For more than a decade, tenants at three units on 26th Street say they have been harassed, lied to and bullied, by a man who most recently failed to pass on $41,000 in rent to the landlord, a move that put them all at risk of eviction.
Their eviction cases remain in court, but only recently have many of the 20 tenants understood what role German Maldonado, who is in his mid-50s, played in their lives.
Some thought he was the property manager who passed their checks onto a landlord; others thought he was the landlord. Indeed, Maldonado had the air of someone of means.
An Argentinian who once owned the Minimum Champagne and Wine Bar on Valencia Street, Maldonado is an avid fan of wine, Spanish music and flamenco. Up until recently he could often be seen at Café Revolution enjoying a glass of beer or at La Boheme on 24th Street watching soccer with a group of friends. Regulars at both places say he has not been by recently.
But in fact, Maldonado was neither an official property manager or a landlord, and since 2001 he has been the master tenant on all four units owned by Thomas Aquilina at 3150-3154 26th Street, according to court documents.
He lived in one of the units and then partitioned off the other five-bedroom apartments and rented out rooms to anywhere from 20 to 30 people at the same time, according to tenants.
At present, there are more than 20 tenants – including some children – sharing three apartments. Some of the tenants are undocumented immigrants and they, along with many of the others, talked about Maldonado’s tactics of intimidation, his access to their apartments and their confusion over who he was.
“It was all an act by Mr. Maldonado so that we never suspected who was the owner. We believed he was the owner of the apartments he was renting out to us. It’s illogical that a person rents out four apartments to just one person, so you think he is the owner because you are paying rent and bills to him. And then one day, you are told it’s an eviction and everything becomes hearsay,” said Machetes, one of the tenants who is fighting the eviction.
That confusion might have persisted if it were not for a court case the landlord filed against Maldonado in May. It asked for $41,000 in back pay and the eviction of the tenants.
In July, Maldonado and the landlord settled the case. It appears that Maldonado argued successfully that he was owed repair costs. Maldonado successfully argued that he spent $5,000 in repairs, therefore withholding the rent. There are still many habitability concerns in all four units that he subleased. The two reached an agreement, but details are not public and the landlord appears to have forgiven the remaining amount. But the agreement also stipulated that all tenants would be evicted.
At that point, some tenants began to get wind that something was amiss. Official men were trying to post notice about an eviction but Maldonado tried to prevent them from serving the papers and threatened process servers. “Get off my property and stop harassing my tenants before I call the cops,” Maldonado said, according to one process server in the court documents.
If they insisted on posting the notices, the documents say, Maldonado would have taken them down.
“In May, when I asked him if there was an eviction happening, he texted me that I shouldn’t worry, that there was no eviction, that it wasn’t true,” Machetes said.
Then, in late August, they learned that they were being evicted by September 2 because, the landlord said, they had not paid rent for four months. It’s unclear from the agreement if Maldonado would also have to leave.
Since then, the tenants have found a lawyer to take on their case and they are all fighting eviction and learning more about the man who took their rent checks.
For his part, Maldonado declined to talk about the court case. After weeks of trying to reach him on 26th Street or find him at any of his neighborhood haunts (his wine bar has since closed), I ran into him by chance at the public records office.
He was happy to talk about his wine business as an independent contractor and remembered Stefania Rousselle, who produced Mission Local’s video on the wine bar’s opening.
When I moved onto the eviction case, he objected.
“That’s not me, I live on Valencia Street, always on Valencia. I have to get back to this,” he said, cutting me off. A few moments later, he was gone.
But tenants on 26th Street say he is still there. When tenants run into him, he scoffs at them.
In a 2009 video done when his wine bar opened, Maldonado said, “I love this neighborhood, I love the feeling of this neighborhood and it deserves a good champagne bar.”
But tenants say he is quite different from the soft-spoken man he appears to be in the video.
“He was a two-faced person,” said María Machetes, one of the tenants on 26th Street. Machetes met Maldonado in 2008 at an art gallery improvised in driveways known as La 23, on 23rd and Mission streets.
Machetes established an amiable relationship with Maldonado at the gallery, which she used to frequent and buy photos. When Machetes was looking for a place to live, Maldonado offered to rent her a room in a unit on 26th Street.
“I moved in June and by July [one night] I said “good evening” and was rebuffed,” recalled Machetes of the change in attitude. From then on, their relationship went downhill.
Maldonado would come into the unit multiple times without the knowledge of the tenants and would reply aggressively when asked what he was doing at the apartment unannounced.
Machetes recalls Maldonado would use body language to intimidate her and her partner –something that pushed her to stay with a friend temporarily.
The threats continued. Recently, Machetes was walking by 24th Street and Mission when “a friend of German told me that I was going to be beat up,” said Machetes, who reported the incident to the police.
In the 13 years she has lived and worked in the Mission District, Machetes has actively participated with Women Against Rape and other organizations to motivate people in the community to speak up when they are being victimized or taken advantage of. “No one has broken me the way he did,” she said about Maldonado’s constant harassment. “He would connect with Latinos at a moral level.”
Other tenants agreed and told stories of Maldonado coming in uninvited and putting on frequent parties.
“He [Maldonado] would have parties three times a week. At some point there was an actual band playing in one of the rooms and people coming in with forties and twenties of beer,” recalled Agustín Ramírez, one of the tenants fighting eviction.
When Maldonado installed a security camera in unit 3152 facing the entrance, tenants felt surveyed, instead of protected. One of the tenants placed stickers on the camera, to prevent Maldonado from surveilling the premises.
They took seriously his threats to call immigration.
Tom Anderson, who used to live in one of the units 12 years ago for a short period of time before returning, recalled arriving home one day only to find his roommate Marcelo’s girlfriend crying on the stoops because her boyfriend had been taken by ICE. Maldonado, she said, called immigration officials on him.
Mark Hooshmand, the lawyer representing the tenants, believes there was collusion between Maldonado and the landlord. “The landlord clearly knows what’s going on. And we have to hold him accountable,” said Hooshmand.
The landlord was not available for comment, and when his lawyer was contacted she said that agreement negotiations are still in process and that they are not sure if the tenants will want to enter an agreement under the landlord’s terms.
Hooshmand said the landlord created a “false situation” by having so many subtenants and one master tenant. One effect of this was that Maldonado “was charging more than the landlord.” He estimated that Maldonado was getting an additional $1,000 per unit.
The Hooshmand Law Group is collecting depositions as it prepares for a jury trial that will take place in the next few weeks.
Maldonado once told Mission Local, “There is a love story in every glass of wine.” There is, at least, a story.
Correction: a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Tom Anderson was one of the tenants that had lived the longest in the building. Mr. Anderson lived at 3152 26th Street for a few months, 12 years ago. And has lived at 3152 since August 2013. The story has been corrected.