Marin County not tracking growing number of renter complaints
Updated: Jun 2, 2018
POSTED: 09/09/17, 4:42 PM PDT | UPDATED: ON 09/11/2017
Author: Richard Halstead
Publication: Marin Independent Journal
Tyler Norwood and Shannon Stirone-Norwood prepare to move out of their rental home in Fairfax after they said they couldn’t get the landlord to fix problems at the property. Alan Dep — Marin Independent Journal
Shannon Stirone said that when she and her husband signed a one-year lease to rent a Fairfax duplex apartment in March 2016, they had no idea the apartment lacked a functional heater, the roof leaked, the building was infested with rats and, they allege, there was an illegal third tenant occupying the building.
She said that when she raised the issue with her landlord, “He started screaming at me and said, ‘Don’t you go poking around or you’ll be sorry.’”
Such anecdotal accounts of landlords taking advantage of tenants by failing to maintain their properties in habitable condition or by unjustly evicting them have multiplied as the supply of affordable housing in Marin has dwindled and rents have shot up.
“Landlords with this enormous market power now clearly misuse their power in some cases,” said David Levin, managing attorney for Legal Aid of Marin.
In Stirone’s case, “We moved in and three weeks later discovered there was a man living in a sectioned off part of the house that we didn’t know about. We were paying his PG&E bill.”
Her landlord, Robert Beifuss, who also rents another duplex in Sausalito and a house in San Anselmo, said, “They can say anything they want. These people were just out to get me. They’re disgruntled tenants.”
Beifuss denies that he was renting to an illegal third tenant and says he addressed the other issues with the house when asked. Stirone, however, said none of the problems had been adequately resolved when she and her husband moved out at the end of July.
Trying to sort out fact and fiction in such situations is often difficult, and neither the county of Marin nor Marin’s two largest cities — San Rafael and Novato — are actively tracking tenant complaints.
Under California law, landlords must maintain their rental units in habitable condition complying with state and local building and health codes. Landlords are not, however, required to repair damages that are caused by the tenant or the tenant’s family, guests or pets.
Mallori Spilker, a spokeswoman for the North Bay division of the California Apartment Association, said, “We do not condone landlords using market conditions to circumvent laws that are in place currently to protect residents, and encourage our members and all local housing providers to adhere to all federal, state and local housing laws and practices, and provide clean, safe housing for their residents.”
It is the job of a single Marin County employee to inspect some 8,659 rental apartment units throughout Marin every other year. The county has a memorandum of understanding with all of Marin’s municipalities with the exception of San Rafael and Novato to oversee any apartment complex with three or more units.
“I try to talk to 20 percent of tenants,” said Eithne Bullick, the senior environmental health specialist tasked with the job. “Frankly, a lot of times tenants are afraid to talk with me because they’re afraid of retaliation. There are laws to protect them but they have to provide their own defense.”
“We enforce state housing law, which are really minimum standards,” Bullick said.
Bullick said she took a pay cut to return to her inspection job in July after working several years in another position. She said her current position was unfilled and no one was doing inspections for about 18 months prior to her returning.
Bullick also conducts inspections in response to complaints, but only after a tenant has contacted his or her landlord in writing and the tenant reports the landlord has been unresponsive.
Bullick said she doesn’t keep track of the number of complaints she receives but she believes the number has increased since she previously did the job.
“I’m responding to complaints on almost a daily basis,” she said.
Bullick said mold has been a common complaint this year due to the wet winter.
“Although the state housing law mentions mold, the state of California has no standards for mold,” she said. “We pretty much go by visual inspection, which is tough.”
SAN RAFAEL CASES
The city of San Rafael received 12 habitability complaints from tenants during the first eight months of this year, compared with 16 habitability complaints during the same period in 2016, and eight complaints during the first eight months of 2012.
San Rafael Community Development Director Paul Jensen produced those numbers at the request of the Marin Independent Journal; but he said his department normally doesn’t keep tabs on the number of tenant complaints it receives.
“We don’t receive that many complaints to have us flag this,” Jensen said.
During the early 2000s, the city launched an effort to regularly inspect all of its approximately 10,000 rental apartments.
“It’s supposed to be a five-year cycle,” said code enforcement officer D.J. Heckler. “The first cycle took closer to 10 years because of the turnover in staff and then there was a downturn in the economy. So we’re now in our second round.”
Heckler said the city employs one other code enforcement officer besides him.
“Most of the time the property owners are responsive, and they do the corrections,” Jensen said. “Very rarely do we have to impose a fine or take anyone to a hearing.”
Bob Brown, Novato’s community development director, said his department also does not keep track of how many code enforcement complaints come from tenants.
“We don’t categorize where we get complaints from,” Brown said. “Because in Novato we have an annual apartment inspection program. We get out to all the apartment complexes every year.” But that doesn’t mean all are inspected, because tenants must grant permission for the inspections.
“I would say we get between 20 percent and 40 percent of all the units based on the tenants allowing us access,” Brown said.
A total of 1,315 dwelling units and 469 hotel rooms are covered by Novato’s inspection program.
Although Novato doesn’t keep statistics on tenant complaints, Brown said, “There are not many. I think we’re seeing business as usual.”
Late last year, five clients represented by Legal Aid of Marin — low-wage, Spanish-speaking individuals — agreed to settle a complaint against the manager and owners of a three-story, 40-unit housing complex in Novato at 1145 Elm Drive. The complaint was filed against the previous owner, not the current owner, Montgomery Partners. The plaintiffs were paid a total of $205,000, said Laurie Joyce, a staff attorney with Legal Aid of Marin.
The complaint, which was dismissed as part of the settlement agreement, alleged numerous conditions affecting health and safety: infestations of bedbugs, cockroaches, rats and other vermin; sewage that repeatedly backed up into the sinks and tubs of apartments; pervasive mold problems; unsafe electrical wiring and outlets; and common area stairways and walkways that failed to meet basic safety standards.
Novato fire Chief Mark Heine said in November 2014, “I told the city that it was so unstable on the second and third floor that we could not commit firefighters up there during a fire and know that they would be safe.”
Heine said that determination helped convince the property manager to do some emergency repairs.
Brown said the units at 1145 Elm Drive fall outside the city’s inspection program because they were mapped as condominiums.
Levin said Legal Aid met recently with Novato officials regarding substandard conditions at another apartment building.
“They told us that property also was under the condominium category so I’m not sure how many times that has happened,” Levin said.
Levin said when some lawyers working with Legal Aid recently went to meet with yet another group of Latino renters in their Novato rental units, the property manager or landlord called the police, asserting that the lawyers were solicitors.
“Which is just an indicator of what the renters are dealing with,” Levin said. “With all the stress the immigrant community is under now, it’s very difficult for them to make complaints about living conditions or matters related to housing. They’re just trying to hang on.”
According to the 1145 Elm Drive complaint, when the tenants complained about conditions there, the landlord retaliated by first dispatching eviction notices and then filing unlawful detainer actions.
The eviction proceedings were dropped, however, after the tenants demonstrated the action was retaliatory.
The law prevents landlords from retaliating against a tenant by evicting them or raising their rent for exercising their legal rights. The law infers a retaliatory motive if the landlord takes such action within six months of the tenant either complaining about the condition of the unit, seeking repairs, requesting an inspection or filing a lawsuit based on the condition of the unit.
So far this year, there have been 218 unlawful detainer actions seeking evictions filed in Marin County Superior Court. In 2016, 369 unlawful detainer actions were filed.
Community development departments deal strictly with habitability issues and do not intercede if a tenant believes they have been unfairly evicted.
In such cases, tenants have two options: seek assistance from Legal Aid of Marin or contact Marin County Mediation Services, which is operated by the Marin County District Attorney’s Office.
So far this year, Mediation Services has handled 42 disputes between landlords and tenants, said Mediation Services coordinator Kristina Warcholski. Warcholski said that virtually all of the requests for mediation come from aggrieved tenants.
The number of disputes the department has mediated has fallen steadily since 2013, when it handled 161 cases. Last year, it handled 78 cases. Warcholski isn’t sure why.
Mediation is voluntary and landlords are under no obligation to participate. Warcholski said she doesn’t keep track of the number of requests for mediation she receives from tenants that are rejected by landlords.
Last month, more than 300 people attended a meeting on renter protections hosted in San Rafael by the Marin Organizing Committee, a broad-based network of religious organizations and nonprofits. The committee is urging the Marin County Board of Supervisors to adopt a just-cause-for-eviction law. So far, however, supervisors have expressed skepticism about doing so.
At the end of the meeting, the committee said it plans to create a safe space for renters to report evictions, rent increases and bad living conditions.
To read original article posting, click here: http://www.marinij.com/business/20170909/marin-county-not-tracking-growing-number-of-renter-complaints