A jury has blocked the eviction of four Santa Ana families from their apartments and rejected the landlord's claim that he was ordered by the city to reduce apartment overcrowding.
The case marked the first time in the long-running rent strike against a number of Santa Ana landlords that a landlord cited for overcrowding had lost an eviction case. Last week's verdict allowed the four families to remain in their Standard Street apartments, despite the city's order that landlord James Talley reduce crowding or face criminal prosecution.
Refused to Pay Rent
As part of the 18-month-old rent strike, all four tenants have refused to pay rent in protest of alleged substandard conditions in the apartments.
"The jury was asked whether the landlord was acting in good faith, and they found the evictions were in bad faith and in retaliation for the rent strike," said Richard Spix, lawyer for the tenants.
Talley's attorney, Terrence Calder, acknowledged that it was the first tenant victory but called the case unusual. He said the jury reacted to substandard living conditions in the apartments and failed to recognize that the landlord had no choice in complying with city occupancy limits.
In about 30 other cases, evictions to reduce overcrowding have been upheld, Calder said.
In Talley's four buildings, about 500 people live "10 or 12 to each one-bedroom unit," Calder said.
Santa Ana housing inspectors cited Talley in April for violating city codes that limit occupancy, and Talley served eviction notices on the tenants at 1113 to 1125 S. Standard St.
"We were attempting to evict them, because the City of Santa Ana told us we had to bring the population down to three per apartment," Calder said.
In a separate lawsuit, Spix has challenged the Santa Ana housing code provisions that limit occupancy. That case, pending in Orange County Superior Court, is due for a hearing on Sept. 22. The city has agreed not to cite landlords for overcrowding until the case is decided. But eviction cases filed before that lawsuit are not affected.
Talley testified in the trial, before Municipal Judge James P. Gray, that he had removed knobs from the doors of several apartments last month in an effort to comply with the overcrowding ordinance.
Rent Strike Reaction?
Spix said he believed that Talley's testimony convinced the jury that the evictions were, in fact, in reaction to the rent strike. The verdict was returned Wednesday.
A city official, who threatened Talley with criminal action unless tenants were moved, was ill and unavailable to testify, Calder said.
"We tried to convince the jury we were acting on instructions of the city, but it's pretty hard to convince them without the witness," Calder said.
Calder acknowledged that each of the apartments had been cited separately by city inspectors for substandard conditions. But he insisted the evictions were not in response to the rent strike.