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Revenge of the Renters

[whitespace] Heller Way Heller Hole: Residents of this dead-end street in east San Jose are taking their landlord to court.

Christopher Gardner

Heller Way is Mr. Wong's neighborhood. That is, Allen Wong owns almost all of it. For years, his tenants have asked him to fix things up. Now they're suing for $1 million.

By Stephanie Mejia

ON RAINY NIGHTS, Jorge Rocha and his brother slept on a shared bed covered with plastic bags to protect themselves from the yellow drops of water that fell from cracks in the ceiling. Next to them, his mother and sister slept in another bed, also covered in plastic. Their east San Jose house dribbled on them like that for three years, leaving dingy yellow stains on the family's furniture and clothes.

"Our room leaked the worst," says Rocha, 22, whose grandmother, aunt and cousin slept in two other rooms. "I remember we had to put pots and pans on the floor. Inside the pots we would put rags so that you wouldn't hear the clink when the water hit."

Finally their landlord, Allen Wong, repaired the old and shabby roof. Then he raised the rent from $845 to $945.

"We'd be afraid to tell him about things that needed to be fixed because after he'd fix them he'd raise the rent," Rocha says.

Recently Rocha moved out of Wong's building to a house less than a mile away, thus ending his family's stay on Heller Way, a blighted, dead-end street near the intersection of Alum Rock Avenue and King Road.

There are 14 houses on Heller Way; all but two belong to Allen Wong. On Heller Way, houses stand shoulder to shoulder, crowding one another. Cars swamp the small court, parked bumper to bumper, devouring the sidewalk. In this mostly poor, Latino community, tenants wage war against taggers, painting over graffiti on their fences only to find them tagged again within less than a week. At night young kids and teenagers crowd the court so that driving through the street becomes hazardous. Rocha can recall a few times when returning home was impossible due to police blockades.

Six months ago, a group of Heller Way tenants began to have meetings at nearby San Antonio Elementary School, right next to the brand-new $32 million Mexican Cultural Heritage Gardens and Plaza. Frustrated with the condition of their houses, six of them decided the legal system might have a remedy for their neighborhood's condition. They found an attorney and sued Allen Wong and his son Gilbert Wong for $1 million, alleging numerous housing code violations and substandard living conditions in the duplexes.

"It's a slumlord operation where there is mold all over the place, the stoves have no ventilation, the wall heaters don't function, there are cockroaches, rats," says the Heller tenants' attorney, Robert David Baker. His complaint further alleges that Wong's properties suffer from "defective foundations, weakness of structural supports, lead paint, deterioration of flooring and walls causing leaking and mold, electrical violations, broken windows, unsafe doors and windows for security purposes, lack of insulation in the walls and ceiling, improper placement of gas devices, and various municipal and county code violations."

Ruben Velazquez, a Heller Way resident, says residents complained to the city's code enforcement department, but the problems were never sufficiently investigated. Often, he says, when city inspectors order repairs, the Wongs make temporary or cheap repairs to avoid the fines. Meanwhile, he says, the homes continue to deteriorate.

JUANITA BACA, code enforcement officer for the area, says Wong has received numerous notices of code violations, but he has avoided fines by completing repairs on time. Nevertheless, Baca understands why tenants are complaining.

"There was non-maintenance," she says, "but I've seen worse."

Allen and Gilbert Wong refused to comment on the lawsuit, but their lawyer, Nicolas Palumbo, calls the suit unfounded. "There is no evidence to support [the tenants'] position," he says. "The buildings were maintained on an ongoing basis."

What the Heller tenants' suit is really about, Palumbo says, is poverty and an inflated housing market that is not his client's problem.

"They are claiming that because they are low-income, my client shouldn't be able to charge the rent he is," Palumbo argues. "My client is providing a service at a contractual rate; if they don't like the service, they can leave."

The Velazquez family claims their home has never been repaired in 22 years. Sylvia Velazquez says her roof has leaked for 20 years. It wasn't until mid-1998 after the El Niño storms that Wong began repairing some of the defects in the Velazquez home, including a hole the size of a softball in the main bedroom floor.

According to Ruben Velazquez, 21, the hole had been there for about 10 years.

"We were covering it with furniture and a rug," he says.

In order to improve the look of the Velazquez house, Wong recently painted it. These improvements to their home were the first in many years, and tenants attribute it to the pressure of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit represents the frustrations of a neighborhood that has grown tired of blight and crime.

"I remember my grandma telling me the neighborhood was known as 'Sal Si Puedes' before we even moved in there," Rocha says. An expression used to describe the plight of Cesar Chavez and the farm workers, "Sal Si Puedes" (Get Out If You Can) represents a struggle of poor immigrants for justice.

When construction began on the recently completed Mexican Cultural Heritage Gardens and Plaza, Heller Way residents hoped it might be a sign the city planned to focus more attention on their corner of the city. Three nearby homes were knocked down to make way for the center's parking lot. The families living in them were relocated, which Heller Way tenants saw as quite good fortune.

Richard Rios, deputy director of the Redevelopment Agency, says there were 10 families living in the three homes and the condition of the houses was "terrible."

According to San Jose city attorney Joan Gallo, there are no other plans to further alter the struggling neighborhood, nor are there any plans for the city to get involved in the Heller Way suit, no matter that it's a block from a $32 million city investment. Just two miles south of Heller Way, the city of San Jose established a program it calls "Project Crackdown" that focused city code inspectors, police and other resources to eliminate blight in the area. Some Heller Way tenants are holding out hope that such a program could spruce up their neighborhood. Until then, the Heller Way tenants are fighting the Wongs on their own.

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From the April 8-14, 1999 issue of Metro.

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