Ahead of rent-control vote, eviction spree hits tenants

Fearing locked-in prices, landlords seek to oust below-market renters

by Mark Noack / Mountain View Voice 

Uploaded: Fri, Nov 4, 2016, 1:11 pm 

Time to read: about 6 minutes

For Elized Ramirez, this is a time of uncertainty, when her longstanding financial planning has been thrown into limbo. In that regard, she has something in common with the landlord who is evicting her family.

Any day now, the mother fears her family of five is going be kicked out of their Clark Avenue apartment, where they've lived for 12 years. She fears her family won't find a comparable home nearby. She fears her children will be pulled out of school and placed in a new district. She fears that she and her husband will have to take on second and third jobs, respectively, to afford a new home in Mountain View.

"We just don't know what we will do," Ramirez said. "We weren't expecting this would all happen so soon."

Two months ago, the property manager at their Clark Avenue apartment knocked on the door and handed Ramirez a 60-day eviction notice. No reason was given, and the property manager refused Ramirez's offer to pay a rent increase or her request to give the family more time. She later learned that at least three other households in the same apartment complex received similar notices, all in the same week.

The evictions are being carried out just days ahead of the Nov. 8 election in which Mountain View voters will decide on two separate rent-control initiatives, measures V and W. If either measure passes, Mountain View apartment tenants will receive eviction protections as well as some level of assurance that there will be limits on annual rent increases.

But for the Ramirez family and other evicted tenants, either measure would have effectively locked in apartment rents significantly below the market rate. This possibility appears to have spurred the property owners into firing off a spree of eviction notices. Once they are vacated, the apartments can be immediately rented out at any price the market will bear.

Members of the Mountain View Tenants Coalition, the group advocating for Measure V, say they have been notified of 13 such evictions across the city, but they believe the real number is probably much higher. They point to the capricious nature of the new evictions as evidence that tenants need the safeguards provided by rent control.

"This is exactly why we need Measure V -- to prevent speculators from bidding up the price of apartment buildings and raising rents on longtime residents to pay for it," said Daniel DeBolt, a volunteer serving as the spokesman for the Tenants Coalition. "Mountain View's hard-working families should not have to pay such a terrible price for poor investment decisions."

The anxiety of being evicted hits home for DeBolt, who said he recently learned that he, too, was being evicted. After nine years in his rented house, his landlord wouldn't give him a reason for the eviction, DeBolt said.

Ramirez and her family say they aren't sure what's going to happen now, but the last two months have been extremely stressful. One downstairs neighbor has already moved out. But on Monday, Oct. 31 -- the day they were supposed to be out -- Ramirez's family was still living in the apartment, although they had several bags packed with their belongings in case they had to leave abruptly.

That evening, Ramirez's 8-year-old daughter Yexalen pranced around the living room in her princess costume, blissfully oblivious to her family's troubles. She left to go trick-or-treating with a group of children who were chaperoned by a neighbor.

Once her daughter was out the door, Ramirez exhaled and her frustrations came pouring out. She fumed about her kitchen's faulty stove, the water leaks and the rats that her family could hear scurrying in the walls at night. It was tacitly understood that complaining about these issues meant management would pass along any costs through a rent increase, so the residents mostly stayed mum, she said.

The Voice's efforts to reach the owners of the apartment complex in the 900 block of Clark Avenue were not successful. The 12-unit apartment complex is owned by Sambuceto Partners, a limited-liability corporation that lists a San Jose attorney as the only contact. That attorney didn't return calls for comment.

Ramirez works for a food-services contractor at the Google campus. Her husband is a cook at Applebee's who moonlights doing landscaping jobs. Yet they say they can't afford renting another two-bedroom apartment in Mountain View without dipping into their savings and abandoning their dream to some day own a home in Kentucky, where their relatives live. Right now, their best option is to put their possessions in a storage unit and live out of a hotel, she said.

More than anything else, Ramirez said, her top priority was to keep Yexalen and her 16-year-old son Juan Ignacio in the same school district. Her son is getting good grades, taking three AP classes during his critical junior year of high school, but he admits he has been losing focus since he learned his family was losing its home.

Hearing the news about evictions occurring throughout Mountain View, Mayor Pat Showalter said she was "horrified." She urged tenants facing displacement to contact the city's mediation group, Project Sentinel, to determine whether they are being treated lawfully.

"I find it deeply disturbing that landlords would evict tenants for no reason and wreak havoc on Mountain View families simply to avoid the possibility of a rent regulation measure," Showalter said. "I urge landlords to be respectful of the impact of their actions on hard-working and well-behaved tenants."

Getting an eviction notice was similarly heartbreaking for Martin Cortez, a single father who has lived for 11 years in a two-bedroom apartment on Del Medio Avenue. Unlike the Ramirez family, Cortez said he had a good personal relationship with the property owners, Paul and Ann Lethers, a friendly Fremont couple who would drop by almost every week to perform maintenance on the building. Years ago, when the market was tilted in favor of renters, the couple even invited their tenants out to a barbecue at their house.

How different things are now, Cortez said, unfolding the eviction notice the couple gave him and three other longtime tenants earlier this month. When they handed him the notice, they were deeply apologetic, even crying at points, he said.

But the Lethers couple, who have since rescinded some of the evictions, explained at the time that they had no other choice. About one year earlier, they had reportedly taken out a sizable loan to purchase the adjacent 417 Del Medio Ave. apartments for $3.9 million. According to Cortez and other tenants who were interviewed, the Lethers made the purchase based on the assumption that rents would continue to rise at the dramatic pace of recent years. The news that a political groundswell in Mountain View was pushing for rent control blindsided them, and they said they needed to protect their new property from possible foreclosure.

While Cortez says he sympathizes with his landlords' situation, he has to think about his own family. He lives with his 19-year-old daughter, who is autistic and extremely sensitive to any changes. Using a different spice or utensil for dinner can set her off on a tantrum. Previously, she had run away from home over what might seem like small matters, he said. But losing her own room and sense of home would be catastrophic, and he fears he would need the police to intervene.

"I don't know what's going to happen; I don't know what I'm going to do," he said before learning that the eviction had been withdrawn. "Last night I had six nightmares that my life was falling apart. I'd wake up and fall back asleep again and it'd happen all over again."

When contacted by the Voice, the Lethers family declined to speak over the phone. In an email, they described themselves as a working-class family that had saved every penny to buy the apartments as a retirement nest egg.

They referred the Voice to their attorney, Todd Rothbard, who said his clients were an example of property owners who are being unfairly punished for keeping rent below the market rate. If rent control passes, he said, older "mom and pop" landlords will be stuck with low rents while larger firms controlling newer apartments built after 1995 will be free to do as they please. After hearing of the Lethers family's situation, Rothbard said, he advised them that their only recourse was to evict their older tenants to bring those units up to the market price.

But on Monday, two weeks after the evictions were served, the Lethers family contacted Cortez and other tenants to rescind their evictions. The landlords told their tenants they would weather the economic loss somehow.

Rothbard said some of the evictions had to be withdrawn due to an oversight, because some tenants had active lease agreements that would have been violated by a no-cause eviction.

Ann Lethers contacted the Voice's after the Wednesday press deadline, and said she was still trying to contact all the tenants to inform them the evictions were being withdrawn. But in at least one instance, she was asking tenants if they would agree to a $400 monthly rent increase to stay. She and her husband were "desperate" since their apartment rents were far below the market rate, she said.

"I'm not being greedy, I just want to survive," Lethers said. "Money is not the top priority for us."

While his immediate crisis was averted, Cortez said the experience was a harsh reminder that he could be evicted at any time.

"I still have hard feelings about this," he said. "I didn't see this coming and it was a shock to be treated this way. I don't know if this is the end of it."