Stuck in squalor: Hundreds of Sonoma County renters endure poor living conditions (Part 1)

At first, Karla Orozco blamed herself for the filthy living conditions in her family’s east Santa Rosa apartment — mold growing on the walls and ceilings, as well as repeated rat and cockroach infestations that she and her family endured for years, despite her meticulous cleaning habits.

The conditions worsened in 2014 when she said the apartment’s heater broke. Sewage kept backing up and spilling onto the bathroom floor. Rats had chewed holes in the walls behind the refrigerator and stove, infiltrating the apartment where she lived with her husband and their three children.

“It was a very difficult time,” Orozco, 35, said, choking back tears.

“We were stressed out a lot, and I was sick. My kids were sick,” Orozco recalled, describing the five-year period she said was marked by constant fights with her landlords about the living conditions and requests for repairs.

Orozco’s experience is a familiar one for many of Sonoma County’s poorest residents. The exact number is difficult to quantify, but hundreds of people in Sonoma County, perhaps even thousands by some estimates, live in housing so run down that it puts at risk the tenants’ health and safety, a yearlong Press Democrat investigation has found.

Squalid conditions have been reported in hundreds of housing units across the county, mostly in apartment complexes, public records show. Complaints by tenants to city and county code enforcement agencies, analyzed and tracked over the past six months by The Press Democrat, detail chronic problems with mold, infestations by rodents and other vermin, inadequate heating and broken plumbing — conditions that qualify as “substandard” under state laws meant to prevent people from living in slum housing.

Inspectors say it is impossible to keep up with complaints against offending landlords.

“We have north of 2,000 open cases, and five code enforcement officers, so you do the math,” said Mark Setterland, Santa Rosa’s chief building official, who oversaw the code enforcement division until November. In addition to substandard housing complaints, the division oversees enforcement of illegal marijuana growing, unpermitted construction, weed abatement and other activity. “It’s a huge backlog, and we never catch up. There are a lot of very savvy landlords out there who definitely know how to game the system, but because we are grossly understaffed, we just don’t have the resources to really bring the full might of the system on some of these people.”

As complaints stream into county and city departments every week, the number of unresolved cases has ballooned over the past five years. More than 250 cases remain unresolved throughout the county. The majority — 170 cases — have been opened in the past 10 years. About a quarter were opened last year. A few have lingered over three decades.

Often, the county and local cities have been unable — or simply unwilling in some cases — to carry out enforcement, The Press Democrat investigation found. The result, largely a reflection of elected officials’ political priorities, has left residents, mostly poor people, stuck in squalid conditions that can make them sick or contribute to an existing illness, according to doctors, health experts and attorneys representing tenants.

“There are some landlords out there who are adept at doing the bare minimum to get us off their backs,” said Setterland. “But with the caseload as high as we have, when something comes off our radar, it stays off the radar for a while, then we might get another complaint and we have to say ‘Come on, you haven’t done anything for three years.’ ”

The problems are likely worse than inspection records and tenant complaints show, according to local tenants’ rights attorneys. Many residents are hesitant or afraid to speak up, with some fearful of losing their housing altogether in the county’s increasingly tight rental market. Instead, residents stay silent and endure steadily worsening conditions, according to the attorneys, who’ve seen their own caseloads spike in the past five years.

“We’re seeing huge rent increases, mass evictions, and a lot of tenants are acutely aware of the fact that it’s hard to find a place,” said Jeff Hoffman, a Santa Rosa-based attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance.

The nonprofit agency’s local office receives hundreds of calls a year from tenants asking for help, he said.

“They’re afraid of complaining or doing anything that might risk them being terminated and having to move, so they stay in seriously dangerous situations that could be harming their health and safety.”

Hidden problem

The attention that local advocates have turned on squalid housing comes amid a torrid rental market, with rents across Sonoma County skyrocketing and vacancy rates as low as 1 percent. Homelessness also has emerged as major issue in the county, with temporary shelters full and local governments testing a range of aid efforts, including the installation of tiny homes on county-owned land and a mobile trailer in Santa Rosa offering restrooms and showers for homeless people.

But for those living in substandard housing, the problems often are more hidden from view, affecting predominantly the county’s poorest residents, and especially Latino families, according to attorneys and code enforcement officials.

Most of the problems are tied to multi-unit apartment buildings in lower-income areas of Santa Rosa, such as Roseland, as well as The Springs area in Sonoma Valley and along the lower Russian River, according to public records detailing substandard housing cases and dozens of interviews with tenants, attorneys, and health and safety inspectors. The highest concentration of the 253 unresolved cases is in Santa Rosa.

Because local jurisdictions do not proactively inspect existing rental housing — a person must call and complain about a problem before it’s investigated — it is hard to determine the extent of the problem. A case is considered open after tenant complaints are verified by code enforcement inspectors and substandard housing conditions are confirmed. A case remains unresolved until the conditions are at least partly addressed.

State law defines substandard housing as endangering “the life, limb, health, property, safety or welfare of the public.” An extensive list of qualifying conditions includes inadequate sanitation, dangerous electrical wiring, lack of running water or heat, improperly ventilated rooms, vermin and insect infestations, leaks, mold growth and more.

State housing officials have long grappled with the issue. One in eight units throughout California is substandard, according to the state Department of Housing and Community Development, a ratio that in Sonoma County would equate to about 12 percent of the housing supply, which stands at more than 207,000 units, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Real estate groups and some attorneys who represent landlords in substandard housing disputes say that estimate is inflated.

“I don’t think it’s a huge problem here,” said Daniel Sanchez, government affairs director for the North Bay Association of Realtors. “And what is substandard? Some mom-and-pop landlords have put their life savings into these properties and they can’t afford to remodel entirely, so rents might be lower. On the other end, some investors might want to charge top rents for a luxury apartment.”

There is no data that show how much substandard housing exists in Sonoma County or how prevalent it is compared with other California counties.

Across the state, poor people and minority communities are the most affected, said leading experts, including an official with the National Center for Healthy Housing and doctors who specialize in the issue.

“Areas that are burdened by substandard housing and health consequences like asthma tend to be lower-income communities and communities of color,” said James Krieger, a Seattle-based doctor and expert on public health and housing.

For some, the conditions can be disastrous.

Roseanne Crews said she lost her job in telecommunications and was forced to move from her rat-infested Santa Rosa apartment after one of her young children developed breathing problems. The 30-year-old mother of three said she called in sick to work repeatedly for more than six weeks to take her 2-year-old daughter to the doctor. Medical records do not indicate that the girl has asthma, but doctors’ notes detail several instances of “respiratory problems.”

“We know that rat urine and dander can cause problems, so when I found our entire building had rats, I freaked out. … My daughter was playing in rat poo,” Crews said. “I did everything in my power to get someone to hear me and to help me, but I continuously missed work because I had to take my kids to the doctor. … Now what do I do?”

Records describe violations

In dozens of interviews over the past year, local attorneys said they receive a regular deluge of calls, amounting to hundreds a year, from people seeking help in similar situations.

“What we see really is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Edie Sussman, a Santa Rosa attorney who specializes in slum housing cases. “And people are legitimately frightened to ask their landlords for help because cities and the county lacks resources to deal with cases. If places don’t do their job and investigate cases, tenants don’t have protections they’re entitled to under the law.”

Under state law, landlords are prevented for six months from raising rents or initiating an eviction after a tenant complaint is filed.

Code enforcement records on open cases provide a snapshot of conditions many families are living in.

“Mold on carpet and walls, heater malfunctioning, inadequate sanitation,” a Santa Rosa code enforcement officer wrote in 2013 after inspecting a 144-unit building on Jennings Avenue, in the northwest part of the city. The complex has been the site of a series of substandard housing problems dating back to 2002, records show.

This January, Santa Rosa code enforcement officers verified a batch of new health and safety code violations detailing mold growing in many of the units, as well as structural problems that can make it nearly impossible for tenants to control rat and cockroach infestations in their apartments.

The building’s primary owner, Richard Parasol, and its property manager, Sabino Rodas, said they addressed past complaints by replacing broken stoves, bringing in exterminators multiple times and repairing heaters and other faulty appliances. They acknowledged the recent violations highlighted by the city in late December and early January, but suggested that residents contributed to the problems.

“We always take care of any issue that comes up in a timely manner,” said Rodas, the longtime property manager. “We also tell our tenants to clean as much as possible so they don’t get the infestations.”

Other examples include:

An eight-unit apartment building on Papago Court in Santa Rosa’s Apple Valley neighborhood, where code enforcement officers in July responded to a tenant complaint of mold and other structural issues. During their inspection, officers found extensive mold throughout the building. The property also didn’t have working heat and had “large cracks in the walls,” according to records.

An apartment on Ripley Court in Santa Rosa, where a report investigated in August detailed extensive problems: “leaks, mold, snakes present … Bathroom sink pulling away from the wall, mold on bathroom walls and ceilings, heavy mold in the bedroom, large cracks in walls, electrical outlets not working, very poor weather proofing.”

A fourplex on Kenton Court in Santa Rosa, where an August code inspection report found unresolved violations including hazardous electrical wiring, broken windows, dry-rotted and damaged siding. Records show that in some of the rooms, walls inside the apartment had deteriorated.

Since this past summer, when the first batch of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County records detailing substandard housing conditions was obtained by The Press Democrat through public records requests, property owners have addressed some of the issues, code enforcement officials said, yet most remain unresolved.

The follow-up work, which can amount to exhaustive, regular property checks to verify fixes have been made, must compete with the staff time needed to handle ongoing calls on a range of code enforcement issues. The workload for thinly staffed departments makes it difficult to crack down on scofflaw landlords, officials say.

“We get so many calls it’s hard to keep up,” said Joe Garcia, Petaluma’s sole code enforcement officer. “Most of the things I’m dealing with are hoarding situations. I don’t really get involved in substandard housing complaints.”

Recession-era cuts and flat budgets in recent years have led many divisions to adopt a triage approach with cases. At times, only the most egregious cases — or the ones that have gained the most publicity — rise to the top.

“When we were fully staffed before the recession hit, we had three more staff in our department and we were able to get our caseload down to 1,300 investigations,” said Michael Reynolds, Santa Rosa’s code enforcement supervisor, speaking of cases across his division, only a portion of them dealing with substandard housing. After 2008, three jobs were eliminated and budgets were slashed, Reynolds said.

“Now we’re back at more than 2,000 cases that remain open,” he said. One of the three jobs was restored in 2015.

Tenants’ advocates say it has been left up to them in many cases to fill in where local governments have fallen short.

“There’s a handful of us — four or five people — who are doing the job that our cities and the county should be doing, and that’s going after bad landlords and enforcing public health laws that are there to keep people safe,” said Sussman, the Santa Rosa tenants’ rights attorney, who directed her criticism at elected officials and department heads responsible for budgets and staffing levels. “It’s just wrong.”

Santa Rosa, county have most cases

In interviews, some members of the county Board of Supervisors said they are aware that large caseloads and the high volume of calls code inspectors receive every year have resulted in some landlords flouting the rules. Others may not have the money to make repairs, while a smaller number of landlords are simply unaware of their responsibilities, supervisors and code enforcement officials said.

“We don’t have adequate staffing in code enforcement, but we have a lot more than the cities,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. She acknowledged that action — or the lack thereof — by code enforcement inspectors can have real consequences for tenants.

“Our main goal is to not displace people when we have a 1 percent vacancy rate for rentals,” Zane said.

But, Zane added, “What we need to do is come down hard on landlords.”

Some Santa Rosa City Council members were less aware of the demands on their code enforcement division, which has the highest caseload among all local governments.

“Looking at this, it’s clear the system is broken,” said Santa Rosa Councilwoman Julie Combs, referring to unresolved violations in the city. “I had no idea.”

Santa Rosa accounts for the majority of substandard housing violations — 150 of October’s 253 total open violations. It is due, in part, to the age of the city’s housing stock and its place as the largest city in the county, where a third of the county’s population lives. It is also a reflection of the way the city pursues cases — more aggressively than other cities or the county, The Press Democrat investigation found.

“We go after mold, so that significantly adds to our workload,” said Mark Maystrovich, a veteran Santa Rosa code enforcement officer.

Smaller cities are encountering similar code enforcement challenges.

Some, such as Sebastopol, include code enforcement as a duty for their building officials, while others, including Healdsburg, consider code enforcement a part-time job.

Officials in Rohnert Park, Sonoma, Cloverdale and Cotati said they confront few cases and contend substandard housing is not an issue they see much.

“Properties are worth a lot here, so people just don’t let them fall into disrepair,” said Wayne Wirick, Sonoma’s building official, adding that owning housing in the city “is a major money-maker.”

When public records on substandard housing were collected in August and October, Sonoma did not have any open cases.

Records on substandard properties in the county’s jurisdiction detail violations at 63 properties, including homes in southwest Santa Rosa and properties situated along the lower Russian River and in The Springs area.

At the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department, eight code enforcement officers are responsible for more than 3,300 cases, including housing cases.

“It’s too many,” said Tennis Wick, the department’s director, said about the 63 unresolved substandard housing cases.

The county receives up to 1,400 new code enforcement complaints every year, including calls about noisy vacation rentals and unauthorized winery events.

“I’ve given direction to staff that we cannot overlook life safety issues,” Wick said. “We’re here to protect the public health and safety.”

Wick said each case is scrutinized for potential dangers, but the county is also wary about red-tagging homes, or ordering occupants to vacate their dwelling because conditions are considered a dire health or safety threat. Such notices can force a family to leave with nowhere else to live.

“Often we have to make judgment calls,” Wick said. “We’re not here for the benefit of property owners, but we have to find balance. We don’t want to put a family out on the street.”

Few safeguards

Tenants living in substandard housing have few options to relocate as rents continue to rise across the region. Over the past four years, the rent for the average apartment in Sonoma County has shot up nearly 40 percent, reaching $1,674 a month, according to Real Answers, a Novato-based rent research firm.

Complaining to a landlord can pose a risk, tenants’ rights attorneys say.

“Landlords in Sonoma County can terminate a tenancy anytime they want, and they don’t need to give people a reason,” said Hoffman, the nonprofit housing attorney.

In other Bay Area cities, including San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, rent control and just-cause eviction policies can protect tenants who complain about conditions from being kicked out of their homes. No such provisions exist in Sonoma County.

“Because landlords don’t have to give tenants a reason for evicting tenants, and without rent control … people just stay in poor housing,” said David Grabill, a prominent Santa Rosa attorney and housing activist.

The Santa Rosa City Council is set to discuss adopting such policies at its meeting Tuesday.

Grabill and other attorneys argued that county and city officials for decades have been complacent in enforcing state housing laws, and without strong tenant protections, bad housing situations simply worsen.

Landlords “can raise the rent as much as they want to force you out, or just ask you to leave,” said Hoffman.

State law prevents landlords from retaliating against tenants by evicting them for complaining about substandard living conditions or asking for repairs to be made. But it’s hard to prove retaliation in court, even with legal representation, said attorneys representing both landlords and tenants.

Attorneys interviewed in recent months each said they get hundreds of calls every year from tenants who say they’re being evicted for complaining about substandard housing. Most of the time, it’s difficult for tenants to prove their case alone.

“The system is stacked against them,” said Josh Katz, a Santa Rosa tenants’ rights attorney.

In Sonoma County, code enforcement officers must receive complaints in order to visit homes where tenants’ health and safety has been called into question. The officers make the official determination upon inspection, then issue property owners notices of violation.

But that call isn’t always so clear cut, and some argue that being slapped with a substandard label can lead landlords to decisions that ultimately will reduce the county’s supply of low-cost, albeit lower-quality housing.

“The tenant has to meet certain standards for keeping a place up, as the landlord does,” said Charles Jensen, who represents landlords in eviction court. “But in some cases, just because the law says it’s substandard doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. It ain’t black and white by no means.”

The upshot is people get to pay less money for a place to live, Jensen said.

“The tenant gets cheaper rent, and the landlord doesn’t have to pay for the upkeep,” Jensen said. “To many of the people living there, it’s not slum housing, and if it were fixed up, the rents would go up to market rate.”

Hoen Avenue fallout

Karla Orozco and her family moved out of the 10-unit apartment building on Hoen Avenue a year ago.

Her family and the other families who lived there are now part of a closely watched substandard housing lawsuit against the property’s current and former owners. The case reflects the plight of other Sonoma County residents, who often must pursue legal action to get anything done, advocates said.

“Every pipe that could leak was leaking; there was massive mold,” Orozco said. “We felt we shouldn’t be living like that and paying all that rent.”

Because of the Hoen Avenue case and the way it was initially handled by the city, Santa Rosa code enforcement officials said their hands have been tied from kicking people out of their homes when conditions present clear dangers.

“We’re being prevented from doing our jobs,” Maystrovich said in October. “It is very frustrating.”

The fallout from the case has not yet settled, but city and county officials said they only take the extreme step of posting a notice to vacate if conditions present an immediate threat to tenants. They are wary of doing so because of the concern those renters will have nowhere to go.

But the informal policy shift has confounded tenants’ rights advocates, who say their clients rely on such orders, which require landlords to give tenants relocation money.

“To sit there and say people might be thrown out on the street if you actually try to enforce the law is outrageous — it’s just an effort to keep the status quo,” Sussman said. “Instead of arguing you’re going to put people out on the street, why don’t we argue that the job needs to be done of enforcing the laws? … Why are we looking at victims instead of looking at the people responsible for fixing things?”

[This story was originally published by The Press Democrat.]

Photo by Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat.