Judge ‘Unhappy’ With Slow Payments by Tenants, but Rules None in Contempt
A Superior Court judge on Friday found that 58 tenants in a Santa Ana slum neighborhood had failed to make court-ordered rent payments, but he ruled that none were in contempt of court.
“I’m very unhappy, very unhappy with the people I see in front of me who haven’t complied with the court order,” Judge Harmon G. Scoville told the tenants.
But, he said, the lawyer for landlord Carmine Esposito had failed to show that any of the tenants individually were in contempt of court.
“It’s up to you to prove it,” Scoville told Esposito’s lawyer, Bruce Carr.
The tenants, who listened to two days of court proceedings through a Spanish-speaking interpreter, showed little reaction. Several questioned their lawyer, Richard L. Spix, after the hearing about Scoville’s later denial of their request to reduce rents.
Claims of Tenants
Friday’s hearing was one in a series of lawsuits over the last 18 months triggered by a rent strike of low-income tenants in slum neighborhoods in Santa Ana.
Esposito’s six apartment buildings on West Brook Street were among the first to be struck, with tenants claiming the property was uninhabitable.
Scoville had indicated earlier that he did not plan to jail any of the tenants, regardless of his contempt findings.
But Spix said it was an important victory for the rent strikers. If Scoville had found them in contempt, he could have dismissed the related claims of tenants against Esposito, including requests for $500,000 in punitive damages.
Carr, however, argued that rent strikers “are taking advantage of this court . . . they’re taking advantage of the judicial system.” He challenged Scoville to “do something about” the violation of the court order.
Lack of Proof
But the judge said that Carr had failed to prove that any single tenant failed to pay rent in violation of the order.
“You’re looking at a judge that’s tried hundreds of criminal cases,” Scoville said at one point. “The standards are still the same: beyond a reasonable doubt.”
After improvements made by Esposito, only one of the 46 apartments in his six buildings is uninhabitable, according to a report Scoville received earlier this month from a court-appointed receiver. That was because of the presence of 16 tenants in the single apartment, the report said.
“They want to freeload, that’s all,” remarked Esposito, who said he had invested $400,000 in the improvements. “They’re just taking advantage of the court system.
“If they don’t change the laws soon, they’re going to have some really big slums,” Esposito said, adding: “Most of the landlords will throw in the towel. They don’t need this.”
Robert Stopher was appointed receiver in April, 1985, to collect the tenants’ rents and pay for utilities and repairs. The tenants were ordered to pay Stopher rents averaging 77% of what Esposito had charged, the reduced rate reflecting substandard living conditions.
But no payments were received in 1986 from rent strikers in 36 apartments until May 30, leading to motions in behalf of Esposito to hold the tenants in contempt of the court. On May 30, Stopher received a check for $37,385. On June 17, checks for another $8,097 were received, all in back payments.
For the tenants who remain on strike in the 36 apartments, payments were $2,700 per month less than the reduced amount ordered by the court, Stopher said. For 1986, tenants have paid an average of 63% of the rents originally set by Esposito.
Stopher said Friday that he has yet to receive any of the $12,099 in payments that were due on June 1.
On Friday, Spix criticized Stopher’s finding that all but one apartment was habitable. Arguing that rents should be lowered, Spix said the buildings lack security and several are infested with vermin and rodents.
Carr responded, “Why are they asking the court at this time to authorize a rent reduction when they’ve already done it themselves?”
Won’t Reduce Rents
Scoville denied the motion to reduce rents.
Stopher’s office pays utility bills and contractors directly from the receiver’s fund. An accountant in that office said Friday that he has “bills on my desk right now that I don’t have the money in the bank to pay.”
Esposito said that renters in 15 apartments now are paying full rents directly to him. Last October he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge relating to substandard conditions at his West Brook Street apartments. Esposito settled the case, brought by Santa Ana building inspectors, for $70,000.
But Spix and leaders of the rent strike against Esposito criticized the settlement, saying the landlord should have been sent to jail. Spix said the outcome would serve only as a “minimal deterrent” because other landlords would simply figure the price of potential fines into the costs of doing business.