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The Tenant From Hell

Deputy Fitzgerald
Robert Scheer

No Deposit, No Return: Sheriff's Deputy Steve Fitzgerald posts an eviction notice on tenant Ana Pacheco-Erickson's door, effectively barring the renter and giving the premises back to the landlord.

While affordable rentals remain scarce, unscrupulous property owners can make life miserable for local renters--but some of those can turn out to be a landlord's 'Nightmare on Elm Street'

By Kelly Luker

WHEN BOULDER CREEK RESIDENT Kathy Cress planned to rent out the duplex on her property, she was looking for what any landlord would want--someone quiet, responsible, stable and prompt with the rent. What she got was Ana Pacheco-Erickson.

By the time the 51-year-old woman was finally evicted almost three months later, Cress would claim to be out $2,950 in lost rent, repairs and legal fees. Cress, as it happened, would be the seventh landlord during a nine-year period to end up in the Santa Cruz County courts with Pacheco-Erickson over landlord-tenant relations. In addition to that list were landlords in Monterey, where Pacheco-Erickson also had resided.

According to Colleen O'Reilly, civil process supervisor for the Santa Cruz County sheriff's department, there is an average of one court-ordered eviction a day in the county. Taking into account the many other evictions that don't reach that stage, it's a good bet that everyone knows someone who has been on one side or the other of a living situation gone terribly wrong. In a town starved for affordable housing, however, little sympathy lies with those who collect the rent.

Painting all landlords as greedy land barons may be popular, but it's far from realistic. Many are single parents like Cress, young families or the elderly who count on one or two rentals to supplement their income. The loss of several month's income combined with damages and attorney's fees resulting from problem tenants can be devastating. Explains Cress, "I have a family of four. We worked our fannies off for years to get this property. When someone doesn't pay rent, I could lose the property."

Her fears are not unfounded. When asked how long the average eviction process takes, Gloria Lorenzo of the county's consumer affairs office replies that a landlord could expect to lose three months' worth of rent, "if the court acted in a timely manner."

When Cress advertised her duplex for rent, Pacheco-Erickson was among the first to respond. Filling out an application, Pacheco-Erickson apparently met the qualifications for income, claiming child support and income from her business, Spic 'n Span Cleaning. When Cress called a number listed for the previous landlord, the person answered and gave Pacheco-Erickson top references.

The troubles began the day Pacheco-Erickson signed the rental contract. Cress claims in court records that Pacheco-Erickson was late with the first rent check, complained about the cleanliness of the unit, overcharged to clean it herself, and then pulled up the carpeting and billed Cress for the labor. Both Cress and the neighbors living below the problem tenant say she ignored requests to prevent her dog from urinating on the upper deck. The lower neighbors also complained that Pacheco-Erickson played her stereo loudly until 2am, ignoring requests to turn it down.

It had only been two weeks, but Cress was fed up and served Pacheco-Erickson with a 30-day notice of eviction on June 28.

Kathy Cress
Robert Scheer

Bad Homecoming: Holding legal papers concerning her renter, landlady Kathy Cress looks around the duplex once rented by her evicted tenant.

Patterns Emerge

IT IS NO MISTAKE THAT THE ANTIQUATED terms "Lord" and "Lady" are still affixed to those who rent out property. Similar to royalty from the Middle Ages, folks who allow others to live in their domain have an undue amount of power. Housing laws were created with this in mind, an attempt to give everyone--regardless of race, gender or religious beliefs--equal opportunity for shelter. The law also was designed to give tenants due process in the face of eviction, and protect them from retaliation in the face of legitimate housing complaints.

Yet that safety net of legal restrictions became a noose that almost hung Kathy Cress. A month later, Pacheco-Erickson produced no further rent and showed no signs of leaving. After posting a three-day notice to pay or quit, Cress then filed a writ of unlawful detainer, a legal form that begins the process toward formal eviction. While at the courthouse, Cress decided to run a check on her tenant's name for other court cases, and what she discovered horrified her.

Listed as Pacheco, Erickson or Pacheco-Erickson, the woman now residing in Cress' mountain home had appeared as defendant in six civil cases in the past nine years. As she read through the cases, Cress discovered the real name and phone number of Pacheco-Erickson's previous landlord, who, when contacted, he did not give nearly so glowing a report as the person claiming to be the previous landlord on the application. That landlord also had filed an unlawful detainer.

Cress continued contacting other property owners who had ended up in court with Pacheco-Erickson and began to see a pattern emerge, one verified by public documents and interviews by Metro Santa Cruz.

Most were "mom and pop" landlords, with a small dwelling or attached in-law unit for rent. In two cases, it was a roommate situation. Pacheco-Erickson rarely paid more than the first month's rent (or first and last, if required). As she would do with Cress, Pacheco-Erickson often would challenge the writ of unlawful detainer by claiming the rental was unhabitable until certain repairs were done, a move that buys a tenant time while the court attempts to reach a conclusion.

Cress discovered other telling patterns. Like her, none of the landlords had done a thorough background check on Pacheco-Erickson. And though the courts ruled in the landlords' and roommates' favor for damages conservatively estimated at $9,000, Ana Pacheco-Erickson has never paid a dime of restitution, according to those who were contacted.

Few of the previous landlords want their names used in this article, and for good reason. Pacheco-Erickson sued Orchard Supply Hardware in 1989, claiming injuries from a slippery floor, and received a settlement of $25,000.

Reached by phone, Pacheco-Erickson defends herself when asked about each rental. The problem with Cress' unit, explains Pacheco-Erickson, was the lack of cleanliness. "[Cress] assured me that all would be taken care of, [but] she only cleaned the refrigerator and removed the trash," says Pacheco-Erickson. "I ended up spending about two weeks to clean it."

Although Cress accused her tenant of "yelling and screaming" in her face, Pacheco-Erickson countercharges the same: "She screamed at me that I was crazy, that the deal was off."

Pacheco-Erickson says she contacted Gary McNeil, an attorney with Legal Aid. "He said they were never planning to give me my money back," she recalls. "He [also said] that mountain properties have a lot of landlord-tenant problems; they were often below standard. This is the most vicious experience I've ever had."

Pacheco-Erickson admits to being evicted before, but says, "In this case, I was exploited." Asked about a Live Oak eviction from a property owned by a 78-year-old woman, "It was not habitable," she sniffs. "There were broken windows, and I got pneumonia and ended up with severe lung damage. Legal Aid helped me with that."

And with the rental previous to Cress'? "It was expensive."

Then there was former roommate James Stewart, who wrote a letter to Cress outlining his travails with Pacheco-Erickson, which he says cost him $1,975 in legal fees, lost rent and repairs. He wrote, "It was evident that Ana was using the system to provide her lodging, and it didn't matter to her what it cost the landlord."

In that case, Pacheco-Erickson says, "There's a problem here with housing that is affordable. I did contest that one to delay it." But when questioned about evictions reflected in Monterey County court records, Pacheco-Erickson hung up the phone.

Aiding and Abetting

SOME LANDLORDS WHO have rented to Pacheco-
Erickson report feeling equally mistreated by Legal Aid, which, they feel, aided and abetted the tenant's charade. "We got a call from Gary McNeil, who was representing her," says Cress. "He asked us all to meet, and he proposed to be a mediator. He wanted us to give her another opportunity because he thought it was a retaliatory eviction." Cress asks how much of a mediator her tenant's attorney can be.

McNeil confirms Legal Aid has assisted Pacheco-Erickson three times in landlord difficulties, and the attorney expresses his concern for the tenant, a woman who is "fragile," and who gets herself in "predicaments." He is also concerned for her daughter, an innocent victim of this chronic moving, eviction and moving again.

Was McNeil aware that Pacheco-Erickson's predicaments had been so numerous and had cost so much to those who could ill afford it? "We don't do a background check on people," he states. "My job is to give credence to the clients who come in here."

McNeil defends his former client. "There are some people out to gouge landlords, but I wouldn't put Ana there. She's just a horrible diplomat about getting along with a landlord."

Funded through a variety of sources including local, state and federal grants, the Legal Aid Society offers free legal assistance to the poor. Its attorneys, who specialize in the complexities of poverty law, often are the only ones standing between the marginalized of society and those who seek to exploit them. It also has become the latest whipping boy for conservatives convinced the organization is advancing a "liberal" agenda at taxpayers' expense.

Gary McNeil
Robert Scheer

By the Book: Although Ana Pacheco-Erickson had been evicted numerous times, Legal Aid 's Gary McNeil says, "My job is to give credence to the clients who come in here."

Locally, Legal Aid has weathered some rocky times in the past few years. After the advocacy group sued Santa Cruz County in 1995, claiming that the county illegally blocked low-income housing, the Board of Supervisors considered cutting off county funding to the organization.

Recently, says Legal Aid Directing Attorney Mary Theurwachter, the nonprofit has lost about one-fifth of its funding, forcing restructuring and layoffs. And, in a move that seems to support Cress' allegations, the Capitola City Council voted in 1993 to refuse funding to Legal Aid after a series of charges were leveled against the organization, including claims that Legal Aid took unreasonable positions in tenant-landlord disputes.

"My office has had complaints about Legal Aid," says Supervisor Jan Beautz. "Some of these complaints have alleged that there's a tendency to prolong the proceedings so that tenants get to stay in there longer, and in the meantime they're not paying rent. But," she says, "we also get complaints about landlords who are very unscrupulous. The point of having Legal Aid is to level the playing field."

Theurwachter denies that her organization is in the business of assisting tenants in avoiding their responsibilities. "What happens is we give people the information that gives them access to the legal system. We only take cases with merit," she says. "There's good landlords and bad landlords, [but] people come in here generally because they are having a problem. We only hear about [a landlord-tenant relationship] when it's gone bad. So we do see a skewed version. None of us here believes that landlords as a class are bad."

Sheriff's deputy Steven Fitzgerald arrived at Cress' duplex the afternoon of Sept. 4 to post an eviction notice on Pacheco-Erickson's door. Although a five-day notice to vacate was posted on her door previously, the tenant has made no apparent attempts to move, or even pack. By now, Cress is frantic. She admits to living on her credit cards, which are inching toward their limit.

Within minutes of the sheriff's arrival, Cress had changed the locks, thus barring her tenant from re-entry when she returns.

The deputy glances around the inside before the door is finally shut. "This is unusual," Fitzgerald admits, noting the lack of any attempt to pack belongings. "She's going to fight till the bitter end."

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From the October 17-23, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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