“Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members—the last, the least, the littlest.” Cardinal Roger Mahony, 1998
With fifteen years’ experience representing tenants’ rights, Joseph Tobener has seen a lot of dilapidated buildings and apartments, including the warehouse that was the location for Oakland’s notorious “Ghost Ship” fire. But when he saw the horrid conditions at the recently condemned 624 Ninth Street location, he couldn’t stop repeating himself.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Tobener, as he toured the building and inspected apartments, hallways, and stairs. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Tobener and his partner, Jaqueline Ravenscroft, have represented more than 10,000 tenants during award-winning careers in the Bay Area’s predatory renters’ market. They took on the cases of approximately two dozen Ninth Street renters Friday, after a meeting in Modesto’s Old Mill Café.
Though many tenants and onlookers thought the City of Modesto should have condemned the building years ago, Tobener explained that cities’ immunity from liability often leads to what he calls, “drive-by inspections.”
“I don’t mean they literally drive by,” he said, “but cities are protected from liability by what is known as a discretionary privilege. Essentially, because most cities lack sufficient resources, they can choose to devote those resources to other problems than building safety, etc.”
The result is too often cursory inspections of renters’ quarters unfit for human habitation. Former residents at the Ninth Street studios say the problems go at least as far back as 2007, and include stories about a legendary rat nicknamed “Slick.”
“We named him Slick because he always looked like he’d been hosed down with a bucket of grease and we never could catch him,” said a former renter. “He would pop out from behind the stove around dinnertime, but even when we knew he was coming he always got away.”
Most residents say the rat problems got worse in recent months, after the basement flooded with gray water. One woman told the attorneys of an outbreak of skin rash that sounded very much like a case of bites from rat mites, parasites that feed on rats and human hosts.
Plagued with vermin, mold, backed up plumbing, hazardous wiring, and periodic flooding in their apartments, residents of 624 Ninth Street also lack mailboxes. Their mail is delivered in bulk to the resident manager, then distributed on an irregular basis. Many say mail often goes missing.
Despite recent visits from city and county service agencies, most of the renters still have nowhere to go. Tobener and Ravenscroft advised their new clients that they would be safer somewhere else, and that staying where they are might hurt their case. But without refunds from rent and deposits, most lack enough money to move on.
Disabled renters in particular have found little to no help finding shelter, in large part because their incomes are too low for even sub-standard housing. Many have pets, and therefore can’t even use local facilities like the Salvation Army Berberian Shelter and the Modesto Gospel Mission.
Modesto’s and Stanislaus County’s civic leaders, who complain bitterly when their city is listed among the nation’s worst for quality of life, have a shrinking window of opportunity to uphold their vow to, “Focus on Prevention.” But unless they act swiftly, even more people will find themselves homeless on the streets, courtesy of a negligent landlord enabled by city and county officials with better things to do than defend the basic rights of the poor and disabled.