In the second and final day of his trial in Superior Court, the Mission property manager accused of stealing rent, abusing tenants, and failing to maintain his building took the stand and offered a defense that pointed a finger at the landlord.
“All the money I got from the tenants at some point went to Mr. Aquilina, always,” the property manager German Maldonado testified, referring to Thomas Aquilina who owns the building at 3150-3154 26th St. “I was caught in the middle of all this. I’m not the person evicting them. I feel bad for them.”
Mark Hooshmand, the attorney for the tenants, worked hard to disprove this assertion, pointing out that Maldonado transferred rent money the plaintiffs had paid him to other tenants after the eviction started.
“The old tenants didn’t have a place to go,” Maldonado said, referring to other tenants of the units who were not the plaintiffs in this case. “I gave them $500-1,000 to look for another place.”
The nine tenants — all of whom have been evicted or left after settling with the owner — are suing Maldonado to recoup the rent money they say they paid the manager, but was never delivered to the owner. The failure to pay those rents instigated eviction proceedings last summer. The tenants are also seeking damages for emotional duress.
Maldonado testified that it was not him but Aquilina who sprung the eviction notices on tenants and that he did so knowing Maldonado was out of town.
“Is it your contention that Mr. Aquilina posted these knowingly while you were gone?” asked Judge Richard B. Ulmer Jr.
“Definitely, maliciously,” Maldonado said. “Yes, yes.”
The relationship between Maldonado and Aquilina has been unorthodox and remains confusing. Maldonado said Aquilina would sometimes take a loss when the property manager couldn’t pay the full month’s rent, so when three-day notices appeared on the building, Maldonado “thought it was a joke.”
“I called Mr. Aquilina to ask him what was going on,” said Maldonado who was in Chicago when the notice was posted. “He answered once and said, ‘I don’t want to talk to you, talk to my manager.’”
Maldonado claimed he attempted to pay the rent as soon as he returned from his trip, borrowing $10,000 that was rejected by Aquilina’s property management firm, Laurel Realty, because it came too late.
“[Laurel Realty] accepted the checks,” Maldonado said, “and the checks were returned to me about a week later saying they would pursue eviction proceedings.”
Despite this initial conflict, Maldonado was the only one of the tenants who was able to settle with Aquilina to stay in his unit. The other three units served with notices have all been vacated and are undergoing reconstruction.
Since the eviction notices were served more than a year ago, tenants have filed several cases. Three tenants settled their eviction cases with the owner and moved out in 2014. Six tenants went to court in December over their eviction, but lost. Hooshmand said the tenants lost their wrongful eviction case because the judge fixated on the issue of whether the notice had been posted and didn’t take into account other circumstances, like whether tenants were even aware Aquilina existed.
In a case against Aquilina settled earlier this month for an undisclosed amount.
All of the tenants have moved out of the units, though few have remained in San Francisco and some have moved as far as Ohio, Mexico, or Colombia.
During the two-day hearing against Maldonado, tenant witnesses painted a picture very different from the community Maldonado described.
“I am emotionally ill,” said Barbara Heredia, whose pre-recorded deposition was shown because she now lives in Mexico. “It’s the first time in my life that I wake up in the middle of the night with nightmares, dreaming of Maldonado.”
“My self-esteem doesn’t exist anymore,” she added. “Everything that happens to me feels like I’m watching a movie.”
Arthur Lucero, a tenant from 2011 to 2015, said he was actually quite friendly with Maldonado and even dined with him twice a month.
“[Our relationship was] very cordial,” Lucero said. “I’d say we were friends.”
All of that changed during the eviction proceedings. Lucero said Maldonado lied to him about the threat of eviction, which not only ruined their friendship but also caused him to lose a home.
“It was my home, and all of the sudden it wasn’t anymore,” Lucero said. “I lost a place to live in San Francisco, which is huge.”
“I try not to think about what happened too much anymore,” he added. “Have I moved on? No, but I’d like to.”
On Tuesday, tenants alleged that Maldonado neglected basic maintenance, entered rooms without warning, and threatened physical violence on multiple occasions. Maldonado denied those allegations today.
“No, I went into each unit only when invited,” he said, adding he had “heard a lot of testimony” yesterday that he denied.
Maldonado tried to distinguish between the tenants he helped with the rent money and the tenants who fought back. “They were very belligerent and didn’t want to talk to me,” he said referring to the plaintiffs and citing the protest called against him last summer and subsequent press coverage.
“My name was put on the front of the building,” he said. “[Tenants] published my number to a newspaper and thousands of people called me, called me names.”
Hooshmand was outraged by Maldonado’s testimony.
“The gall – he turned around and started to blame them,” he said outside of court.
Both sides have a few weeks file briefs while the judge’s reviews court transcripts, after which he will issue a final ruling. If Judge Ulmer chooses to award lost rent and damages to the plaintiffs, Hooshmand said the amount would be under his discretion but that he’s hoping for up to $85,000 for each tenant.
If Maldonado is bankrupt, as he contends, Hooshmand said it would be his firm’s job to ferret out any hidden assets or other sources of wealth.
Expert witnesses frequently hired by the Hooshmand Law Group were also called to the stand.
Kevin Kearney, a construction expert, said he conducted an inspection of the three units in October 2014 and found raw sewage leakage under the sink, broken light fixtures, blown-out and burnt electrical outlets, dry rot in the rear staircase, and other problems that indicated “incredibly poor maintenance,” he said.
“All of these constitute hazards [for the tenants],” he added. “I believe each of these units needs to be completely brought up to code.”
The other witness, Richard G. Devine, testified on the difficulty of finding a new place in Francisco’s rental market, saying the city’s 1.5 percent rental vacancy is equivalent to “structural no vacancy.”
Lydia Chavez contributed reporting.
SF Tenants Testify Property Manager Stole Rent, Made Threats, August 12, 2015
The Master Tenant Who Duped his Tenants, October 7, 2014
VIDEO: Maldonado Opens a Wine Bar, February 10, 2009