This story was published originally Jan. 10, 2014.
A major Fresno rental company was sued Thursday in Fresno County Superior Court -- a necessary step, renters-rights activists say, to force the company to make needed repairs to comply with state building standards.
It's estimated JD Homes manages more than 3,000 units in Fresno, the majority of them low income and in central and southern parts of town.
Elaine Robles-McGraw, the city's community revitalization division manager, said in 2013 there were 431 code violations against JD Homes and affiliates. Of those, 132 were housing code violations, which relate to more serious issues -- like problems with structural support, roofing, plumbing or electrical.
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Overall, there were 1,610 housing code violations issued in Fresno last year, Robles-McGraw said.
Tenants Together, a statewide organization with an office in Fresno, filed the case as a class action suit, which means a court order could help improve living conditions for all JD Homes tenants, not just the six bringing the suit.
During a Thursday news conference in front of the landmark Fresno water tower downtown, speakers talked about "substandard" living conditions: collapsing walls and ceilings, leaking pipes, cockroaches, mold and faulty electrical wiring endangering children.
While Robles-McGraw said JD Homes has been "very responsive" with the city in making repairs once contacted, those who spoke at Thursday's conference said the company is not nearly as helpful when tenants call them with complaints.
"I have personally sat on hold for more than an hour just to make a repair request and the repair still doesn't get done, " said Miguel Villegas, an organizer with Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño. "I have to call back again and again to get JD Homes to do anything for the tenants we work with. Maybe they will finally change their ways if faced with a court order."
Malaquias Esteves, 44, a farmworker and one of six JD Homes tenants named in the suit, attended Thursday's conference with seven of his family members, including a number of his young children.
His 19-year-old daughter, Jesucita, said the family has called JD Homes more than a hundred times since 2002 with complaints, but only recently had luck in getting some big issues fixed when community organizers and lawyers got involved.
The suit is against JD Homes along with three of its owners and operators -- John, David and Bryce Hovannisian -- and some of their partnerships with ownership interests in the properties they manage, said Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together.
Attorney Warren Paboojian, who was hired by JD Homes to explore claims against the firm, said the "slumlord" allegations are "inappropriate, incorrect and without evidence."
"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 the family-owned Fresno company has 90 maintenance employees who do repairs and that the firm "works hard to provide affordable housing."
The lawsuit's statute of limitations addresses issues going back four years. When asked why the suit is being brought now, Patsy Van Dyke, co-lead counsel with Bet Tzedek Legal Services, credited "dogged investigations" by Tenants Together and its legal director Leah Simon-Weisberg, who grew up in Fresno and had the "passion to do the right thing."
Since the housing crisis of 2008, JD Homes has added hundreds of foreclosed properties to its inventory, Simon-Weisberg added.
Jennifer Clark, director of Fresno's Development and Resource Management Department, said the city takes housing code violations and complaints from tenants "very seriously" and is "committed to revitalization in our older neighborhoods."