A renter who has been fighting eviction and accused her landlord of subjecting her to dangerous and squalid living conditions lost her case in court Thursday.
Katherine—who has no job, no housing subsidy and asked to withhold her surname—has little more than a month to find a new apartment. Michael Lucich, her landlord, can now raise the rent-controlled unit to market rate and lease it to someone else.
“He’s putting people onto the street,” says Ly Huang, a friend of Katherine’s who has paid her rent since she lost her housing voucher last year.
Multiple tenants who live in the San Jose apartment building, located at 2125 Rexford Way, have labeled Lucich a “slumlord” in interviews with San Jose Inside. By measure of his repeated and egregious code enforcement violations, he fits the profile.
While he lives with his family in a multi-million dollar home in Los Gatos, Rexford Way tenants endure rodent and cockroach infestations, black mold, sewage leaks and hazardous electrical wiring.
As San Jose Inside reported earlier this week, Katherine accused Lucich of demanding rent hikes beyond the city’s 5 percent annual cap. She says he also retaliated against her by upping the rent after Huang confronted him about the illegal living conditions.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Carol Overton seemed sympathetic to Katherine’s plight in court. She even admonished Lucich for glowering at her during Thursday’s hearing.
But the judge ruled in the landlord’s favor on a technicality.
On paper, Katherine agreed to move out by June. The deal—signed after mediation earlier this year—tasked Lucich with exterminating vermin, eradicating the mold and fixing the electrical problems. It also gave Katherine a deadline to move out.
Katherine argued that she didn’t have to move because Lucich failed to live up to his end of the bargain. But the agreement she signed didn’t make her move-out contingent upon Lucich’s compliance.
“I wouldn’t have let them sign that agreement,” said Shaunn Cartwright, founder of the South Bay Tenants Union, who attended the eviction proceeding. “It was an ‘and’ agreement, not an ‘if.’ It said, basically, she will move and he will clean the apartment, not she will move if he cleans the apartment.”
Had Katherine’s answer to the complaint included her allegations that the eviction was retaliatory, Cartwright said, she might have won the case. But Katherine had no attorney. Though the Silicon Valley Law Foundation helped draft her answer to the complaint, she had only a friend to help her through the rest of the process.
“My biggest takeaway from this is that there’s not enough avenues for tenants,” Cartwright said. “Tenants can’t afford lawyers, but the landlords can.”
Hours after San Jose Inside published a report about Katherine’s situation on Tuesday, city inspectors issued nine citations for code enforcement violations in her unit and four violations on the building’s exterior.
They told Lucich he has to remove the mold, fix the heater, get rid of rats and replace the floor and kitchen counters, as well as the stove’s electrical outlet. And yet, despite Lucich failing to keep his 12-unit apartment on Rexford Way up to code, he prevailed in court.
Lucich has repeated the same pattern for nearly two decades, raising the question of how the landlord will ever be held accountable.
When tenants complain, they say, Lucich retaliates. Every few years, he cycles through tenants, which allows him to reset the lease cost of his rent-controlled building to market rates. According to interviews with tenants, some pay upward of $2,000 to live in hazardous, illegal conditions.
In April of this year, San Jose enacted new renter protections, including an ordinance that requires landlords to cite one of a dozen approved reasons for ousting a tenant. Part of the idea was to prevent landlords from evicting someone just so they could raise the rent, which Katherine believes is exactly what Lucich did to her.
Lucich has denied her claims and blamed the building’s dilapidated state on his tenants. He said maintenance and repairs take up about 15 percent of the $250,000 in annual revenue he makes from the rental property.
But several of Lucich’s tenants say they’ve lost faith in the city’s ability to protect them. Over the past two decades, their complaints haven’t gone far. Repeated requests for repairs have netted only perfunctory improvements. In 2015, water damage on the second story forced the city to red-tag a unit.
The California Health and Safety Code spells out a list of hazards that make a rental unfit for tenants. That includes a lack of electricity, water or heat. It also includes relatively minor issues, such as the dampness of a room. Under state housing law, the city has the authority to pursue criminal or civil remedies. The city also has the authority to seize properties, in some cases, to force landlords to remediate hazards.
In the late 1990s, the city cracked down on unscrupulous landlords in the low-income Santee neighborhood. In 2000, a judge sentenced San Jose landlord Linda Arciaga to house arrest, forcing her to live in the same slummy apartment as her tenants. Overton—before becoming a judge—was involved in that case, too, as a city attorney.
But in the years since, San Jose has refrained from escalating code enforcement issues to that extent. Instead, it essentially plays whack-a-mole with code enforcement. Repeat violators like Lucich can repeat the same cycle year after year. Diane Buchanan, a deputy division manager of Planning, Building and Code Enforcement, said civil and criminal remedies are considered a last resort.
“We do have the ability to issues criminal citations,” she said, “but that rarely happens. We have so many other enforcement tools that are usually effective. … Because, to be honest, people usually respond to being hit in the wallet.”
Mollie McLeod, the city’s code enforcement division manager, said the city has proactively dealt with repeat violators for decades. But in 2015, it adopted a new model in which landlords are ranked on a three-tiered scale to speed up inspection cycles for property owners with a higher number violations. Tier I apartments are inspected on a six-year cycle, Tier II on a five-year cycle and Tier III every three years. Previously, all properties were inspected on a six-year cycle.
Residents can check the service tier level of their apartment on an online database called the Multiple Housing Roster. Lucich’s Rexford Way building falls on Tier III, which means it gets inspected more often and more thoroughly. More than 2,300 units citywide fall on the third tier.
McLeod said the city is working on bolstering its enforcement. This week, she conducted interviews for three vacancies in her department. The city is also searching for a new department head and conducting a survey to find out what the community wants from the person who fills the position.
Meanwhile, San Jose kicked off the field trial phase of a project with the University of Chicago’s Center for Data Science and Public Policy, which could lead to further improvements and efficiencies. The study aims to answer two questions:
- Given the history of inspections and parcels in San Jose, which buildings should be inspected in the next month to catch the largest number of violations?
- And which buildings should be inspected in the next year to catch violations sooner?
“We’re really excited about this,” McLeod said. “Because we are focused on having a ‘smart city’ vision.”
As for Lucich, he has until Sept. 6 to correct the latest round of violations. If not, the case could go to an appeals hearing, where fines of $2,500 a day per violation could accumulate to as much as $100,000. The case could also be appealed to the Superior Court. Whether the city takes it that far remains to be seen.