Tenants Allege Discrimination At Palo Alto Low-Income Complex

Monday, November 3, 2008
Will Oremus
Palo Alto Daily News

Life hasn't always been easy for Martha Rubio since her husband died of a brain tumor in 2000. But it's never been so hard as it is today.

After 19 years at Terman Apartments in Palo Alto, where she raised three children and has become guardian to a fourth with the help of a federal housing subsidy, Rubio last month spent too much of her meager fixed income and ended up $75 short on rent. Property manager Goldrich & Kest responded by evicting her.

On Tuesday, Rubio will ask a judge for a 40-day grace period, during which she hopes against odds that she'll find a lawyer to take her case. Otherwise she'll be homeless, along with her emotionally troubled, 17-year-old youngest daughter and 9-year-old nephew.

"This is an expensive lesson I learn for $75," she says, battling tears.

She's not the only one learning such lessons these days in Terman Apartments, Palo Alto's last major for-profit government-subsidized housing complex. Several tenants said they've seen a bizarre and disturbing pattern at the apartments since new property managers took control a few years ago. They believe the managers, who are Russian, have been treating longtime residents harshly - in particular, the minority who have children - and, when they leave, replacing them with new tenants who are, almost exclusively, elderly and Russian.

If true, the charges are serious, housing experts say. But the tenants, who can't afford to pay lawyers, have yet to prove any wrongdoing in court.

Contacted about the complaints Friday, representatives for Culver City-based Goldrich & Kest, which owns and manages the property, referred all calls to the company president. She did not return them.

Geraldine Kinyon, a 24-year tenant who is disabled, said Terman Apartments' managers gave her the runaround last month when she tried to re-certify for federal Section 8 money. She said they wouldn't let her remove the certification papers from their office. But they kept putting off meetings with her and her son, who cares for her, to get them filled out.

On Oct. 1, Kinyon learned she had missed the deadline. Her unit reverted to market rate, and her share of the rent has skyrocketed from $240 per month to $2,018 per month. Like Rubio, she's on a fixed income, and said she will likely lose her apartment soon.

Like Rubio, she will have nowhere to go. Once lost, their Section 8 eligibility is unlikely to come back, said officials familiar with the system.

A third Terman Apartments resident, Karen Purvis, said that after seeing what has happened to Rubio and Kinyon, she fears the property managers will find a way to get rid of her next. She said they've refused to do repairs, verbally abused her son when he was playing outside, and let the communal sandbox fill up with feces.

"We have not had a child in that sandbox for months," Rubio agreed.

When anyone complains, Purvis added, "They retaliate very quickly." Rubio believes she's now paying the price for negative comments she made about the management in a customer satisfaction survey earlier this year. Kinyon suspects she was targeted because she called police to report a gardener violating Palo Alto's leaf-blower ordinance.

It's not just current tenants who have had run-ins with the management lately. A prospective tenant, Cathy Enwere of San Jose, is suing the company in federal court, alleging housing discrimination.

Enwere, who is black, said she applied for an apartment at Terman last year. After inviting her in for an appointment, she said, they took one look at her and told her the waiting list was closed.

Outraged, Enwere began doing research and said she found a strange pattern. Property manager Tatyana Mendhuk, Enwere charged, "came in there in 2004 and started putting Russian people in there. There's 92 units, and she put 75 Russians in there. She told me the waiting list was closed, but the waiting list was never opened, and she was still putting Russians in there."

Purvis said there's been tension between the new residents and the old.

"I believe they're trying to make it a senior complex," she said. "The seniors and the children do not mix."

Whether or not the tenants are right about the managers' motives, it seems clear they're getting some tough breaks.

Rubio said she sent a letter to the property managers on Sept. 5, the day the rent was due, telling them she was short but would pay in full when she got her next check, on Sept. 16. She came home after a short trip to Modesto to find a standard 10-day "pay or quit" notice on her door, but didn't hear anything else from management and assumed they were fine with her paying 11 days late.

On Sept. 16, she said, she collected her money and called to see how much the late fee would be.

"They said $15," Rubio recalled. But when she went to the office two hours later to turn in the money, she was told it was too late. They wouldn't accept it.

A native San Franciscan, Rubio met her husband young and became a stay-at-home mom while he worked as a retail stocker. Their dream of graduating from subsidized housing to a home of their own evaporated when he died.

Left with Social Security and her husband's pension, Rubio found it a full-time job just to help her three daughters cope with the loss. At one point she took a job in San Francisco, but soon found her youngest daughter was skipping school in her absence.

Now, at 44, with limited education and no skills, Rubio may soon face the prospect of finding a job even as she loses her housing.

With Purvis' help, she has tried to enlist nonprofits and advocacy groups to help her fight the eviction. It hasn't been easy.

"We went to Fair Housing, and they sent us to HUD," Purvis said. "HUD sent us to California Affordable Housing. They said, 'I sympathize with you - you should go to Legal Aid."

The Legal Aid Society provided information, but said it couldn't spare someone to represent Rubio in court. So Rubio, more than a month after her eviction, will be representing herself in court Tuesday in a final bid to keep her family off the street.

It's a daunting task, she said. So far, each time she has brought up her allegations of mistreatment in court, the company has countered with claims that Rubio has been the one threatening them.

Mary Prem, director of fair housing for the nonprofit Project Sentinel in Palo Alto, said it's hard to undo an eviction once a judge has ruled on it. If Rubio had gone to court before the 10-day notice was up, she almost surely could have won some lenience, but after that it's an uphill legal battle.

Goldrich & Kest, Prem added, "is known for doing stuff like this." But as a large company, it tends to know the law well and often prevails when its tenants bring legal complaints.

Cathy Siegel, advance planning manager for the City of Palo Alto, said the city used to have several apartment complexes like Terman Apartments, which had long-term contracts with HUD for Section 8 subsidies. As those contracts expired, the city helped nonprofits buy the properties to ensure that the rents stayed below-market. One of those was the 128-unit Palo Alto Gardens, which the Mid-Peninsula Housing Coalition acquired from Goldrich & Kest in 1999.

The Palo Alto Housing Corporations recently approached Goldrich & Kest about Terman Apartments, Siegel said, but learned the property was quite valuable and the owners weren't eager to sell.

Noting that there are "two sides to every story," Siegel said it would be hard to know whether Goldrich & Kest was doing anything wrong at Terman Apartments without more information.

"In some cases it might be that the tenant is a deadbeat and not following the rules, and so they're cracking down," she said. "But if they are unfairly harassing people and trying to force people to move out, that's certainly a concern."

Finding new housing will be extremely difficult in the current rental market, Siegel added. If it's true Terman Apartments evicted Rubio for paying rent 11 days late, she said, "They may be legally correct, but that's really harsh."

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