Tenants group to sue Fresno rental company for poor housing

The Fresno BeeJanuary 8, 2014 

A major Fresno rental company will be sued by a tenants rights group that calls them an "infamous slumlord in the region with a massive portfolio of substandard housing."

It's estimated the company, JD Home Rentals, has at least 3,000 units in Fresno, the majority of them low income in central and southern parts of town.

Tenants Together, a statewide organization with an office in Fresno, will file the case in Fresno County Superior Court on Thursday morning, alleging the company "utterly" fails to comply with state standards for rental housing.

Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together, said tenants' complaint calls over the years to JD Homes or city code enforcement has not been enough to change the ongoing problem.

"This is not an isolated thing where there's a bad unit here or a bad unit there ... this is a business practice of collecting rents and not making repairs," Preston said. "This is how they make their profits ... We view this is as a crisis in Fresno for renters and communities."

The suit names a handful of tenants against JD Homes and three of its operators -- John, David and Bryce Hovannisian -- who also own some partnerships with ownership interests in the properties at issue, Preston said.

It was presented as a class-action lawsuit, Preston said, what means a court order could help improve living conditions for all JD Homes tenants, not just those bringing the suit.

Warren Paboojian, who was hired by JD Homes as one of the attorneys to explore all possible claims against the firm, denied the "slumlord" claims, saying they are "inappropriate, incorrect and without evidence."

Paboojian said the company employs 90 maintenance employees who do repairs.

"JD Home Rentals remains ready, willing and able to address all maintenance or repair issues, including any matters pertaining to the plaintiffs' units," Paboojian said, adding it's a family-owned Fresno company that "works hard to provide affordable housing."

Fresno lawyer Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director for Tenants Together, said the group spent about two years gathering evidence from at least 100 JD Homes tenants before filing the lawsuit.

Simon-Weisberg said she found some shocking things when entering rental properties: mold, inoperable heaters, leaking roofs, cockroaches, and duct tape used to patch up holes.

In one case, an elderly woman had a wall "basically exploding on her" while in the shower, only to have part of her ceiling fallthe next day, Simon-Weisberg said.

Fresno's Faith in Community held a candlelight vigil last month in front of boarded-up rental properties owned by JD Homes to bring awareness to dangers that accompany vacant properties, along with talking about the "psychological and spiritual devastation" such units cause in neighborhoods.

The group reached out to Mayor Ashley Swearengin's office to talk about the problem and how it might be addressed, but still haven't heard back, said Bryson White, a minister and community organizer with Faith in Community.

City spokeswoman Vikkie Calderson said the city has "major concerns about the quality of housing in our older neighborhoods."

"We recognize the importance of working together with tenants, property owners and code enforcement to make sure we are doing our part," Calderon said. "Improving the older parts of our city is a high priority for this administration."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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