Tenants testified on Tuesday that the property manager of their three units on 26th Street stole rent, threatened to call immigration services on a tenant, and once tried to punch a tenant.
“German is a very violent person,” said Mayra Alvarado in a small room on the third floor of the Superior Court building where Judge Richard B. Ulmer Jr. is hearing the case against property manager German Maldonado, who represented himself during the proceedings.
Other testimony centered on living conditions at 3150-3154 26th St. Tenants spoke of a shower ceiling black with mold, bedbugs and cockroaches throughout the apartment, and a back egress that had been turned into a bedroom. The court also heard of a ghost oven that would turn on without notice and fill the apartment with the smell of the mice that resided within.
Questioning tenants about the supposed violence and squalor, Maldonado peered over the rims of his glasses and asked why they hadn’t moved out or called the police if the situation was so dire.
“Why don’t you call the police if I threatened you?” he asked Alvarado, a tenant who alleged Maldonado had threatened her multiple times, including once in front of her children.
“I didn’t call them because I was afraid,” she replied. “I was afraid, I was afraid of you.”
Maldonado is charged with pocketing $41,000 in rent that was meant for landlord Thomas Aquilina. The fact that he never passed it on, tenants said, caused eviction proceedings against them last summer. Tenants want their rent repaid and monetary compensation for “what people suffered when they lived there,” as tenant Thomas Anderson said.
“He pretty much treated the house like his own little empire, he could do whatever he wants,” Anderson added outside of court.
Maldonado, who presumably could not afford a lawyer because of a recent bankruptcy, sat alone on the left side of the courtroom, answering the judge’s queries and questioning witnesses on his own.
During the first exchange, tenant Anderson characterized his state during the eviction proceedings.
“I was depressed, I was angry, I lost time from work. I wondered about the safety of my son. I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat,” he said. “I can’t stop thinking about it because someone stole all my money and got me evicted.”
Maldonado protested: “Do you understand that it was not me who wanted you out of the building but Mr. Aquilina?”
Judge Ulmer asked questions throughout the hearing and said he had never seen a case with quite so many moving parts. Tenants allege that Maldonado’s failure to pay rent to landlord Aquilina caused eviction proceedings against them last summer. Maldonado said that the plaintiffs had paid the rent but that other tenants hadn’t, which meant he could only pay some rent to Aquilina. Because the full rent had not been paid, an eviction notice was posted in May 2014 by Aquilina, naming Maldonado and ten “John Doe” subtenants.
Maldonado says he had passed on the plaintiffs’ rent and stole no money, and a recent bankruptcy seems to buttress that claim, though it was not mentioned in court.
Anderson, for one, doesn’t believe it and speculated outside of court that the property manager squirreled away the money and has it “in a friend’s bank account.” One tenant said that even if Maldonado is bankrupt, they are suing for future earnings.
There have been two other proceedings involving the tenants. In terms of the eviction, three tenants settled out of court. The other tenants went to court and lost because the judge ruled that even if they had not been personally served, he was convinced that the landlord had posted a notice warning them of eviction.
A second case against the owner and involving his insurance was settled out of court recently and the settlement will be split among nine tenants after their lawyers are paid. Tenants have not been told what they will receive.
Since the tenants left, plans have since been filed for remodeling in two of the three units they were in.
Maldonado remains in the building as a result of his own settlement with Aquilina, though it’s unclear why Aquilina would allow Maldonado to remain after failing to pass on rent.
Mark Hooshmand, who is representing the tenants, centered his questioning on whether his clients had ever been notified that the landlord Aquilina had a right to terminate their residency and whether they knew that Maldonado had been short in payments to the landlord.
All said they didn’t even know Aquilina existed. They assumed that Maldonado was in charge, because, they testified, they had rental agreements with Maldonado and paid him in cash or checks.
After the lunch break, Maldonado called his own witness.
“I feel very strongly that my experience with Mr. Maldonado was positive,” said Samantha Wolf, a tenant of Maldonado’s own unit for a few months in 2009. “The apartment was clean and safe, I felt safe there, and he acted professionally.”
She added that she felt “very grateful” for the low rent and “maintains a positive friendship” with him to this day.
During cross-examination, however, Hooshmaand pointed out that Wolf’s unit wasn’t one of the three in question. She acknowledged that she had never been inside those units nor met any of their tenants.
Hooshmand’s questions to his clients revealed some of Maldonado’s interactions with tenants.
“He came up and he threatened me in front of my children,” said Alvarado, who said she asked him not to yell in front of her kids. “He said, ‘I’m going to yell so that they can hear me too.’ That’s when my children started being afraid of him.”
Alvarado recounted another incident where he entered her apartment while she was outside and threw her children’s toys.
“He threw the toys of the children,” she said, who has two kids. She later added, “Bringing my children into that, I didn’t think there was a future.”
Her partner and roommate, Agustin Ramirez, said that Maldonado had once tried to hit him in the face outside of the building and that he had threatened violence against his partner, Alvarado.
“One time he says he was going to be able to pay someone to hit her on the street,” he said.
He also repeatedly raised the issue of how affordable and “fair” his rent was for the area, since most tenants paid between $500-600 for a room.
Tenants agreed it was below market rate for the time, and most said they would have liked to stay for several more years.
Because Maldonado had no attorney, his cross-examination of witnesses sometimes damaged his own standing, as when one witness accused Maldonado of having a drug addiction.
“You have to admit that you have a drug addiction,” said Ramirez Agustin after Maldonado asked him to clarify a comment regarding frequent partying. “You used to come all the time with your friends to our flat, sitting in the kitchen, drinking and smoking marijuana.”
“Are you telling me you saw me using drugs?” Maldonado responded.
“Oh yes,” Ramirez said, after which Maldonado promptly switched topics.
Dispensing with counsel had other effects. Judge Ulmer frequently clarified the meaning of “objection” to Maldonado and once told him he could not argue with a witness after an unproductive back-and-forth exchange.
As a witness, however, Maldonado fared better. He was called to testify at the end of the day and in the hour before the court adjourned, Maldonado spoke about starting as a property manager in 2001, his efforts to clean up the building and create a community, and his attempts to fight for tenants when Aquilina wanted them evicted.
“It was the dot-com era,” Maldonado explained. “A lot of my friends that didn’t have credit needed a place to live. [Aquilina] agreed to rent this apartment to me in my credit. He agreed for my friends to live there under my name.”
Aquilina had been impressed by what Maldonado had done, chasing away vagrants from the front stoop when he first moved there in 1996. Maldonado described that time as “the rough Mission that nobody remembers.” He leased three other apartments to him, beginning his tenure as property manager.
He added that Aquilina had wanted to evict tenants some five years back but that Maldonado “told him it was impossible” because “people have lives here.”
He also recalled a time when those in other units would have “parties, music, art exhibitions.”
“It was kind of a nice thing,” he said, describing a situation most of the tenants didn’t recognize. “Then it turned into a bad thing.”
The remainder of his testimony, as well as the testimony of expert witnesses and one other tenant, will resume tomorrow. Judge Ulmer said he will render a final verdict in two weeks or more, pending a final viewing of the court transcripts.
The Master Tenant Who Duped His Tenants. October 7, 2014