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Inside the Nightmarish, Infested Building at the Center of the SoMa Landlord Lawsuit

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After yesterday's allegations of downright scary conditions at 1751 Market, the SoMa building at the center of a lawsuit brought by dozens of tenants, a startling picture is emerging of the conditions inside the building. As with the case of the SoMa landlords the Macys—who famously sawed through one tenant's living room floor while he was inside—nightmarish tenant abuses tend to rely on a replenishable population of renters desperate enough to stick around. At 1751 Market, which the lawsuit characterizes as a rat-infested, gas-leaky deathtrap with persistent drug and prostitution problems, most of the tenants do not speak English and did not know their rights, according to attorney Edward Higginbotham, who represents the tenants in the suit against landlord Adib Khouri, who manages the building (and co-owns it with brother Faiq Khouri and Diana Khouri, also named in the suit). "I think he feels he has power over a vulnerable population," Higginbotham says. "He has threatened to deport people and families. People who I've confirmed are tenants the day before, they don't show up [at the deposition] out of fear."


The tenants are suing for damages in the neighborhood of $10 million; depositions are currently ongoing, and the case is headed to trial in August. The allegations range from unlawful rent hikes and tenant harassment to bedbugs and mold to sewage bubbling up in a kitchen sink and blood spatters from a January 2014 murder that remained in the hallway for several months. "There's closets that had rotting dead pigeons in them," says Higginbotham.

Edward Rodzewich, the Khouris' attorney, declined to comment on the allegations against his clients. "Our policy is not to comment, so that's all I'm going to say," he says.


Between January 2013 and May 2014, Crystal Cook and her boyfriend, Martin Gomez, lived in a one-bedroom with their two kids. They turned the living room into a second bedroom, and paid $2,000 per month for their unit. Cook, who works a as a general manager at a restaurant, says the ceiling of her bathroom was moldy and broken, with a "huge hole" and leaks coming from the apartment upstairs. There were also bedbugs, rats, and cockroaches, according to Cook. "They didn't have maintenance people to fix things," she says. "If you asked, they'd get mad."


"We had a really strong gas smell," adds Cook. "We called PG&E. They said our stove was leaking, so they turned off the gas to our apartment. We could have died."

Cook says she complained to management several times about a group of people loitering in the hallway, doing drugs and leaving needles and beer bottles behind. Late one night, she recalls, a friend of hers was leaving her apartment, and the group attacked him. "They beat him up really bad," says Cook. "He had to go to therapy for months."


After about a year in the building, Cook consulted with tenants' rights advocates, who advised her to stop paying rent until the problems were fixed. After she began withholding rent, things got more unpleasant. One day, Khouri showed up unannounced in their apartment. "He came into our room at 7:30 in the morning while we were sleeping, asking us to pay the rent," she says. "We woke up and the landlord was there. He just came in." Cook says Khouri also showed up at the restaurant where she and Gomez work "to yell at us."


The current suit isn't the Khouris' first brush with the law. In 2003, the Khouris were ordered to pay $500,000 to the City and County of San Francisco for violations at 3315 Mission Street, an 18-unit building in Bernal Heights. In those proceedings, the city cited conditions such as hazardous plumbing and electrical fixtures, a lack of smoke detectors, and leaks causing mold and mildew.

Higginbotham has also filed a wrongful death and negligence suit against the Khouris on behalf of the family of Jose Manuel Puc May, the man who was stabbed in the hallway on January 6, 2014.


After Cook and Gomez stopped paying rent, Khouri began the process of evicting them, which Cook and Gomez challenged. Cook says she's prohibited from discussing the terms of any settlement reached. The family moved out in May 2014 and now live in a townhouse in the Excelsior.


Of the roughly 40 tenants who brought the suit, which was filed in July 2014, about 30 are still living in the building, according to Higginbotham. While Cook was living there, she says she was one of just three tenants who spoke English. "He seems to try to rent to minorities," she says, describing the building population as 99 percent Latino, with the remainder from Asian countries. "A lot of the Latinos don't necessarily speak Spanish, only Mayan" languages, she explains. "They're from Yucatán. Even right now they're having trouble with the depositions, trying to find translators for Mayan."

Update (4/16/15): This story has been updated to correct the first name of the 1751 Market resident who was killed in January 2014. He is Jose Manuel Puc May, not Juan Puc May. We regret the error.

· SoMa Tenants Sue Landlord Over Sewage in Sink, Bloody Walls [Curbed SF]
· SF Landlords Charged with Tenant Terror
[SFGate]
· Crystal Cook vs. Adib Khouri [Document Cloud]
· Arrest, but No Charges, in Market Street Stabbing [SFGate]