Striking Tenants Upheld by Jurors : Evictions Ruled Out; Reductions in Rent Ordered
In a major victory for striking tenants, an Orange County jury decided Wednesday that a Santa Ana landlord may not evict 150 renters and must reduce back rents an average of 38% for apartments found earlier this year to be substandard.
The jury also ruled that tenants need to pay no more than 85% of current rent, finding that such a level would be a “fair” price, given the condition of the buildings.
Crystal Sims, a Legal Aid attorney who represented the tenants, said the reductions in back rent were as much as 90% for April, but gradually decreased to 15% for the period of July through September.
‘Groundswell of Consciousness’
After hearing evidence for four weeks--and viewing such items as the defense’s Exhibit B, a 4-inch-long plastic vial containing a huge “killer” cockroach--jurors in Municipal Judge C. Robert Jameson’s court deliberated for two days before reaching the decision.
“What the case has done,” said Edward Printemps, a Santa Ana attorney who assisted Sims, “is start a groundswell of consciousness in Orange County that decent and safe housing is a right for tenants, many of whom are undocumented (aliens). And the courts are going to enforce that right.”
Both attorneys said jurors told them they ruled for tenants after viewing evidence that included graphic photographs depicting the deteriorated conditions of apartments in the 1200 block of Brook Street, owned by Villa Park landlord Carmine Esposito.
The pictures displayed children literally “herding” cockroaches with drinking straws, ceilings and walls with gaping holes, and corroded plumbing inside apartment bathrooms.
“This is one of Orange County’s major victories, particularly for a large group of people who fought the tenant battle together,” said Maya Dunne, Orange County Fair Housing Council executive director.
It was believed to be the first time an Orange County municipal court ha heard evidence on the question of habitability involving a large group of tenants.
There have been individual tenant victories in the past dealing with substandard housing, but this was an “extraordinary” victory for a rent strike, Dunne said.
Esposito’s attorney, Terence Calder of Santa Ana, said his client was fairly pleased with the jurors’ decision, but added, “I think they decided to teach us a lesson, especially for the month of April.”
“Before the trial, we attempted to make a settlement where we would have taken 65% to 70% of the rent,” Calder said during a telephone interview. “They came back at 25%. We said 25% was ridiculous.
“What we got was 62% (of the rent, on average). Keep in mind we didn’t want a building with no tenants in it,” he added.
He said Esposito spent thousands of dollars for extensive repairs to bring the apartments into compliance with the city’s ordinance.
Esposito, who was subpoenaed to testify, appeared in court but took the Fifth Amendment on the advice of his attorney.
Esposito, who has substantial real estate interests in Orange County, also faces a 95-count criminal complaint for alleged neglect at the Brook Street buildings. That complaint was brought by the Santa Ana city attorney’s office, and a jury trial has been set for Oct. 26.
Jail, Fines Possible
If found guilty of all misdemeanor charges in that case, Esposito and his business partners could receive a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for each count.
The events leading up to Wednesday’s jury verdict began last January when tenants went on strike after Santa Ana building inspectors found the Brook Street buildings to be substandard. Some tenants had complained that deteriorated conditions had existed for years.
In April, a judge allowed the strike to continue, as long as tenants paid monthly rents to a court-appointed receiver. The receiver, in turn, would distribute rent revenue to the landlord based on repair receipts for work completed.
But tenants, angered at what they considered to be the slow pace of repairs and complaining of water shutoffs and other inconveniences prompted by workmen, refused to pay the receiver. Instead, they paid into a separate account.
Esposito then brought court actions seeking to force the tenants to pay full back rent or leave within three days.
Sims and other defense attorneys said that move gave them a legal loophole: “All we had to do was prove to a jury just how blighted conditions were at the buildings to show that you didn’t have to pay full rental.”
Six Apartments Chosen
During the trial, one tenant testified that part of a ceiling collapsed on her while she was washing dishes. Another tenant, when cross-examined about the origin of cockroaches and other bugs, said, “I don’t spend my time spying on them.”
Before the trial, Jameson decided to consolidate the cases by using just six apartments, chosen arbitrarily. The parties agreed that the jurors’ decision would apply to all tenants.
However, tenants were meeting late Wednesday and it was not known what their next move might be.
According to the decision, April rents were reduced to $37.50 for a one-bedroom apartment and $47.50 for a two-bedroom apartment, Sims said. Rents were $375 and $475, respectively.
Under the verdict, rents would be allowed to rise to a maximum of 86% of full value--$318 for one bedroom and $400 for two--until the landlord improved security in the apartments.
Security a Big Factor
Calder said that security was a major consideration in the rent reductions.
“In talking to the jurors, they mentioned that basically things that we hadn’t taken care of included the screens not put in, (that) the ovens were somewhat antiquated, (that) there was a problem with the heating and (that) the windows lifted out by themselves pretty easily,” Calder said.
California rental law favors tenants, Calder said, adding that he has gained respect for the striking tenants, the majority of whom are in the country illegally.
“It’s just that tenants have never gotten together and organized and demanded” their rights, he said.
Printemps added: “It took a tenant action to make significant repairs. . . . It took a lot of courage on their part.”