Help Coming for Modesto Tenants in Blighted Building; Landlord Could Face Legal Fight

Saturday, July 22, 2017
Kevin Valine
Modesto Bee

Help may be on the way for the 80 poor people being evicted from a downtown apartment building Modesto is condemning.

Social service agencies will meet this week with the tenants, and a Bay Area attorney says he expects to sue the landlord on behalf of the tenants. Modesto has declared the two-story building of 27 studio apartments unfit and unsafe for occupancy.

Rather than make repairs required by the city, owner Steve Arakelian had eviction notices given to tenants July 16, giving them 30 or 60 days to leave based on how long they have lived there. Some apartments have mold, bathroom floors that are rotting because of faulty plumbing, holes in the walls and floor, and other problems. Residents complain about rats and cockroaches. Police officers are frequent visitors, responding to calls about arguments, fights, assaults and security checks.

Arakelian has said the building is home to about 80 poor people. Tenants say about a dozen children live there. Rent is $575 or $585 a month for one of the tiny apartments and includes utilities. The evictions come as Stanislaus County faces an affordable housing crisis.

Modesto spokeswoman Amy Vickey has said the city is working with the county and social services agencies to help tenants find housing and resources. Agencies will be at the apartment building at 624 Ninth Street on Tuesday 8:30 to noon and Thursday 2 to 6:30 p.m. Agencies will only work with the building’s tenants, who will be asked to prove they live there.

The agencies include the Empowerment Center, Community Impact Central Valley, Community Housing and Shelter Services, Family Promise, the United Way, and the county’s Community Services Agency, Behavioral Health & Recovery Services, Child Protective Services and Adult Protective Services.

This comes as Tobener Ravenscroft — a Bay Area tenant and renters rights law firm — prepares to file a lawsuit against Arakelian in Stanislaus Superior Court. Managing partner Joseph Tobener said he was contacted by tenants and plans to meet with them Friday.

“I’m going to be filing a lawsuit against the landlord on behalf of the tenants,” Tobener said. “We file lawsuits against slumlords.”

He said the lawsuit will be based on multiple causes of action, including breach of warranty for not providing a habitable dwelling, failing to maintain the property and unfair business practices, and it also will seek attorneys fees. Tobener said his law firm only gets paid if the tenants prevail.

He said it is exceedingly rare for a city to declare a building unsafe and unfit and condemn it because buildings seldom are in such deplorable condition and cities are reluctant to do so because of California’s housing shortage.

Ophelia Cooper is among the residents who contacted Tobener and his law firm. “The main thing I want is for him to be accountable for this place,” she said about Arakelian, “for him letting his tenants go so long in this place that is not habitable.”

Arakelian declined to comment on the upcoming litigation.

But he has said he is not a bad landlord. He has said some of the tenants are responsible for the building’s condition, claiming they vandalize and damage it faster than he can repair it. But Cooper and other tenants say Arakelian has not made repairs or adequate repairs despite their complaints.

Arakelian has said he does not have the money to fix the building and has put it up for sale. Tom Trimberger — Modesto’s chief building official — believes the building can be repaired and made habitable.

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