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Landlord in court for 'dangerous' rentals

Tenants sue multimillionaire Lee Brazil for cockroaches, moldy walls, leaking ceilings, broken windows, no heat, and other 'uninhabitable' conditions

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As part of an ongoing legal battle, tenants at the Belvedere Apartments in Morro Bay have filed a lawsuit against local property owner Lee Brazil for allegedly violating multiple fire, health, and housing laws.

The lawsuit describes horrific conditions in the apartments, located at 1125 Monterey Ave.: A family of four - including two children - lives in one bedroom in unit 12B where, according to court documents, faucets won't shut off, electrical outlets are broken, and black mold covers the rain-soaked walls and ceilings, causing an "overpowering" smell.

"The windows are broken, and are missing locks," the lawsuit reads. "The heater, which has never worked, is falling from the wall. Cockroaches infest the unit. The windows are defective, allowing water to enter when it rains. As a result, more mold has grown around the windows."

"No heat in Morro Bay in winter. Can you imagine? And with kids!" said the tenants' lawyer, Michael Blank, who works with the California Rural Legal Assistance.

The lawsuit describes similar conditions in other units in the complex - including one apartment where lights flicker when it rains and a leaking hot water heater that fills rooms with the smell of gas. The lawsuit also describes how tenants have tried to cope: bleaching the mold from walls and repainting, using tarps to cover leaking roofs, wrapping children up in blankets when it gets too cold.

They also say they've contacted their landlord multiple times about the conditions. Last December Blank and California Rural Legal Assistance helped the tenants organize a rent strike, where lawyers collected the rent - which ranges from $500 for one room to $1,265 for a full two-bedroom apartment - and held it until Brazil made necessary repairs.

"We've been collecting the rent for December, January, February, March, and now April with no response from Brazil," Blank said, "so we decided to sue."

The conditions in those Morro Bay apartments are strikingly different from how Brazil himself lives.

Brazil's wife Sandra detailed what she called their "very comfortable lifestyle" when she filed for divorce last year. In court records, she talked about their vacations to Costa Rica, Alaska, Scandinavia, and Egypt; their gardeners, housekeepers, and personal trainer; and their 6,000-square-foot home in Arroyo Grande with 360-degree views.


'No heat in Morro Bay in winter. Can you imagine? And with kids!'

Michael Blank, lawyer


Sandra, who once ran the Brazils' management agency, reported that her husband's twenty-something rentals around the county gross between $70,000 and $80,000 a month. That income, she said in court documents, has allowed him to amass an estimated worth of about $19 million - $2.5 million of which he keeps on hand, in cash, in a savings account.

Messages left at Lee Brazil's work and personal phone numbers were not returned.

This isn't the first time the Belvedere Apartments have gone to court. Back in 1995 and 1996, the Morro Bay Police Department struggled to make Lee Brazil fix many of the same problems listed in the current suit. In one report, police accused Brazil of "obstructing numerous attempts by city and county officials to work with them and abate this hazardous situation."

In 1996 the District Attorney's office charged Brazil with multiple criminal housing code violations. As part of a plea bargain, he plead no contest to one count of "faulty weather protection," and the county dropped the rest of the charges. Brazil was placed on one year's probation and told that he must obey all safety, building, and zoning laws.

But, said Al Sengstock, Morro Bay Police Department's code enforcement officer, "Mr. Brazil has only been accountable when held accountable. Once he was off probation, things started to go south again."

Sengstock hasn't recently been allowed into the apartments by Brazil, but said that the state of affairs described in the suit is the same that existed the last time he was there.

When asked why the city of Morro Bay hasn't taken more serious action against Brazil considering those conditions, Sengstock said his department was, in fact, getting ready to file charges against Brazil when the tenants filed their suit. Morro Bay is still holding off filing those charges because the tenants' suit, if successful, would affect a "more sweeping and permanent" change, said Sengstock.

Sengstock said the city has also been reticent to force the tenants onto the street.

"We were stuck with the human impact of what we would do, even though it's right, legally," he said. "We don't want anyone to be homeless, and it gets really difficult when you're weighing the quality of life versus being out of the place completely."

If none of the current legal steps create changes at the Belvedere, Morro Bay has a final, drastic step it can take: It can invoke its public nuisance abatement ordinance.

"That would allow us to take physical action on the property, even to the extent of having the buildings razed at the owner's expense," Sengstock said. "If we feel at any point that this [lawsuit] is not going to accomplish the health and safety goals, we have the right to [use the ordinance]." ³

 

Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at ahyatt@newtimesslo.com.

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