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Houses of Horror

drawing
Mott Jordan

Some landlords use the competition for rentals as an opportunity to pad their pocketbooks by infringing on tenants' rights

By Mary Spicuzza

AFTER SEVERAL MONTHS of house-hunting, I stopped looking for that perfect, immaculate dream home and began scrambling for a place with four walls and housemates who weren't certifiably insane. I settled for an overpriced room in a good location and put up the down payment, relieved that my search was finally over.

That feeling quickly drained out of me.

Right after I handed over almost $600 for a security deposit, my live-in landlord told me how excited he was to have such a "cute" tenant. He repeated this five times in the next 15 minutes. He said he was so happy to be able to live with such an "Italian bombshell." He assured me that after all of his sewing experience, he could guess my measurements.

My initial sense of calm was overridden by a skin-crawling desire to vomit, although others who know him assured me he's a nice guy who just has some boundary issues.

Firmly believing that was a new-agey way of saying he makes cowardly attempts at copping a feel, I quickly aborted plans to move in with The Hugger. After a week of vague promises, The Hugger decided he would be a nice guy and only keep $125 of my deposit as compensation for "tying up the property."

After conversations with other local renters, it's become clear that this brief encounter with a lecherous landlord is only a shadow of Santa Cruz tenant nightmares. Typical tales include exorbitant rents, unreturned security deposits, retaliatory evictions, and unlivable housing conditions ignored by landlords--stories that make The Amityville Horror look like a Disney film.

Get Outta Town

JIM LEAP MOVED INTO his Westside home in the summer of 1990. The Hebard Street house is a basic one-story '60s-style beach house that appears in deep need of repairs.

Leap, director of the UCSC Farm and Garden Project, lived there for seven years with his wife and child. The family paid rent on time and was always on good terms with the landlord.

Leap says that over the years he put his own money into repairing his rented home because his landlord, who declined to comment for this article, wouldn't.

This past June, Leap and his family received 30 days notice to vacate the premises.

"At first he said he was going to use the house for storage," Leap says. "When I asked him why he didn't just get a locker, he said they were all full, and that the remaining storage spaces were too expensive."

Faced with only one month to search for a new house, pack seven years' worth of gathered belongings and get the family resettled, Leap told his landlord he couldn't possibly be out by mid-July. Though not required to by law, Lockwood relented. He decided to give the family a break and let them stay until mid-November.

Leap says he appreciates the grace period, but still doesn't have a good feeling about the whole situation.

"During that time, his story changed several times," Leap says. "He said the house would be used for a family business--though he was very vague on the nature of the business. He then said a friend was going to rent part of the house.

"I don't think my landlord has done anything illegal. I just wish he would have been straightforward with me."

Many long-term, responsible tenants have been evicted from their homes in Santa Cruz recently as landlords attempt to capitalize on the sharp increases in local property values.

Responding to this trend, state Sen. Byron Sher (D-Redwood City) drafted a bill that would have outlawed the standard 30-day notice of eviction. Sher and others argued that 60 days is the minimum humane amount of time to give a tenant to relocate. The bill passed both the state Assembly and Senate but was vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson.

Skyrocketing rents are a much-discussed reality in Santa Cruz, which is regularly listed just below San Francisco and New York as the most expensive place to rent in the country.

Gary McNeil, staff attorney for the non-profit group Legal Aid, says the high prices are caused by the simple fact that the housing supply is short and the demand is strong. And he predicts that the situation will get worse.

"As the software industry in the valley builds, Santa Cruz will see increased numbers of people from San Jose competing for local housing," he says.

Jim Leap
Robert Scheer

A House Is Not a Home: After seven years in this Westside home, Jim Leap was given 30 days' notice to find a new place for his family.

The Students' Slumlord

'OUR OFFICE DEALS with a whole range of landlord-tenant issues. But what concerns me most these days is the current rent escalation in town," McNeil says. "People are getting squeezed out of housing market. Even though the market can bear it, these increases are extremely alarming. A lot of people that work and study in this county can't afford to live here anymore."

Sure, stories about the tough housing market here may be nothing new. Finding a place can take months, and most landlords now receive an enormous pile of applications for one rental property. But competition has gotten so stiff that the market also affects people who aren't even looking for housing.

"Some landlords are now going after long-standing, good tenants for flimsy reasons," McNeil says. "It's easier to rent a place for more money to new tenants than to double the rent on a stable, long-term resident with good standing."

Following their junior year, UCSC students Joe Lambro and Conan Knoll decided to set up a household with another college friend. After two months of constant searching and uncomfortable nights on friends' couches, the threesome settled for the only place offered to them--a small house on Rincon Street, on the Westside. Once settled into their new home, however, the young tenants realized their housing dilemma was far from over.

"I remember thinking that our landlord would just be difficult to deal with," Lambro says. "I got the impression he would try to get as much from us as he could."

Instead of renting the house under a single lease, Smith split it up with separate contracts. The three housemates had separate nine-month leases for their rooms, and each room required a $600 security deposit.

Lambro, who has since graduated and works as a social worker and tutor for Cabrillo College, explains there was a simple reason that led him and his friends to decide to rent the house anyway: "We needed a place, and the house was really all we could find."

Right after they moved in, Lambro says, another UCSC student who'd just moved out of the house came by to drop off a key. He said the landlord, Joel Smith, had given the household 30 days' notice, claiming he planned to renovate so he could move into the house.

Lambro and Knoll say Smith rented the rooms to them for $100 more a piece per month than the previous tenants had paid.

Lambro questions whether Smith had done any work on the house. "There were mildew stains all over the bathroom, and if you looked under the sink, you could see the rotting foundation of the house," he says. "The driveway was full of random junk. His broken refrigerator was sitting there surrounded by rusty baking shelves. He stored an old car in the garage and a truck in the driveway."

"The house was packed with his old, dirty furniture," Knoll adds.

When the student household requested that Smith's furniture be moved out of the house and into the garage, they were told the driveway and yards were not part of their deal.

"He said we paid just for the rooms, so we didn't have privileges to the driveway, garage or areas lining the sides of the house," Knoll says. "Neighbors complained about his junk in the driveway, so Smith piled his belongings into our back yard instead."

More problems arose over the students' winter break, when the house's water pipes broke. Lambro says he tried unsuccessfully to contact Smith for almost two weeks. "I had to stay in the Bay Area and commute to my job in Santa Cruz every day. Even after I spoke to Smith, it took him several days to come repair them."

In an effort to speak to him for this article, I called Smith more than 20 times. I never found him at home, and he failed to return any of the six messages I left on his voice mail.

When Joe Lambro gave notice, he arranged an inspection with Smith. The household spent several days cleaning in preparation, Lambro says. "Smith didn't show up until a couple weeks later. He kept $200 of my deposit because he said the oven was dirty and the carpets hadn't been steam-cleaned. But the house was in a lot better condition than when we moved in."

Knoll says that when he moved out, the landlord kept $150.

When Knoll visited the house several weeks later, he says, "I found a new group of student renters, all paying $100 more for each room than we had."

In a city where 40 percent of the populace rents homes, stories of tenant-landlord conflict are hardly unusual. Everyone in town seems to have experienced a bad living situation or provided a couch and sympathetic ear to a friend struggling through dealings with a rental nightmare or a househunting hell.

Home Court Advantage

MOST LANDLORDS ARE JUST like anyone else trying to make a living. But some see the housing crunch as an opportunity to make money. While renters often don't challenge what they perceive as unfair treatment, many do look to legal solutions.

Robin Gysin, a counselor at Consumer Affairs, says, "Our office handles 600 to 900 calls each month about housing. But some are just inquiries about tenant and landlord rights--not all lead to court cases."

Dorothy Kaemmerling and her son Gordon, who rent out rooms and studios in a house on Park Way, have been sued at least 20 times in the past 12 years.

In a 1996 case, plaintiffs Richard and Jeanne Provensen sued the Kaemmerlings and were awarded $800 after the municipal court decided their security deposit had been kept unfairly.

Another case involves a woman named Marianne Naegele, who admits to having a "weird feeling" about the Kaemmerlings before moving into her studio. "I wish I had gone with my gut instinct, but I have dogs," Naegele says. "It was nearly impossible to find a place that allows pets."

Naegele says she remembers numerous tenants who have been evicted since she moved in last December.

"At first I just believed what the Kaemmerlings said about the other people they've kicked out," she says with a sad smile. "The first man was told to leave after just a few weeks. Gordon accused him of defecating all over the bathroom. I figured the poor old man just had physical problems. But when another old man was accused of the same thing, as well as being an alcoholic, and they kept his security deposit too, I became pretty suspicious.

"I went to the police department to file a complaint about Gordon's behavior, then told Dorothy Kaemmerling I had considered filing a report. That same night I was given 30 days' notice," says Naegele, who believes she is facing a retaliatory eviction.

Dorothy Kaemmerling insists she has done nothing wrong. She says Naegele is going back on their initial agreement that the studio rental would be temporary--and points out that in this case, the court decided that the eviction was not retaliatory. She denies ever evicting the two elderly men, and says Naegele is "spreading falsehoods."

"Since I gave my tenant 30 days' notice she has caused me endless emotional problems. People have to understand it's not easy being a landlord," she says.

Kaemmerling says she's only had one other serious problem with a tenant in her 13 years of managing properties. But the city clerk's office has records of 33 cases involving the Kaemmerlings. Several lawsuits were brought by the Kaemmerlings against tenants, but most involve tenants trying to get security deposit refunds or fighting evictions.

Many tenants, in fact, are able to forestall eviction by bringing their landlords to court.

Sarah Miles, marketing director for New Leaf Community Markets, sought legal help after burst pipes left her computer and belongings soaked several times. According to court documents, Miles gave 30 days' notice in June 1996. But she says her landlady, Jeanne Jelcick, convinced her to stay with promises that the plumbing would be repaired and that she would receive $300 in rent compensation.

But Miles says the pipes were never fixed. Then Jelcick withheld the security deposit of a neighboring resident in the duplex, claiming she had to because Miles was suing her--though no such action had been taken. Both tenants took their landlady to court and won.

"I think my landlady tries to rent to students and young people--probably because she figures we are easier to take advantage of."

Though Jelcick filed a countersuit for character assassination and collusion, both Miles and her upstairs neighbor won again.

At press time, Jelcick had failed to return numerous faxes and phone calls.

As long as there are owners and renters, there will be conflicts between the two--and not many will involve evil landlords versus faultless tenants. Yet the increasingly competitive housing market here has done nothing to alleviate many landlords' perceptions that they have the upper hand in Santa Cruz.

It's no wonder so many have experienced a personal housing hell. With no market-based relief in sight, renters' only protection seems to be knowing their rights--or finding someone who does.

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From the Oct. 23-29, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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