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Bay Area Landlord Accused Of Not Providing Heat, Ignoring Mice

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) -- Viviann Green was feeling grateful to get a small apartment for $2,300 a month. But right away she started noticing the problems, such as no heat and no hot water. But the worst problem was mice.

When Green complained, the landlord sent over his handyman with traps and poison to kill them. But they kept coming.

Other tenants have had problems too. Isheal Martin said he and his two daughters endured leaky windows, mold and no heat for three years.

"We just went to bed with a lot of clothes on, sweats," he said.

When Martin finally moved out, he said the landlord wouldn't return his $1,800 security deposit.

"He said I left the place messed up, which I didn't. Everything was left just totally immaculate," said Martin.

That landlord is Richard Thomas. His company is Environment and Land Management. Thomas owns more than 150 rental units around the Bay Area.

The landlord is infamous for withholding security deposits. Tenants in Alameda County filed a class-action lawsuit and won a $1 million judgment in 2008. But his tenants continue to complain.

Such as tenants CBS 5 found last year in Hayward. They were drinking and bathing in contaminated water from a well. Thomas was treating it the cheap way, with bottles of Clorox.

Thomas wouldn't answer CBS 5's questions about the well water. But our report prompted the county to take action and Thomas was forced to install a chlorination system.

In San Francisco, the problems at Green and Martin's building have Thomas in trouble again. City documents show 72 code violations and 13 orders of abatement mostly in the last three years, for everything from lack of permits to water leaks, lead paint hazards and rodents. One inspector even called the whole building "a public nuisance."

CBS 5 caught up with him at a Department of Building Inspection hearing. But when we tried to ask Thomas about that, he said, "I don't know where you get your information."

CBS 5: "We've been out there, and we saw the evidence of rodent infestation, we have seen the property. The tenants want to know when you are going to fix this stuff."

Thomas: "I am sorry but there is a controversy now as to the truth of the allegations."

CBS 5: "Are you saying none of this is true?"

Thomas: "All you are doing is attacking me right here in the hallway."

Thomas has been a regular fixture in that hallway for years. "I know there have been a number of tenants that have stepped forward," said Bill Strawn, spokesperson for the Department of Building Inspection.

Strawn said his agency is doing the best it can. "All I can say is that sometimes it takes a lengthy due process, as local laws require. Often the habitability circumstances for the tenant can be very challenging," he said.

Isheal Martin is now taking on the challenge personally, in small claims court. But like many others who have done the same, he's getting nowhere.

"I am on the continuation of the fifth time in small claims court. Five times," Martin said. "How is he able to do this? It's not right, it's not fair."

As for Viviann Greene, a day after CBS 5 talked to Thomas at the building department, the landlord finally sent Clark Pest Control to check out the rodent problem. After a thorough inspection outside and inside the building, the Clark employee told CBS 5: "There's a lot of pipes and stuff which is what they use to travel, so they could be getting into other units."

The judge in the class-action lawsuit has fined Thomas $50,000 for violating a court order. He is supposed to provide documented proof that he's returning security deposits properly. If Thomas is held in contempt of court, he could be sent to jail.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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