Lawyer says landlords are retaliating against tenants who speak out
by Don Kazak
East Palo Alto's rent stabilization ordinance, passed 10 years ago, is supposed to protect tenants from retaliatory evictions if they complain about living conditions in their buildings. But recently that hasn't been the case, according to the East Palo Alto Community Law Project.
Jeanne Merino, a staff attorney for the organization, said landlords are routinely filing court orders leading to possible eviction against any tenant who files a petition with the city's Rent Stabilization Board.
In one case, she said, a property manager has attempted to evict two tenants three times over the past 13 months. Guadalupe Bejines and Arcelia Caballero were first given an eviction notice in last 1992 after filing a complaint with the rent board that they were being charged for a parking space at their West Bayshore Road apartment.
The law project intervened and the case was settled. But the property manager then tried to get the couple to sign what Merino called an illegal lease, and he served them with another eviction notice in December.
Merino blames the threats of eviction for causing a sharp decrease in the number of petitions filed with the city's Rent Stabilization Board in the past two years.
There were 91 petitions filed with the board in 1991, but only 34 in 1992 and 33 this past year, said Gloria Williams, the acting director of the city's rent stabilization program. The city's rent control ordinance affects 2,700 housing units in the city, she said, including apartments and single-family homes.
Williams said the tenants who come to her for information are often afraid of "harassment and retaliation" by their landlords.
"The pattern shows that when tenants complain, very shortly after that a (legal) notice is filed," Merino said. "It's definitely a pattern and it makes me concerned."
Merino said that when tenants come to her for information, the threat of eviction is discussed. "It's a standard part of what I tell them," she said. "It's against the law, but they will try to evict you if you complain."
Terry Feinberg, executive director of the Tri-County Apartment Association, a landlord group, said he hadn't heard specifically of any retaliatory eviction attempts in East Palo Alto.
Noting that such actions are against the city's law, Feinberg added, "If there are owners out there doing that, I guarantee they're losing in the (court) settlement."
Because of the high vacancy rate in some East Palo Alto apartment complexes, Feinberg said he doubted whether a fear of retaliation was really keeping tenants from filing petitions with the rent board. Evictions are sometimes necessary when renters damage property, he added. "Just like there are good and bad owners out there, there are good and bad tenants out there, too," he said.
Merino said attorneys representing the city's landlords have become much more aggressive. In one case, Merino and the Law Project were counter-sued by a landlord after the project filed a lawsuit against the landlord alleging that tenants of one apartment complex were dealing with substandard living conditions. A judge dismissed the countersuit earlier this month.
"You just can't go around suing tenants' lawyers," she said.
Williams said that the city used to have more vocal tenants who weren't afraid to stand up to their landlords, but most of them have moved away. The great majority of the city's renters are now on some form of welfare, Williams said, and many do not want to challenge their landlords.
Mayor Sharifa Wilson said the City Council has not been closely monitoring the Rent Stabilization Board but will now pay closer attention to it.
"I didn't know that the number of petitions had dropped," she said. "We'll create a mechanism for communicating with the rent board."
Wilson said she was aware of a trend where some landlords rent almost exclusively to Latinos, primarily Mexican immigrants. "Maybe they think they're easier to intimidate," she said.
Merino said there is a lawsuit on file from an African-American woman who claims she did not get an apartment rented to her because of alleged racial discrimination.
An additional problem with the rent board, Merino said, is that it takes up to a year for a petition to be heard. "Tenants saw that it wasn't a very effective way to solve problems," she said, particularly if they then had to face the threat of being evicted.
"The petitions have decreased in the last two years, and it's not because the conditions have gotten better," Merino added.
One apartment building on East O'Keefe Street was evacuated by the fire department just before Thanksgiving when part of its roof gave way during heavy rains, partially flooding some units and creating a health and safety hazard. That building has been repaired and is occupied again.
"It's definitely a pattern, and it makes me concerned."
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