Francisco Ramirez points to dark spots of mold that surround the left side of a living room window. Making his way to the kitchen, he notes two large sections of torn linoleum on the floor. One of the tears is near the fridge, and when he moves the appliance, a few small cockroaches scurry out from underneath. He opens cabinets and drawers, and more cockroaches appear.
- Photos By Jayson Mellom
- UNCOMFORTABLE In one unit of the Grand View Apartments in Paso Robles, a gaping hole above the bathroom sink often spills debris.
Ramirez takes New Times through another four apartments at the 54-unit apartment complex he lives in. With varying degrees of similarities, some are worse than others. In some units, water constantly streams out of the tub or sink faucets. In one apartment, there's a large, gaping hole above the bathroom sink.
Almost all have issues with bedbugs, rats, cockroaches, and mold.
With little to no furniture, rat traps and cans of bug repellant took up space in rooms and hallways, and windows were left wide open.
As a current tenant of the Grand View Apartments in Paso Robles, Ramirez doesn't like having guests over because of the state of both his apartment and the rest of the complex.
"Me da vergüenza," Ramirez told New Times in Spanish.
This translates to, "I'm embarrassed."
His living situation closes him off from the extroverted person Ramirez is. He grew up in Paso and is active in his community. If there's a community event, he's there. When there's a fundraiser for a local effort he cares deeply about, he's wrangling his fellow city residents together to participate. When there's an agenda item he feels strongly about, he's at the City Council meeting to voice his opinion during public comment.
Now, Ramirez says he's using his voice to speak out for those who are afraid of retaliation: getting kicked out of the apartments, having no other living situation, not getting the security deposit back. It also helps that he's bilingual, as most of the Grand View Apartment tenants don't speak English.
Ramirez says he knows he's not the only one who doesn't feel comfortable in his own home and doesn't want to invite friends or family over.
"Because if we're going to sit down and just chat, have a beer, or have dinner and all of a sudden cockroaches come out," he says. "But once you're here, you end up getting stuck."
Ramirez is one of 200 current and former tenants participating in a lawsuit filed in May against the two owners and the property manager of the Grand View Apartments.
The litigation has created a larger conversation about how tenants seek help if their apartment needs aren't being met, what case the Grand View Tenants have, and what actions other cities can take to protect their renters.
- Photos By Jayson Mellom
- NEGLECT The Grand View Apartments is the first apartment complex visible off of the Spring Street Highway 101 exit, in the city of Paso Robles.
On May 7, Velia Talamantes, Veronica Olivares, and Eulogio Espinoza filed a lawsuit on their behalf and on behalf of 200 current and former tenants against the Grand View Apartments, owners Ebrahim and Fahimeh Madadi, and property manager Nicolle Davis.
According to the lawsuit, Ebrahim and Fahimeh are both residents of Santa Barbara County and purchased the property in February 2008. The suit accuses the property of being insect- and vermin-infested for at least the past four years—with rampant bedbugs, cockroaches, and rats throughout the units—and of having a severe mold problem and dangerous gas and electric lines that render the premises uninhabitable.
The lawsuit lists the issues that tenants have seen or experienced in their apartments, including a lack of air conditioners, noncompliant Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ramps or parking spaces, malfunctioning refrigerators, sink and shower leaks, a frequent lack of hot water, flooding in the parking lot whenever it rains, broken windows, sewage backup, roof leaks, stoves in hazardous locations, ripped/torn linoleum flooring, malfunctioning heaters, inoperable outlets, and missing or non-functioning smoke and CO2 detectors.
New Times spoke to a tenant in Spanish during the tour of the Grand View Apartments. That resident asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the property manager or owners.
She showed New Times bedbug bites all over her arms and said she's contacted the property manager several times about the issue. She's been living in the complex for about three years but said she didn't know what she was getting herself into. Three years ago, she was in a pinch and needed a place to live. At the time, the two-bedroom apartment was affordable. She said the property manager told her if she had the deposit, the apartment was hers.
"Soon after I moved in, I told them about the bedbugs, and they said they would send someone to fumigate, and they never sent anyone," she said.
- Photos By Jayson Mellom
- NO HELP Of the many uninhabitable living conditions that tenants have complained about, the dangerous location of the kitchen stove is one of them. According to building codes, stoves should not be surrounded by walls.
Someone did come to fumigate her apartment on May 26 when she wasn't home. She knows someone came to her apartment because when she went home after work it smelled like chemicals. However, the bedbugs are still in her apartment.
When she reaches out to the property manager, she said no one answers the phone. According to the tenant, property manager Davis doesn't have a specific time when she's in the on-site office. If there's an emergency, she and the other tenants are supposed to call the on-site maintenance man. Sometimes he answers, and sometimes he doesn't, the tenant said.
She said she's reached out to the property manager and maintenance man for other reasons. Her front door lock was falling off. The ceiling fan doesn't work. The bedbug issue. She said that Davis' response to the request is that any repairs will have to come out of the tenants' pocket.
Reluctantly, the tenant said, she has changed the ceiling fan, repaired the lock, and uses bedbug bombs in her apartment three times a month—all on her own dime.
According to the lawsuit, the owners and the property manager knew that the tenants were living in substandard housing conditions, "yet they intentionally, repeatedly, and knowingly failed to correct the problems."
The owners and property manager have also engaged in a pattern and practice of failing and refusing to return tenants' security deposits after they vacate the property, the lawsuit alleges.
New Times reached out to the Grand View Apartment owners but didn't receive a response before press time.
Ramirez said it's true that security deposits don't get returned, and it's the reason why many tenants aren't publicly speaking out about the issue.
He said they're afraid of being kicked out and not getting their deposit back. The property manager, Ramirez said, told a vacating former tenant they wouldn't be getting their deposit back because of the bedbugs, mold, or cockroaches in the unit that were caused by the former tenant. Which wasn't true, he said, because those issues were already plaguing the unit before the tenant moved in.
Working toward relief
SLOLAF Legal Director Stephanie Barclay said the foundation was first contacted by one tenant asking for help, "but that tenant wanted to make sure that our efforts benefitted all of the tenants at Grand View."
"That tenant, who I will not identify, was really looking out for the community there. I am not sure who referred the tenant to us, but our organization has been around for over 25 years, so we get a lot of referrals on a daily basis," Barclay told New Times via email.
She said after the tenant asked for help, foundation representatives visited the Grand View Apartments to see what the condition of the apartments were like and immediately knew they wanted to help if they could.
"We spent some time investigating and researching the claims, and once we understood the size of the case, we knew we would need to bring in outside counsel to partner with us," Barclay said.
The foundation sought a partnership with Hutkin Law Firm. After an investigation, inspection, and interview with some of the Grand View tenants, the firm joined the case.
Barclay said that the foundation rarely sees cases such as the one against Grand View: "Of this magnitude, very infrequently."
She said tenants are in a vulnerable position in SLO County due to the low occupancy rate and high rents in the area.
"Most tenants want to keep the peace because they fear eviction or other forms of retaliation," Barclay said. "For that reason, I think most problems go unreported."
When a tenant seeks help from the foundation, litigation is always the last resort. If the problem can be solved between the two parties without lawyers or mediation, the foundation will try that avenue.
However, the tenants of the Grand View Apartments presented a different case.
"Given the tenants' history of reporting problems and the landlord's continuous failures to address them while at the same time raising rent every few months, coupled with the fact that the problems had been previously reported to the city of Paso Robles and the county and still had not been corrected, we did not have much hope that this was a problem that could be solved without litigation," Barclay said.
The county of SLO Health Agency sent a letter to the owners and manager of Grand View in September 2017 stating that the letter served as official documentation that a cockroach and bedbug infestation was verified on the property. The letter states that officials from the office received a complaint, and a site visit was made Sept. 7, 2017, to evaluate the property for signs of infestation. It stated that health agency officials requested that the owners abate the violations as quickly as possible to minimize the effect on the tenants and surrounding apartments and residents.
The requested abatements were not made.
Another factor listed was that the tenant who asked SLOLAF for help didn't just want their own unit to be fixed; they wanted change for everyone.
"The only way to achieve that would be with court supervision," she said.
The court issued a temporary restraining order protecting the tenants of Grand View by requiring the owners and property manager to make the apartments habitable and safe, to refrain from retaliating against the tenants, and to refrain from collecting rent from tenants.
The first hearing in the case was scheduled for July 11 in the San Luis Obispo County Superior Court, but it was continued to Aug. 8. According to court documents, the hearing was continued for a month, during which time the owners' consultant is supposed to inspect the apartments and identify all code violations, health and safety conditions, and the causes of these conditions.
"Upon completion of the inspection of Grand View," the owners "intend to consult with various trade experts and contractors in order to obtain a cost of repair and a proposed plan of action in order to effectuate those reports," the court documents state.
The documents claim that the owners are currently in negotiations to retain the services of a professional property management company in order to assist with the management and remediation of Grand View.
This isn't the only time that Grand View is being sued for failing to maintain habitable conditions for its tenants. In a separate case, Daniel Montiel filed a complaint on Feb. 20 against Grand View Apartments, claiming the owners negligently and carelessly maintained, controlled, inspected, operated, managed, and repaired their premises.
The February lawsuit alleges that there's an uncovered stormwater drain in the parking lot of the apartment complex, which created a dangerous condition on the property. Montiel, who was visiting the property, tripped and fell in the unmaintained area, severely injuring himself, according to his lawsuit.
Right to assistance
Frank Kopcinski, directing attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), said there are actions that tenants have the right to take if their landlords aren't making repairs in a responsible amount of time.
Landlords and property owners have a responsibility to maintain their rental property and make the necessary repairs.
Tenants can make repairs and deduct the cost from their rent, they can withhold their rent until the repairs are made, and they can also sue their landlord for retroactive rent abatement (the money back they paid the landlord for when the conditions were not livable).
"Tenants can always come to CRLA for help. They will need to fill out an intake form first to see if they qualify for our free services for low-income individuals," Kopcinski told New Times. "Typically, we only take cases which fall into our current priority areas of housing, employment, education, and immigration."
CRLA gets involved by sending out "demand letters" to landlords for repairs. The organization may also negotiate with the landlord or bring a lawsuit against them as well.
A tenant can also reach out to their respective city or police department to submit a code violation. Each city handles health and safety code violation complaints or submissions differently. In certain cities the police department has a code enforcement officer who inspects the issue, or the planning and building department investigates the issue.
In Arroyo Grande on Jan. 17, neighborhood services officer Lawrence Armstrong, building inspector David Prendez, and building official Jonathan Hurst conducted an inspection of a residence on Grand Avenue as requested by the tenant, according to documents obtained by New Times. The tenant's name was redacted from the inspection document.
- Photos By Jayson Mellom
- UNRESPONSIVE Grand View tenants have repeatedly asked for repairs unique to their units, but their requests have often been dismissed.
The conditions that were observed include inoperable kitchen and bathroom fans, no windows in habitable rooms and windows that are not operable, an infestation of bees inhabiting rafter space, visible mold growth in several areas, compromised ceiling structural integrity due to rot, and improper installation of plumbing waste lines in the bathroom—to name a few.
All are documented as violations. According to the documents, the structure was deemed unsafe for occupancy and the violations needed to be rectified before occupancy could be granted again.
"At the conclusion of the inspection, we were notified that the tenants were departing the structure after removing their belongings. Since no persons would be occupying the premises, a red tag was not placed on the structure. However, the Health and Safety Code provides the ability for us to revisit the site and place the a red tag so as to prevent further occupancy until these items are corrected," the city documents stated.
The public records request submitted by New Times asked for any and all complaints of substandard housing or code violations on behalf of tenants since 2015. The city of Arroyo Grande only had one complaint.
The situation is similar in neighboring Grover Beach. David Hale, general counsel for Grover Beach, said these types of complaints are not very common in his area.
"We have had a number of abandoned homes that we're trying to deal with and clean with the homeowners, but we don't really have any tenants that have called and said they live in substandard conditions," Hale said.
The city recently hired an active code enforcement officer, a position the city hasn't consistently had in the past. With the position in place, Hale said the city is starting to address the issue, but for the most part, he hasn't seen any. He said examples of the code violations that the city typically deals with are houses with garages that were converted into studio rentals without a permit or houses that don't comply with the city's health and safety code.
- Photos By Jayson Mellom
- A VOICE Francisco Ramirez is one of many tenants using litigation to demand that their landlords repair their apartment complex.
In the Grand View Apartments, Ramirez concludes that he just wants his basic human rights.
"We're not asking for much. Just help us continue living here comfortably and safely," Ramirez says. "That's all we want, I mean, it's what anybody else would want."
Ramirez says it's really devastating to think that he and his neighbors aren't able to live a comfortable life. These tenants work and go to school, but at the end of the day they don't get to come home to a safe, healthy, and comfortable living situation. Δ
Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.