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By Henrietta J. Burroughs                  Follow East Palo Alto Today on
East Palo Alto Today                         Facebook    Twitter         Blog    
April 30, 2014                              
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Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto sued one of the U.S.' largest publicly-traded landlords, Equity Residential, on behalf of three East Palo Alto tenants. The lawsuit was filed this past Monday in the San Mateo County Superior Court on behalf of Gabriel Mendez, his wife, Ana Rubio, and his father Leonardo Mendez.

In their complaint, the three said they were forced to vacate an apartment unit in the Woodland Park Apartments, because they had to live with “cockroaches, severe mold, dampness and other unsafe and unhealthy conditions.”

The apartment complex is part of the 1,811 rental units Equity Residents owns in East Palo Alto and it is located between Highway 101 and Palo Alto on the west side of the city. These rental units house many of Silicon Valley’s low-income families.

Mendez and his family moved out of their apartment in October 2013, citing “uninhabitable living conditions, stress and the lack of security.”

Mendez said, “We tried everything we could, but Equity Residential never took our complaints seriously. As a parent, I want to provide a healthy home for my kids.  That’s not what we got from Equity Residential…. We didn’t want to leave, but I couldn’t continue to put my family at risk.”

Larisa Bowman, a housing attorney at CLSEPA said, “The severity, scope, and duration of the conditions in this Equity Residential home are a particularly egregious example of the company’s failure to provide tenants with a safe and healthy place to live. Both the prior landlord and Equity Residential neglected this family for years by refusing to make necessary repairs, even after they were cited for numerous problems.”

In a printed statement, Bowman wrote, “City inspectors found a cockroach infestation, severe mold and dampness, windows that were not weatherproofed or did not lock, and many other conditions that violated state and local health and safety codes, according to the complaint.”

The complaint the legal agency filed alleges that Equity Residential’s failure to repair a faulty gate led to two assaults and a robbery at the property.  Ken Greenstein, a partner at Greenstein & McDonald, the San Francisco law firm, which filed the complaint jointly with CLSEPA, stated that Leonardo Mendez suffered a violent assault in the complex’s driveway because of the faulty gate that left him permanently blind in one eye.

CLSEPA and Greenstein’s law firm are seeking the following in damages:

"A. For general damages, in the amount of $500,000.00 for each Plaintiff for each of the following Causes of Action: the First, Third, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Causes of Action; 
B. For special damages, in the amount of $100,000.00 for each Plaintiff for each of the following Causes of Action: the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, Twelfth and Thirteenth Causes of Action; 
C. For punitive damages of $5,000,000.00 against the EQR Defendants and $300,000 against REDUS WOODLAND, LLC; 
D. For incidental damages, past, present and future, according to proof, 
E. For rental reimbursement of $80,000 or in an amount according to proof, plus interest;
F. For statutory damages of $5,000.00 for each violation of Civil Code section 1942.4"

In talking about the lawsuit, Bowman said that she and her colleagues at CLSEPA get a lot of complaints about the same problems the Mendez family experienced. She stated that Equity Residential’s policies are causing mass displacements from their rental complex, a situation that brought many lawsuits against the complex’s former owners, Page Mill Properties.

She cited, for example, Equity Residential’s lease arrangement with tenants, which allows tenants to pay their rent 5 days after its due date on the first of the month, with a $50.00 late penalty. However, tenants are not told that under state law, the company can proceed to evict them on the second day after the rent is due, which the company has been accused of doing with a number of tenants.

While the company’s policies aren’t illegal, Bowman said that they are unfair. According to Bowman, “It’s not a pretty picture when people are losing their homes.”

Many of the complex’s former residents have moved to such areas as Tracy, Modesto, Salinas and even out-of-state.

As of this writing representatives for Equity Residential have not been formally served with the lawsuit and they have not been reachable for comment.

 

To reach Henrietta J. Burroughs, the author of this article, send an email to epatoday@epatoday.org