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Bad room-and-board operators prey on Sacramento County's most vulnerable

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Bad room-and-board operators prey on Sacramento County's most vulnerable

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The room-and-board industry operates without regulation or oversight—creating a dark economy in which bad operators act with impunity and an easily defrauded population gets no justice, an SN&R investigation reveals.

Zikia Carter and her son return to the Del Paso Heights home where she says she was evicted for complaining about a broken window. (Raheem Hosseini/Sacramento News & Review)
Bad room-and-board operators prey on Sacramento County's most vulnerable
City, governments provide little oversight as managers, landowners fleece poorest of poor
Sacramento News & Review
Friday, December 12, 2014

Cyndi Torres can’t junk the housing fliers fast enough. Every day, the head of Sacramento Loaves & Fishes’ daytime center for homeless women and children tosses dozens of ads purporting to offer her clients cheap rooms for rent.

This might seem counter-intuitive. That is, until you learn about Sacramento’s underground room-and-board industry. One of the only supportive housing options for mentally ill adults, this industry operates without regulation or oversight—creating a dark economy in which bad operators act with impunity and an easily defrauded population gets no justice, an SN&R investigation reveals.

“It is a big problem with people preying on our guests,” Torres said. “We hear horror stories all the time.”

These stories often go down a certain way: People in desperate straits are led to believe they’re being taken to a licensed living situation in exchange for hefty cuts of their Social Security income. Fraudsters have posed as pastors, transitional-housing directors and—in Sacramento’s most notorious example—sweet old ladies named Dorothea Puente. Puente was eventually apprehended in 1988 for poisoning her boarders, of course, but she’s the exception that also proves the rule. Most predatory operators are never brought to account.

“Room-and-board operators come and go,” said Marsha Ballard, an advocate for the Consumers Self Help Office of Patients’ Rights. “That’s been a major issue. I think a lot of people want to make a quick buck.”

These homes were originally conceived for people with minor mental or physical infirmities, who could administer their own medications and had support from family or social workers. Most operators charge between $650 and $700 a month from people who scrape little more than that from public assistance. In turn, operators are supposed to provide regular meals and safe lodging. They’re prevented from holding or administering meds, and should provide only limited transportation, Ballard explained.

But as mental-health resources further evaporated during the recession, the clientele became sicker and less independent. And with no regulatory oversight, the industry grew rife with inconsistencies and abuse. “There are certainly some horrible people out there,” Ballard added. Among the worst are absentee landowners, who limit their liability by concealing their identities, say officials. “We sort of have these shadow ownerships,” said supervising deputy city attorney Gustavo L. Martinez. “We have a lot of rich landowners who ignore the poor people living at their properties.”

Martinez coordinates Sacramento’s new Justice for Neighbors task force, which investigates nuisance properties. But this multi-agency squad of police, code enforcers and city attorneys was conceived to win justice for neighbors, not tenants who, outside of small claims court, have little recourse. “There may be no relief for them, those who are being victimized,” he acknowledged.

MUTINY IN DEL PASO HEIGHTS

Relief has yet to arrive in Del Paso Heights, where tenants and neighbors battled this year with a room-and-board landlord over food, evictions and safety. The tenants who complained are now gone, scattered to parts unknown. But the investigation into this house and several others connected to Adeola “Dee” Adedayo stumbles on.

When SN&R visited an Arcade Boulevard home in September, a half-dozen tenants accused Adedayo of tasking on-site managers with administering prescription medications or assisting in evictions, turning a blind eye to theft and drug use, and collecting money for meals she didn’t deliver.

“She wasn’t providing anything,” charged Danette Braley, a former resident and on-site manager of the Arcade home. When the food stopped in July, Braley and her then-boyfriend said they used their own money to buy groceries for the house.

In a telephone interview with SN&R, Adedayo asserted that it was her tenants who caused all the trouble. “They are squatters,” she said. “They sell drugs.”

The truth could lie somewhere in the middle.

On September 13, gunfire erupted at the house and a male took a bullet to the leg, according to the Sacramento Police Department. Braley told SN&R that it happened during a house party in which methamphetamine was present. Arrested was Ward Matthew Sitkin, who has been in and out of jail the past two years on numerous minor burglary and stolen-property cases, as well as a felony drug possession hit last April. He faces three fresh felonies for being a felon in possession of a firearm and a leaded cane or billyjack. The 32-year-old remained incarcerated as of December 9, with a settlement conference scheduled earlier this week.

The arrest essentially ended a power struggle between Adedayo and Sitkin, a former house manager who told SN&R he was hoping to take over as landlord.

Adedayo was herself recently cited on illegal dumping charges, after a resident witnessed her discarding material onto the street and phoned police, Martinez said. That was a common complaint from tenants who said Adedayo, or those hired by her, would evict people by tossing their possessions outside. Zikia Carter said that happened to her after she complained about a broken window in her room. After her eviction, the young mother didn’t turn to the authorities; she simply left.

As for the home’s other residents, including a recovering addict and a couple with cognitive disabilities, it’s unclear what happened to them.

The Arcade Boulevard home is one of several in the Del Paso Heights neighborhood with ties to Adedayo and a history of code violations, according to city records.

The Justice for Neighbors team has been sifting through this particular case for months, but hit a brick wall that protects Sacramento’s under-regulated slumland economy: Most victims are too incapacitated or transient to serve as witnesses on their own behalf, while the owners are tricky to pin down.

On September 17, the city sent an administrative letter to the Pensco Trust Company, which holds the 1530 Arcade Boulevard home in trust for Jeffrey Ricks, who has been “unresponsive to our efforts,” Martinez said. Ricks could not be located for comment.

State licensers, city police, and building and code enforcers conducted an unannounced inspection on the Arcade Boulevard home, and five others linked to Adedayo, back in August.

During the inspection, Ron O’Connor, operations manager of the city’s Community Development Department, visited the home that belonged to Adedayo at 1320 Los Robles Boulevard, also in Del Paso Heights. The residence, he said, “had a lot of issues.”

Adedayo had owned the house since November 15, 2012, according to county assessor records reviewed by O’Connor. Eight code-enforcement cases, including one unfounded one, have been investigated since then. One open case concerns unsanitary conditions and non-permitted work, including chicken coops that were crudely turned into bedrooms, filed August 7. The seven violations cover an array of substandard building issues—from water-logged walls and roofs to bad plumbing, absent or inoperative smoke detectors and exposed electrical conductors.

The violations are serious enough that the city required Adedayo to obtain a building permit before conducting any repair work and is mandating a site visit to make sure repairs are made. The city would work with her, O’Connor said, “as long as she’s following the process without dawdling too much.”

That no longer seems to be the case. Records show that Adedayo transferred title of the Los Robles home on October 6 to someone living at another nuisance property, Martinez said. “The transfer is suspicious because it did not involve a sale,” he added.

Martinez said these arm’s-length title swaps and complicated trust ownerships are common ways for landowners to mitigate their legal exposure. On November 24, the city sent Adedayo an administrative penalty letter that has yet to be answered.

Despite all these issues, California Department of Social Services spokesman Michael Weston said none of the residents present during an August 6 inspection required the level of care that would necessitate the homes being regulated by the state.

Setting doctor’s appointments, keeping medication logs and coordinating with trained health-care providers to administer meds are some of the services that fall under that category, he said. And because the homes aren’t licensed through the department’s Community Care Licensing Division, Social Services is powerless to investigate resident and neighbor complaints, Weston acknowledged. “We don’t have the authority to investigate them as a licensed facility or cite them as a licensed facility,” he said.

Adedayo contended that the state licensing inspection cleared her. “I don’t provide any care. I’m not a board and care. I’m a room and board,” she said. “All I have to provide them is shelter [and meals].”

As for allegations that she stopped delivering food to tenants around July, Adedayo didn’t deny that. “Why would I provide food to people who called the cops on me and … threatened my life?” she said.

That admission would seem to violate the definition of a room and board, but Adedayo is still operating months later. Reached by phone December 3, she said she ran six houses in the city’s north and south, including a few in Del Paso Heights. All were outfitted with cable television and laundry facilities, she said. She was charging $650 a month and promised three square meals a day.

BREEDING A WATCHDOG

While individual solicitors aren’t permitted onto Loaves & Fishes property, Torres said her staff ends up discarding dozens of fliers every day from people trying to rent out alleged care homes. Patients’ rights advocate Ballard described mercenary landlords who attract impaired customers with offers of marijuana. It’s not unusual for clients to have drug and alcohol issues on top of their mental health ones. “People self-medicate all the time,” she added.

Victims usually have some form of cognitive impairment, but that’s not the only thing that binds them, according to Torres and Ballard. “I think what would be a uniting factor is the lack of affordable housing,” Torres said. “They’re desperate for shelter.”

“We have a lot of mentally ill people who need supportive housing,” added Ballard. These are the folks holding cardboard signs down by the Capitol, she added. Local governments have been putting their resources elsewhere, meanwhile. “When you can build a frigging new stadium, I have a hard time,” she said. “I have a real hard time.”

Two years ago, Ballard established the Sacramento Room & Board Coalition to ferret out bad actors. She modeled the self-regulating body after one in San Bernardino. But because of rapid turnover among operators and the financial stakes of those who get paid for referring or placing clients, progress has been slow.

“It’s just that everybody wants a piece of the pie,” Ballard said. “I don’t make any money doing this, but other people do.”

Placement agents get a cut for every person they put in a home, and some get double-paid for placing clients into homes they own or manage. Payee services that manage people’s public-assistance incomes also have a financial interest. On-site managers, when they exist, get paid or compensated with free rent to maintain order, but rarely have experience dealing with mental illness.

It’s from these ranks that Ballard has tried to assemble a watchdog with some teeth.

So far, it’s just her and a few others barking.

The city’s Justice for Neighbors team recently pressed a “very rich property owner who lives in McKinley Park” into paying $90,000 toward the demolition of a dilapidated apartment complex at 5218 Martin Luther King Boulevard, Martinez said, where transients reportedly exposed themselves to nearby schoolchildren. And condemning a Midtown heroin den, operated by two sisters, addicts themselves, probably prevented more in-home overdoses from occurring, Martinez suggested.

As for the coalition, it’s just begun rating the approximately 135 room and boards that Sacramento Self-Help Housing lists throughout the county.

One of the few perfect reviews belonged to “Blooms Room and Board,” Adedayo’s company.

Ballard says Adedayo has cooperated with the coalition from the start. Aside from a substantiated complaint about inadequate food at one of the homes, Ballard said she’s been unable to verify most allegations. But she acknowledges that doesn’t mean they aren’t valid, and she still hears grievances about the Arcade Boulevard home from neighbors. “It is hard to know,” she said.

As one of only two coalition members who investigates complaints, she’s often forced to accept the word of operators. “She seems like a compassionate person,” Ballard said of Adedayo. “But she also has too many houses.”

Ballard thinks the coalition has chased off some bad operators, but guesses they’ve already set up elsewhere. “I haven’t found them yet,” she said. “But I will eventually.”