San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard B. Ulmer Jr. issued a tentative ruling Friday in a case brought by nine tenants against their master tenant, writing, that it was “not hyperbolic” to call the building German Maldonado ran at 3150-3154 26th Street “a death trap.”
“This court trial told a tawdry tale from the seamy side of San Francisco’s hyper-inflated housing market,” the judge wrote in the tentative ruling, which may be challenged in an upcoming hearing and will not be finalized until October. The ruling awards each of the nine tenants in three units varying amounts between $67,000 and $110,000 in damages.
“Despite the conditions, tenants paid as much as $800 a month for a room — they could afford nothing better in America’s most expensive rental market,” Judge Ulmer wrote.
Maldonado was found liable for fraud, neglecting the building, profiteering, causing emotional distress, and causing the tenants to lose work income.
The tenants told the court Maldonado collected rent from them and lied about passing it onto the landlord, Thomas Aquilina. Tenants lived as many as four people to a room, amidst broken smoke detectors, leaky pipes, burnt-out or exposed electrical outlets, and infestations of mice, bedbugs and roaches. The rear bedrooms in the building were also individually rented and therefore locked doors blocked access to the fire escapes.
Eventually, it became clear that Maldonado had failed to pass on the rent he was collecting to the landlord, despite collecting at times nearly twice the assigned rent for a single apartment, according to testimony from the tenants. Tenants also alleged that Maldonado would threaten them with physical harm or with reporting them to immigration authorities when disagreements arose. Where the money he collected actually went was unclear.
“To put it charitably, Maldonado has been inconsistent,” Ulmer wrote.
Finally, in 2014, Aquilina, the landlord, hired a management firm for the building and issued three-day eviction notices to all tenants. Maldonado managed to stay in place, while every other tenant was evicted. Aquilina has never explained why Maldonado remains.
Though tenants sought damages for eviction without just cause, as they had been paying their rent, the judge found Maldonado not liable for this as it was Aquilina who actually issued the evictions.
“Aquilina’s apartment building is now being renovated, presumably for wealthier tenants,” Ulmer commented in the interim ruling.
Tenants testified at trial that they suffered depression, hair loss, insomnia, and lost appetite, and also ended up missing work hours. One was rendered homeless, and subsequently fired from her job. Another said she was rejected from 50 apartments she applied to, because the landlords saw she was involved in a legal battle with a former landlord.
Mark Hooshmand, the lawyer representing the tenants, cautioned that the ruling may still be challenged.
“That being said we’re hopeful that this decision becomes the final decision and then we can focus on next steps,” Hooshmand wrote. He later added, “The tentative decision which is based on the trial testimony says a lot about the current housing crisis and the current difficulties tenants are facing and how we all need to take a step back to see how we can work together to prevent people from being harmed.”