Not long ago, the main complaints tenant counselors heard about CitiApartments were of harassment and intimidation.
Now, the stories have changed: Today, tenants more often complain that they are being threatened with utility shutoffs, because neither the landlord nor the banks that own their properties have been paying the bills.
As lenders have foreclosed on more CitiApartments properties, tenants and their advocates say that in some cases, either the company or the lenders stop paying for utilities, prompting Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to approach tenants for payments or shutoff.
Of the 300 San Francisco buildings once controlled by CitiApartments owner Frank Lembi and his family, about 200 have been foreclosed on. Of those remaining, about 80 are now in receivership.
Last week, City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced that the family had agreed to a settlement in which it promised to pay fines and stop some practices they had been accused of. The Lembis will either pay up to $10 million or cease managing property in San Francisco.
But while they struggle to calm their fiscal crisis, tenants have been forced to fight utility shutoffs.
Lembi family attorney Ed Singer said he knew of nine buildings whose utilities hadn’t been paid after they went into receivership, but are now back in Lembi control. They are currently in a dispute about those payments, but he believes there will not be a shutoff.
Tenant Aaron Casillas is caught in the middle. After living in an Inner Sunset apartment with the understanding that his landlord was paying for utilities, he received a letter from PG&E threatening to shut off his power if he didn’t pay. He shared the letter with other tenants and they approached PG&E, which agreed not to shut off power while reserving the right to do so later.
“It’s a stressful situation that your power could be cut off at any time for reasons beyond your control, but also, I work from home, so if they cut off my power it could impact my income,” he said.
Tenant advocates say such stories are hardly exclusive to Lembi properties. A parade of similar cases came through their offices in 2007. By Feb. 2009, the problem was so bad that city officials invoked state law to protect some tenants.
But the cases still come in, said Tommy Avicolli Mecca of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. He recalled one elderly woman who was temporarily forced to haul water from a neighbor’s house after her landlord was foreclosed on.
“It’s really screwed up,” Avicolli Mecca said. “And when they shut off power, it’s a safety problem — the lights don’t work and the elevators don’t work, they don’t have a stove or refrigerator.”
Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union said at least one building had its power shut off before his group became involved.
It’s impossible to know exactly how widespread the problem is, Avicolli Mecca said, because in many cases the tenants resolve it themselves, and it’s never recorded. In other cases, he says, tenants simply find other places to live.
CitiApartments in retreat
300 Apartment buildings once owned by the Lembi family
200 Buildings foreclosed on since then
80 In receivership
$10 million Maximum fine the Lembis could pay over the next 10 years for violating city building codes and tenant protections
$2 million Minimum the Lembis could pay if they agree to cease all property management in San Francisco forever