Making the case that substandard housing is a public health issue, long-time tenant’s rights attorney Edie Sussman advocated for rent control and just cause eviction in her presentation to the Windsor Democratic Club on September 28. She noted that substandard living conditions can often lead to respiratory conditions, including asthma, and other health issues, which impact the level of health in our communities.
Ms. Sussman represented thirty- six former tenants of the Bennett Valley Townhomes in a lawsuit against the current and former owners of the property. The renters were low income, primarily Latino, some of whom were undocumented. The plaintiffs recently agreed to a Sonoma County record $2.7 million settlement. Frequent complaints by the tenants of mold and rodent infestation, as well as leaking roofs and defective plumbing and heating systems, were not addressed by the property managers.
The renters complained to the City of Santa Rosa Code Enforcement department, who after inspecting the property directed the owners to remediate the conditions in which the tenants were being forced to live. On the follow-up visit, the Code Enforcement officer signed off on the complaints without physically inspecting the property after the managers told him that the problems had been corrected. This proved to be untrue and the tenants joined together in seeking legal assistance from Ms. Sussman, who has been involved in this aspect of legal practice since the mid- 1980’s. She applauded the courage of the tenant group who persevered through the hardships of the long process.
In addition to the financial award to the tenants, Ms. Sussman noted several other positive outcomes to the case. The city of Santa Rosa, which had reduced the number of code enforcement personnel because of budget reductions caused by the 2008 recession, has significantly increased those numbers. The city is now working to create a program of yearly inspections to all rental properties to ensure that adequate standards are being met. A rental inspection program, if implemented in Santa Rosa, may become a model for the entire county.
Ms. Sussan feels that the city of Santa Rosa is way out in front of other county municipalities and the county itself on the issue of substandard housing. She is optimistic that a rent control measure and a just cause eviction proposition will be on the 2018 ballot in Santa Rosa. With the very tight county housing market driving rent increases, low-income renters are forced to accept substandard, fringe housing because the alternative is seen as eviction and inability to find another living place.
The Windsor club meets next on Thursday, October 26, at 7 p.m. The speaker will be Captain Mark Essick, a candidate for the office of Sonoma County Sheriff.
— Barry Hirsch