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Treasure Island’s mold monster, Part 2: Damian shows how renters can get what they want from a realtor or manager

June 12, 2014

by Carol Harvey

What follows is a series of tricks and traps realtors can use to intimidate or confuse a renter in order to deprive him or her of repairs, maintenance, security and enjoyment of his or her home. These maneuvers include denying a problem exists, bullying, kicking the problem downstairs, bringing in experts, blaming the victim and presenting unworkable solutions. Damian counters each maneuver and obtains his goal every time.

Stone cold ‘remediation’

When Damian moved into his second apartment, evidence of negligence abounded. He still holds the blank document mandating John Stewart conduct a pre-move-in inspection. This safety check John Stewart operatives failed to conduct might have detected mold’s presence. Shampooing the carpets would have beat back a mold incursion, but this had not been done.

Damian Ochoa smiling by Carol Harvey

Damian Ochoa – Photo: Carol Harvey

When he returned from work at 8:00 p.m. on move-in day, wide open windows invited intruders to climb into his ground level apartment. Damian filed complaints with Dan Stone, Villages property manager, about belongings movers damaged.

The June 2011 discovery of mold in his second unit proved that the fungus was alive and well all over Treasure Island. Damian learned from Stone that these military units were constructed in Virginia in the ‘60s or ‘70s after a cookie-cutter model. Designers didn’t consider that the structures would be used in the warm California climate on an island surrounded by water. Did Stone’s information and his control over all John Stewart Villages rental units suggest that he was fully aware Treasure Island’s mold problem was endemic?

Deny! Deny! Deny!

After he visited Damian’s home with maintenance, Stone sent a letter stating there was no mold – nothing out of the ordinary.

Another nine months passed. Damian didn’t notice much more than windowsill mold, commonplace on the warm, humid island.

However, in summer 2012, mold stormed back all over everything in force. Damian contacted Stone again. “I told him he needed to deal with it.”

“Stone came out. I showed him my clothing – my shoes. He said, ‘There’s an issue.’”

Victim blaming

Stone’s helpful suggestion: “You need to air out the place.”

Damian rolled his eyes, “Look. When I’m home, all the windows are open. When we take showers, it’s aired out. You need to do something about it.”

Kick it downstairs

Stone sent a newly hired assistant property manager, not brought up to speed on Damian’s situation. She made mistakes and, after remediation specialists tested, she said there was absolutely no issue. She was fired in less than two months.

Bring in ‘experts’

Next, Stone hauled in Bob, mold remediation company owner. Bob’s assessment cost $1,500.

“My partner and I already knew,” said Damian sardonically. “It’s common sense. You don’t have to be a specialist to realize where some of this mildew and mold may be coming from. Maybe if the sprinkler system wouldn’t be hitting our bedroom wall,” he opined. “Maybe if they had gutters – something that would drain [the mold] away from the building so it doesn’t seep down into the foundation.

“You know, simple things like that.”

Bob, the mold remediation ‘expert’ took Damian’s suggestion. He moved the sprinkler.

After Bob cut out the rug and the padding in the master bedroom closet, Damian reported $400 in wardrobe damage – “clothes and things that I have to throw out.”

I pointed out this was the second property damage incident. “Exactly,” said Damian. In January 2014, Damian received a $440 settlement.

Though he never received a report from Bob about his $1,500 consultation, Damian considered the mold issue resolved.

“Probably the end of February, beginning of March 2014 – I noticed (mold) was back again.”

Avoidance

“I contacted Dan, and, to my surprise (not really),” said Damian, “he was – ‘Well, I’m at a loss of what else to do.’”

Stone’s leaving negotiations open-ended did not sit well with Damian. “I know the laws,” Damian growled. “I know what property management is supposed to do. It’s their legal obligation to rectify the situation and get to the bottom of it. That’s on them.”

‘Empafuck’: empathetic noncooperation

“I don’t know where it’s coming from,” Stone told Damian. “Why don’t you think about some things maybe that we can do, and I’ll brainstorm it, and let’s get back together on this.”

I found somewhat amusing Stone’s tactic of “brainstorming together” with a trained negotiator and communications expert on how to fend off the mold invasion Stone was well aware had arrived.

Laughed Damian, “M-hm. ‘I don’t know what else to do! I’m at such a loss!’ ‘I just need your thoughts on this,’ I said, smiling.”

A consistent way of dealing with things

Before Damian left for vacation, he consulted with Mirian Saez, director of Treasure Island operations, whom he knows “in a professional and a personal capacity.” Saez promised to follow up with Stone. She told Damian to call her when he returned.

Damian left just after Treasure Island’s massive Fire Fighter Station 48 mold problem broke in San Francisco headlines. He returned during the hullabaloo around San Francisco Chronicle’s Marisa Lagos Sunday, April 20, 2014, interviews with Island residents Kathryn Lundgren and Sandy Agee, headlined Mold Becomes Latest Health Concern on Treasure Island.”

Another Treasure Island resident, Sandy Agee, shows a Chronicle reporter the problems that arose after her bathroom flooded. – Photo: Lea Suzuki, San Francisco Chronicle

Another Treasure Island resident, Sandy Agee, shows a Chronicle reporter the problems that arose after her bathroom flooded. – Photo: Lea Suzuki, San Francisco Chronicle

Damian reported that Saez told him, “There needs to be a consistent way of dealing with things. If there’s mold in one unit, then property management needs to treat it the same.”

Bottom line, Damian wants the mold eradicated. He wants the security of knowing it’s safe and healthy for his partner and him to inhabit their unit.

“And, I want everybody on the island – with John Stewart (market rate renters) or (renters subsidized by) Rubicon Villages or Catholic Charities or CHP or at FOTEP with HealthRight 360 or Swords to Plowshares – treated the same and their concerns addressed appropriately. That has not happened and still is not happening on the island.”

I added, we do have assurances that Mirian Saez feels that should be the case. “Absolutely,” said Damian.

He believes that, if Saez’ plan was to treat everyone equally, John Stewart would offer the same arrangement they gave the Lundgren family: temporary relocation off the island until they eradicated mold from the unit.

You do not want to leave your second home again, right? “Absolutely.”

Even a temporary remediation move would disrupt their lives. He and his partner have a fish, kitten and part feral cat living inside and outside. Mod works full time. Damian is looking to go back to work.

“I’m also not going to just trust that I’m going to leave my unit with all my stuff and let random people come in and out of there not knowing what they’re doing.”

So the optimum would have been to provide you off-island temporary shelter with access to your apartment so you could monitor the remediation process?

“Absolutely! But that is NOT what happened,” reported Damian.

While Damian waited for Saez’s call, Dan Stone phoned. He’d talked to Mirian.

Bullying

Stone announced, “It doesn’t matter if you go to Mirian or Jeff Koehler (his boss.) Bottom line is I’m the property manager, and everything comes back down to me. So, I wanted to have a conversation with you and how we’re going to deal with this.”

Stone folded. John Stewart would pick up the $3,000 tab for replacing the carpeting with vinyl.

Unworkable solutions

“If that didn’t eradicate the issue, then [Dan] was going to ask us not to use the bottom space in our closet and deduct it from the rent every month.”

What?! This “solution” seemed a contorted contrivance.

“It may protect my shoes, but it doesn’t cure the mold,” said Damian.

More bullying

Stone informed Damian that if he and Mod wanted the vinyl to match the kitchen, the entryway and the washroom, they would pay out of pocket. The vinyl expert arrived, quoting $1,745.

“I am not paying a penny. I don’t own this property,” said Damian.

Deferring costs to victim

Another component of Stone’s unworkable deal was that he never offered to hire a moving company to pack and move the furniture in Damian’s unit.

“I’m not doing that either,” said Damian. “I need to be compensated. Or you need to bring in movers, and I need to supervise.”

After Damian’s adamant “request,” Stone offered a moving company.

Not steamrollered

Increasingly impatient, Damian ticked off hardball enforcements he could use: filing a Department of Public Health complaint and inviting Building Inspection to report and issue sanctions on John Stewart.

“We’re going on next month THREE YEARS in this new unit that I’ve been bringing up this (mold) issue. It’s still not resolved to my satisfaction.”

Damian’s refusal to be steamrollered ultimately protected him from paying tile or furniture removal costs.

Pacifying

Damian believed Stone would not have offered this $3,000 vinyl job had Saez not spoken with him.

He felt Dan was trying to pacify him, hoping that replacing the old carpet with this new $3,000 vinyl job would keep Damian content, so he’d “be quiet, go away and play nice. That’s not the type of person that I am.” Damian is “all about holding people accountable. People shouldn’t be in positions if they’re not able to do their jobs.”

If this vinyl doesn’t abate the mold, Damian will keep addressing the issue until it’s resolved. He is “not going away with this.”

Why spend money on mold? The buildings will be torn down

Damian bottom-lined the situation: “I truly believe that TIDA and John Stewart … don’t want to keep throwing a bunch of money on these rental properties because they keep anticipating that the island is going to be redeveloped. And the area where it’s all housing is going to be torn down and be an estuary. So, why keep spending thousands and thousands of dollars on all these issues.”

The problem is people live there, I said. “Exactly,” he said.

Help with medical bills: public health nurse

We’re reaching critical mass in the numbers of people having mold reactions. What about hope for help on medical bills?

Damian thought TIDA and Mirian Saez made a good move funding two free public health nurses to the Ship Shape building or the YMCA, addressing residents’ urgent care needs.

Now residents can tell this nurse assertively about mold and their health concerns without worrying about medical costs, traveling to see a San Francisco physician or retaliation.

Damian strongly encouraged people to report illnesses so the nurse officially documents the many wheezing and coughing people. By tracking sick people two days a week, documenting their illnesses can aid in developing an epidemiological study. That way, there will be a clear picture of how many residents are impacted. “Yes.” he said.

What about retaliation?

Damian is clear that people should feel their home is a safe, healthy place. We agreed that, if parents’ and their children’s health is compromised or damaged, they should not be retaliated against for going to management and asking them to fix unsafe conditions.

“People need to practice good self-care, know how to advocate for themselves.”

“Many people out here that come from different programs, that are on subsidized housing feel this is a ghetto and people were just thrown out here because there was no other place for them in the late ‘90s. That’s exactly how it started out.

“There were talks around joining that law suit from Oakland to address problems with radiation, mold and mildew. Then that didn’t happen. People just feel defeated over and over again. So people just accept what is, and they do not move forward.”

He emphasized that fear paralysis people. “You know,” he said, “The word FEAR stands for ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’ and ‘Fuck Everything And Run.’

“Do not let fear keep you trapped where you’re not happy and not getting your issues addressed,” advised Damian. “You have your children to keep in mind.”

Submit maintenance work order requests – document!

In submitting maintenance work order requests on ongoing issues that haven’t been addressed, Damian is adamant, “Email it, text it, whatever you have to do.

“Document! Document! Document! If it’s not documented, it didn’t happen.”

Yes, I said. Write it down, date it. Describe it. Keep copies of it; share those copies.

Tell the nurse what’s going on.

Should people go to their providers and talk about it?

“Yes! Absolutely!” said Damian. “The island social service agencies are here to advocate, to role model, to support people, meet the person where they’re at and work in a partnership with people.”

What if people fear retaliation and eviction if they complain about maintenance problems in their homes?

“If you feel that you’re being retaliated against,” said Damian, “you document.”

California state law bars landlords from retaliating against renters for asking for maintenance or repairs. Take photos or video to prove the repair is a necessity.

Two agencies that can help

Need solid info on tenants’ rights? The San Francisco Housing Rights Committee and Tenants Union provide excellent information.

The Housing Rights Committee’s free hotline, 415-703-8634, “offers counseling to San Francisco tenants four days a week – Monday through Thursday, 1-5 p.m., at the HRC office at 417 South Van Ness at 15th. Counseling is free, though donations are always welcome. Please bring in proof of income – pay stub, SSI or food stamp card etc. – because SFHRC needs to document this for a grant we receive that helps us keep the counseling program free of charge.”

Everyone deserves a life worth living

I asked Damian whether his focus on Mirian Saez’ observation that “this should be fair for everyone” comes from his background, work as a therapist, emphasis on social justice.

“Absolutely!” he said. “The clients I’ve served – they’re survivors. The end result I want to see is that everybody has a life worth living.”

Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at carolharveysf@yahoo.com.

 

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One thought on “Treasure Island’s mold monster, Part 2: Damian shows how renters can get what they want from a realtor or manager

  1. David Kaye

    If people are suffering health problems from mold or other issues, they should MOVE if they don’t feel they’re getting results. But most people who feel they are affected WON’T move because they’re sue-happy. If I had health issues and felt they were the result of where I was living, and hadn’t gotten satisfaction, I’d MOVE and then deal with any legal issues later. I think people are stupid to stick around if their health is at risk. All we have in life are our friends and our health. The rest doesn’t matter.

    I agree that it’s important to document things; a bound book (with sewn-in pages) where people can hand write their entries with date and time is the very best way to go. Make notes in chronological order and never remove any pages. This is the kind of diary that will hold up in a court of law.

    In my own personal experience I’ve had no negative issues with TI’s management or John Stewart’s management. Both have been stellar. When there have been issues such as lack of heat (broken heating system that couldn’t be fixed for a week in the winter), they provided free space heaters for each housemate to use. When the oven temperature regulation went wacko, they provided a brand new stove. When the original (1950s) linoleum was showing signs of wear, they tore it all out and replaced it, a job they were able to do in less than 6 hours. When it appeared that raccoons got into the ceiling and started making scratching noised, they were on-site within 3 hours. When the front door threshold between the hallway linoleum and the outside came loose and caused a tripping problem, they fixed it within 2 hours.

    One thing of note is that our household have ALWAYS approached JSCo management in a friendly, professional manner, and we have ALWAYS gotten the same friendly, professional manner in return from them.

    Reply

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