unit complex, primarily Latino and low income, sued in 2015 after complaining for years about mold, and bug- and rodent-infested apartments.

They claimed the initial owners refused to make repairs. When the property changed hands in 2014, the new owners increased rents and threatened to evict the tenants. They were forced out after the city found the apartments uninhabitable. Their plight was told in a series of stories by The Press Democrat.

The apartments have since undergone a complete restoration. A two-bedroom unit currently is advertised for $2,295 a month, up from $1,450 paid by the previous tenants.

In reaction to the case, the city proposed a new rental inspection policy that is expected to go before the City Council later this year. Last year, the council approved rent control but it was rejected by voters in the spring election.

“The effort it took for these people to assert their rights was huge,” said Joshua Katz, a co-counsel with Sussman. “It took over two years of very hard work.”

Teresa de Jesus Chavez, who lived in the apartments with her family for seven years, said Wednesday she was happy with the settlement. She said she would use the settlement money for her two children’s college. The exact amount each plaintiff would receive was not released.

“I feel good. It wasn’t easy,” she said. “We can be an example that if we’re together without fear ... we can do a lot like we did.”

The Hoen Avenue settlement is believed to more than double the previous county record award of $1.3 million in a 2007 substandard housing case.

Ronit Rubinoff, executive director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County, said the claims are signs of the region’s looming housing crisis. As the demand for homes outstrips supply, landlords appear less willing to make repairs. And many low-come tenants are reluctant to complain for fear of being evicted, Rubinoff said.

The situation is worse for immigrant families who can be threatened with deportation by unscrupulous landlords, she said.

“The housing deteriorates to the point where nobody can live in it,” Rubinoff said.

Another Santa Rosa attorney, Chris Fierro, said the tight market is driving rent increases every four to six months. As a result, tenants are willing to accept substandard “fringe housing” with more egregious conditions than the Hoen Avenue apartment, he said.

“They are being pushed out of housing that is more affordable and having to find new places to live,” Fierro said. “But there is no place to go.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

The PD investigated substandard housing in Sonoma County in a series of articles published in 2016. Read them all here.

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