Taking a Stand for Justice
Updated: Jul 27, 2019
Have you ever had a landlord that could have better been described as a "slumlord"? While it was unfortunate for me to have had such an experience, I did manage to make things right again. I tend to not back down when I am challenged (thank you Army) and this particular landlord was certainly challenging me. I am a little late posting this for last week, but this story is a bit in-depth. I had to do a little research since I forgot so many of the details, so now let me take you back to my interesting experience at the apartment I rented in Daly (pronounced "daily") City, California.
I moved to California in 2012 and it was so difficult to find a place back then. My first apartment was $900/month (how I dream of that price now) all the way down in Hayward. It wasn't too bad of a place, but it was 40 miles away from my job at the time. I wanted to find a new place closer to San Francisco that wasn't going to cost an arm and a leg.
I found a listing on Craigslist for a decent apartment in Daly City, which is just south of San Francisco, for $1300/month. I felt it was the one. I knew that the primacy effect is a powerful one, so I made sure to be the very first person who arrived for the open-house. I met the landlord and had a good feeling about the place. The tenant who was moving out still lived there but was nice enough to allow us to walk around in their place. I must have made an impression, because by the end of the day I was offered the apartment. Mission accomplished.
The landlord, we'll call him Stan, stated that he would be out of town at the end of the month when I would move in, but I could pick up the keys from the previous tenant. He said any issues that remained in the apartment would be resolved when he returned from his trip. When I moved into the apartment in September 2013, there were numerous problems with the unit that weren't evident during the showing.
The issues included:
· Windows with holes drilled into the frames such that wind and water could enter the apartment
· Water damage around each window and sliding glass door
· Grease stains on the walls of the entire apartment
· Several nicks and scratches to the faux wood flooring in every room
· Marks and scrapes on the walls
· An extremely dirty stove and refrigerator
· Paint damage to refrigerator and stove hood
· A missing cover to the kitchen fluorescent light fixture
· Several broken socket and switch covers
· Black mold in the bathroom and bedroom
· Several deep stains in the countertops
· Water damage to bathroom mirror
· Missing sliding closet doors
· Water damage to bathroom door
· A roach infestation
I informed him of the problems the day I received the keys. He responded that he would take care of things when he returned from overseas. In the meantime, I was eager to move into my new apartment, particularly because I had already moved out of my old one; there was no other place for me to go. When he returned, he mentioned that he had withheld the previous tenant’s deposit as a result of the damages to the apartment. However, over the next year, the only actions that were actually taken were a mediocre paint job of only half of the apartment and the stove hood was replaced.
At the time I was working full-time at the VA and attending school full-time in the evenings. There was very little time for me to address or complain about the remaining issues. I did what I could to remedy as much as I could. This included bleaching the walls to remove the mold and repainting the bathroom walls with the paint Stan left behind. To temporarily protect my belongings from the weather, I covered each of my windows with plastic sheeting, a little technique I learned in Alaska (vapor barrier). I sprayed insecticide around the place until everything became extinct. Basically, I cleaned what I could and lived with the rest.
After a year, Stan informed me that the rent would be going up. At that time I let him know that if I was going to be paying more for the apartment, I should have some of my issues addressed. My primary concern was of the holes in the window frames since the weather would be changing. I felt that paying more than $1400 per month deserves at least some functioning windows. He agreed and offered to have the windows measured by Home Depot. The contractor came, but Stan didn't show up. Since the landlord wasn’t there, the contractor said he couldn’t do anything more than take measurements. A few months went by without any movement. I asked again about the windows. Stan said he didn’t know what happened, but he’ll be present next time.
In December 2014, he entered the apartment with his wife and the Home Depot contractor. His wife commented on how I keep the apartment so clean. I could tell she was hinting at the fact that he didn't keep his place clean. Stan actually yelled at her and said that cleaning the house is a woman’s job. She put her head down. His bad temper continued when the contractor produced an estimate for the window replacement. He got so upset and basically kicked the contractor out of the apartment. Stan looked at me and said he could do the job for much cheaper. This was the beginning of the end.
Initially, he took the job on in earnest. After surveying the building, he concluded that each of the balconies had been rotting and he would need to remove those first before working on my windows. Not long before then, there was a balcony that had collapsed in Berkeley and killed 6 or so. I thought it made sense to hold off on the windows since it was for safety and the other tenants were involved as well. There were 4 units in this small apartment building. With no advanced notice to the other tenants, he hired some people and began removing the balconies from the building. The work began 12/24/14, Christmas Eve.
The project moved from replacing the balconies to replacing the entire stucco wall due to wood rot in the walls. Interestingly enough, the tenants in the front of the building had their windows replaced since their wall was demolished. To make this happen, scaffolding was erected all around the front of the building, blocking every tenant’s use of the garage (which was included in the rent). Furthermore, the debris from the (de)construction was just piled in front of the building with rusty nails and sharp objects when there were three families in the building. The eventual removal of the stucco and balconies on the rear wall of the building where my apartment was caused severe damage to my sliding glass door frame such that the door would no long close completely, but my windows were not replaced.
After the first week of January, all work ceased. The job was only partly complete. No balconies had been replaced, only removed. I received my PG&E bill which had ballooned after the damage to the sliding glass door. Finally on 2/4/15, I asked the landlord about the construction job. I asked about my windows. I told him about the sliding glass door. I asked if I could be partially reimbursed for my rent since the apartment was no longer up to code. I asked if the other tenants could get a discount on rent for not having a place to park. Stan told me he’d speak with his investors and get back with me.
Stan called me the next day sounding a little scared and stated a few things: he said we should stop being friends, that it wasn't professional. He said his investors didn’t like that I kept asking about the windows, and now about parking. They said I’m causing problems for them. Then he says that the investors want to keep raising the rent every month until I move out. I was horrified. I just wanted my windows fixed.
At this time I felt threatened. I was being threatened with eviction because I complained about the conditions that all of us in the building were living in. I had a feeling that if I was having issues with the landlord, maybe the other tenants were having problems with him too. Each of the other tenants had a list of complaints. Most had informed Stan of their issues, but none of them had not been addressed. No one felt safe about being persistent.
I had a feeling this was illegal and sought the advice of a few lawyers. One suggested calling the Daly City Building Code Enforcement. Every lawyer suggested writing a formal letter to the landlord describing the issues and keep a copy for evidence. I called Code Enforcement. They inspected the site and determined that the removal of the balconies without proper barriers constituted a severe safety risk. They issued a pink slip, a Stop Work Order. Of the 4 units in the building, three of us sent certified letters to the landlord. The fourth had written a letter but at the last minute they expressed concern for retaliation and did not mail the letter. Soon things started to improve for all of the other tenants except for me.
Instead of fixing my situation, Stan paid for a background check on me. The only entry on my criminal record was a DUI I received while stationed in Alaska in 2007. It was a stupid, non-violent, misdemeanor which I paid dearly for. (Don't drink and drive!) Stan told the other tenants that he was concerned for their safety. He made me sound like I was a serial killer. My neighbors knew better and they all told me what Stan was trying to do. I wrote a more severe letter calling him out on his attempt to divide us tenants and demanded repairs to my apartment. His answer: he hired a lawyer and had him post an eviction notice on my door.
This was the last straw. I filed suit in March 2015. In the suit, I declared actual damages in the amount of $4419.60 and punitive damages in the amount of $5000. During that time, the defendant continued to harass me with repeated eviction notices and threatening letters from his lawyer. He made a false claim that I had damaged the building. He actually called the Daly City police on me. When they arrived, I showed them all of the evidence and had them speak with some of my neighbors. On their way out, they wished me luck with my lawsuit against the landlord. I started receiving eviction letters from his lawyer every week. Honestly, while I knew it was all bark and no bite, this really had a demoralizing effect on me. I didn’t feel that the apartment was worth fighting this ridiculous man.
Before our court date, I decided to make one last settlement offer. In my offer letter I stated the single condition of my offer multiple times: “If you agree to a full refund of my security deposit in the amount of $2092.50, I will simply leave at the end of the month.” “Guarantee that I get my full security deposit and I’ll move.” “Upon signing the dismissal form, you agree to fully refund my security deposit. You also agree not to generate any negative reports on my rental history. If anyone asks about a rental reference, you cannot give any negative information to anyone inquiring.” “In turn, I will file the dismissal form and this issue will be officially resolved. I will leave the apartment in a condition that is considerably cleaner that it was when I moved in. I will not disclose any negative information about you. I will not come back and sue you, unless any part of the agreement is broken.”
He agreed enthusiastically. He signed the dismissal form and mailed it back to me within a few days. As my part of the agreement, I filed the dismissal form with the court and mailed him a copy. At the end of the month I was to hand him the keys and receive my rental deposit. As you may imagine, that was not how it turned out.
After surrendering the keys, I received a letter stating that the apartment was not in a good condition and that Stan would be keeping my deposit. I was livid. Without a deposit, I couldn't afford to look for another place. I was just starting Masters Thesis and now I had no place to live. I found a storage unit for my belongings and remodeled my car to make it livable. I just removed the back seat and laid a piece of wood down to serve as a bed. Together with a sleeping bag, it wasn't too bad, I suppose. However, I needed to postpone a necessary neck surgery because I didn't have a safe place for recovery and the hardness of the bed increased my lower back pain. I'm sure having a diet composed entirely of fast food didn't help. Without a kitchen, it's hard not to eat fast food. Also, one night, someone tried to break into my car while I was sleeping inside. Needless to say, it was an adjustment.
I would have never made a settlement offer if I would have known Stan would not honor his end of the deal. It was my mistake that I trusted this man one last time, but I generally tend to see the good in people. Now, as an Iraq war veteran, I know what it is like to see people displaced from their homes. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that more than a decade later I would be displaced from mine in the United States. Fortunately, there are laws out there that are meant to protect tenants from malicious landlords, but if one does not fight for those rights, some landlords will exercise a disproportionate amount of power over their tenants. I did not fight in a foreign country in defense of our nation to have a landlord take my home and my money in the homeland.
I found out that one of the other tenants had continued to have issues with Stan after I left. They had mold damage on their personal belongings but Stan refused to replace the damaged items or remedy the problem. I ended up helping them prepare a lawsuit against Stan. I sued him again too. Since I was ready for court before the prior dismissal, I had everything ready for submission. It served as a good template for helping the other tenants work on their suit. It took more than a year to get in front of a judge, but when we did, we came prepared with three 2 inch binders full of evidence. He only had a small folder. I spoke with confidence and certainty. He spoke meekly. The judge said she needed to review the evidence and will issue the judgment in the mail. I didn't know that was a thing, but a few weeks later, I received the following notice: Small Claims Judgment entered on 11/02/16 after under submission and is as follows: Plaintiff(s) Omar Rutledge recover from Defendant(s) [Stan, not his real name] the sum of $ 2,092.50 plus costs. The other tenants won too. Together, we defeated the slumlord.
After graduating, I got a job at Stanford and started making decent money enough to rent an apartment in Mountain View. That apartment wasn't without its own issues, but at least the landlord was sane and helpful. The experience taught me so much about tenant law in California, but also that the odds are stacked against tenants. I wasn't going to let this person take me down without a fight, but most people don't have the resources or the time to sue their landlord or defend against eviction. With housing prices skyrocketing, those that can afford to buy a home are safe, but for the rest of us, we must all contend with the possibility of a slumlord. I say we should enact a law that requires anyone renting property to receive a license to rent. In order to receive the license, one must complete training which would include a detailed review of tenant law. Licenses must be renewed every 5 years which requires an inspection of the property. Any violation makes the property flagged, and continued violations allow the property to be seized. Such drastic measures would be required to get people motivated to do the right thing, but of course, nothing like this will ever happen.
What do you think? Should you fight, or just move out? Are you a landlord? Do you have a perspective I should consider? Let me know in the comments.