Robert Valenzuela’s southeast Fresno apartment is infested with bedbugs.
The 72-year-old says his property manager, Senior Citizens Village, is evicting him because he complained about his living conditions. Guillermo Moreno, an administrative assistant, says Valenzuela did not complain about the bedbugs until after he was asked to leave for other reasons.
“A lot of poor, innocent old people are afraid to speak up,” Valenzuela said. “I did and I’m getting evicted.”
Senior Citizens Village is an independent living, affordable housing community with 732 units at South Chestnut and East Hamilton avenues. Valenzuela has lived there more than seven years with few complaints – until last year when his and his next-door neighbor’s apartments became overrun with bedbugs and cockroaches.
Valenzuela and his neighbor, who asked not to be named, said the bedbugs came from a mattress that was dumped against a wall a short distance from their building.
The neighbor’s son, Michael Carns, said he saw bedbugs on the mattress and then was forced to pay $150 for pest control to fumigate his mother’s apartment. A July 24, 2015, letter to his mother from Senior Citizens Village says, “When you moved into the apartment it was free from pests; therefore, this is considered tenant responsibility.”
A lot of poor, innocent old people are afraid to speak up. I did and I’m getting evicted.
Robert Valenzuela, tenant at Senior Citizens Village
Moreno said tenants are not asked to pay unless they admit fault. He said both Valenzuela and his neighbor admitted being at fault for the bedbugs last year and paid for fumigation.
If tenants break the rules three times, they are asked to leave. Moreno said he couldn’t talk about Valenzuela’s case specifically, but said the top cause for terminating leases is when family members live with the tenants. “This is senior housing only,” he said.
But Moreno said there is just 12 staff and five maintenance workers for the 60-acre complex, which makes it impossible for them to be aware of every issue unless it is reported. Often, he said, tenants who are asked to leave were complained about by others in the complex. He said the company has only asked 10 or so tenants to leave within the past year.
“We don’t just evict people because we feel like it,” he said. “There’s a history there.”
Simone Cranston-Rhodes, who used to work with Tenants Together, said she called code enforcement on behalf of five or six tenants last summer, all for cockroaches and bedbugs. When the organization was invited by tenants to the complex, she said managers called the police and told her they were trespassing.
“Nothing has changed,” she said.
We don’t just evict people because we feel like it. There’s a history there.
Guillermo Moreno, administrative assistant at Senior Citizens Village
Cranston-Rhodes said it is illegal to evict someone out of retaliation for complaining, but retaliation is hard to prove. She said other tenants at the complex have complained recently about bedbugs but want to remain anonymous for fear of being evicted.
Carns said his mother’s apartment has remained free from pests since it was fumigated last year. Valenzuela said the bedbugs never left his home after the initial fumigation and he periodically complained to management until March 31, when he received a 60-day notice that his lease would end. After he received the notice, he called city code enforcement.
But Moreno said that after the initial fumigation Valenzuela didn’t complain again until he was told his lease would end.
City Hall spokesman Mark Standriff said the city has received 10 complaints about bedbugs at that complex in the past 18 years, the most recent on April 1. He said the city issued a notice asking the property owner to get rid of the bedbugs.
Carns said Senior Citizens Village is going after Valenzuela but not his mother because she has family capable of advocating on her behalf. He said he and his son have done a lot of research about tenant rights and are ready to take legal action if necessary.
“They’re using Bob as an example,” he said. “Look what happens when you speak out. That’s why everyone around here is scared.”
Valenzuela said he might have to go live with family. For now, he sits atop a plastic blue tarp over his recliner and hopes he won’t get bitten.