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08.12.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Curtis Cartier
not breathing easy: Mission Gardens resident Pat Colby supports the complex's new anti-smoking rules but says other restrictions go too far.

Tenets for Tenants

Bay Area management company lays down the law for residents of its Santa Cruz apartments.

By Curtis Cartier


WHAT DO ball games, bathrobes, squirt guns, skateboards, dirty clothes, smoking, hanging laundry, bare feet, pajamas, barbecues and video cameras all have in common? They're all soon to be prohibited in some way from common areas at the Mission Gardens Apartments in Santa Cruz.

Beginning Sept. 1, the Westside apartment complex will join more than 40 other properties supervised by Bay Area management firm the John Stewart Company in mandating what some argue are an unreasonable number of rules and regulations for its tenants to live by. Out of the 14-page, 85-rule tome of directives recently delivered to Mission Gardens residents, some, like an indoor and outdoor smoking ban, have supporters and opponents arguing passionately on both sides. But others, like a rule against children playing with balls, or another requiring that all clothes worn in common areas be clean, have few fans. Some of them may, in fact, be illegal.

"There seems to be this trend by apartment complexes, especially by the John Stewart Company, toward imposing a lot of different rules on peoples' conduct," says Gretchen Regenhardt, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance. "I'm not sure what the point is, other than to have an extreme amount of control over the people that live there. And when it comes to rules like kids not being allowed to play with balls, we're of the opinion that that's discriminatory against people with children, and it's against the law."

The scene at Mission Gardens is tense. In one corner of the root beer-- and chocolate-colored, two-story complex, kids ride plastic bicycles around the parking lot while parents like Marjorie Jackson and Craig Akey smoke near the sidewalks and watch. A feud over smoking has pitted these neighbors and others against another pair of tenants in an angry, and at times childish, quarrel over who has the right to smoke and where. Yet both sides seem to agree that some of the new rules are senseless, and both say they're willing to pay a lawyer to help them prove their point.

"I have severe asthma, glaucoma and sleep apnea, and secondhand smoke coming through the vents and windows has caused me to have to wear a gas mask in my own home. Banning smoking is something they have to do, or I could actually die," says Pat Colby, who has been actively involved in getting management to ban smoking. "But some of the rules are just overboard. They don't care about the health of the residents, it's about the money."

"The money," as Colby and many neighbors believe, is savings on insurance. Apartment complexes can get major discounts for banning things such as barbecues on balconies. Yet Dave Miller, a local insurance agent with Battistini & Canfield, says that besides prohibiting barbecues, specific rules don't carry as much weight as the overall appearance of the complex when it comes to insurance breaks. Concerns about the appearance may be behind the requirements that tenants be clean-clothed and their balconies laundry-free.

Managers at the John Stewart Company are evasive when questioned about the reasons for and the legality of their rules. The only comments from the company came from Regional Manager Keri Swenson, who claims that Mission Gardens and other JSCO properties merely enforce guidelines handed down by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Yet officials at HUD deny that the department has any power to make such rules and that the landlord is solely responsible for establishing a code of conduct. "HUD does not publish house rules. Any conduct rules are made between the property owner and the tenants," says Ken Cole, executive director of Housing Authority of the County of Santa Cruz. "Blaming the government is a popular option for people, and I'm not surprised someone would want to blame us."

Some argue that tenants who don't like the rules should simply move someplace else. Picking an apartment, however, is not as simple as choosing a restaurant or a pair of shoes. Rules are usually disclosed during lease-signing and seldom become a make-or-break point in what, by that time, has typically been an exhausting process. Not to mention that folks like Colby, who are receiving Housing Choice Vouchers from HUD--commonly known as Section 8 vouchers--have to go through other steps to qualify to transfer to a new residence.

Robin Gysin, a coordinator with Santa Cruz County Consumer Affairs, specializes in landlord and tenant issues. She occupies the middle ground between tenants and landlords and says both, at the end of the day, are just protecting their bottom line.

"I think from the management point of view, they think they're just being careful, and from the residents' point of view, they think they don't have any freedoms," says Gysin. "I get calls from residents saying, 'My kid can't play outside,' and I get calls from landlords who are worried about safety. Essentially, if it's not illegal, a private landlord can establish almost any rule. But if there are questions whether the rules are legal, tenants can certainly pursue that in court."


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