Lawsuit Alleges Landlord Retaliation

Monday, February 22, 2016
Bill Silverfarb
San Mateo Daily Journal

A school teacher is suing her landlords for retaliation, claiming she was threatened with eviction after talking to the Daily Journal about an excessive rent increase she received last August.

Barbara O’Neil was featured in the article “Tenants face huge rent hike” in the Aug. 6, 2015, edition of the paper. In the article, she said her $1,100 monthly rent increase exemplified how the local housing crisis was starting to affect the middle class.

O’Neil, who lives in San Mateo, also spoke out about the rent increases days after the article was published to the San Mateo City Council, a meeting that was also attended by one of her landlords, Victor Baiz.

O’Neil is suing Victor and brother Ted Baiz for injunctive relief, claiming they retaliated against her by threatening to evict her for having pet cats in violation of her lease agreement.

O’Neil contends she kept cats in her apartment with the permission of the landlords for the more than 10 years she had lived there.

She fears an eviction notice is coming any day now and that she will not be able to find another place to live as rents in the area continue to climb.

“It’s not easy to speak up as a tenant given the current housing crisis, “ O’Neil wrote in a prepared statement. “Fear is pervasive. There’s nowhere to go if your landlord evicts you, so tenants are forced to put up with abusive landlords rather than risk homelessness. We must put a stop to the bullying. Tenants cannot let our voices be silenced by threats from out-of-control landlords.”

The brothers, who own the properties in a trust, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

But in August, Victor Baiz told the Daily Journal: “As trustees, my brother and myself owe a fiduciary duty to that trust.”

Many circumstances over the years, including illnesses in the family, kept the rents from increasing they way they should have, Victor Baiz said.

He said the extra rent collected from tenants in the 15-unit building on Laurel Street in downtown San Mateo would go toward needed improvements.

O’Neil is represented by Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, the law firm of Kaye Scholer LLP and the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

After her rent increase, O’Neil joined a coalition of residents through the San Francisco Organizing Project/Peninsula Interfaith Action advocating for stronger tenant protections in San Mateo.

Her rent climbed $1,100 a month to $2,850, which comprises 63 percent of O’Neil’s take-home pay. She works as a middle school teacher in the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District.

The lawsuit alleges that only four days after O’Neil spoke at a City Council meeting, her landlord began to threaten her tenancy for living with two pet cats, despite the fact that the landlord had given her express permission to keep pet cats when she moved in almost 11 years prior. The landlord’s sudden threats constitute illegal retaliation for the exercise of O’Neil’s First Amendment rights, according to the complaint.

“This case illustrates how some landlords are too willing to exploit the housing crisis to destabilize our communities,” Daniel Saver, an attorney at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, wrote in a statement. “Although currently it is lawful in San Mateo for landlords to impose unconscionable rent increases on their tenants, it is illegal for landlords to retaliate against tenants who speak out against such egregious rent gouging. We must send a clear message that retaliation against tenant organizers will not be tolerated in San Mateo County.”

The lawsuit, filed in San Mateo County Superior Court, seeks an order enjoining the landlord from further retaliation and monetary damages.

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