Dozens of bites — some newer and more angry, some older and scabbed over — covered Ursula Garcia’s legs.
Garcia, who lives in an apartment in the 300 block of West Valerio Street in downtown Santa Barbara, said those bites, which also cover her children, her neighbors and their kids, are pervasive in the complex where they live.
She disappeared into a nearby apartment and returned less than a minute later with what looked like an empty water bottle, but actually held the culprit. Inside, was a bedbug about the size of a pencil eraser.
The “chinches” — or bedbugs — are everywhere, Garcia and her neighbors say.
Garcia has two other children who live with her, and noted that they can scratch when they get bites.
But Osvaldo — a chubby 8-month-old she holds on her hip — is defenseless, she said, pointing out several small bites on his ankles.
Garcia, as well as neighbors at an apartment building in the 1500 block of Garden Street, have filed a lawsuit against their landlord, Dario Pini, alleging that conditions with bedbugs, cockroaches and other pests have gotten so bad they’re a threat to their health as well as that of their children.
Their lawsuit was filed Sept. 5 with the help of attorney Matt Clarke, and lists 12 people as plaintiffs: Nancy Garcia, Pedro Gomez, Araceli Lopez, Juan Martinez, Maria Mora, Fernando Obispo, Andres Olivo, Raymundo Orozco, Liliana Sanchez, Ludin Sanchez, Leodegario Velez and Guadalupe Vences.
They are suing Pini and his companies for breach of rental agreement as well as negligence and unfair business practices.
The lawsuit claims that Pini has done nothing, despite numerous complaints from the residents, being sued and fined by the City of Santa Barbara, and even put in jail for not maintaining his properties.
The suit isn’t the first to be levied against Pini, but may be unique in that the tenants are asking for back rent. They maintain that Pini didn’t live up to his end of the deal to provide safe and habitable apartments, and are suing for damages.
The plaintiffs say they’ve suffered personal injuries as a result of cockroach infestations, as well as bedbugs, fleas, rats and mice. Mold, water leaks, pipe breaks and other forms of water intrusion are also issues, they say.
Lack of locking doors and windows on the apartments, dilapidated doors, windows, decks, railings are also listed in the complaint.
Pini’s attorney, Larry Powell, did not return Noozhawk’s calls for comment last week.
The Garden Street apartments, one of three Pini properties listed in the lawsuit, were inspected by city officials last year.
The city filed a lawsuit based on those inspections, stating that Pini’s properties were “public nuisances” that threaten the community’s safety.
Pini settled that suit earlier this year, resulting in about 100 commercial and residential properties he owns in the city, including the Garden Street Apartments, being placed under court-ordered operation and maintenance for at least five years. He was also ordered to pay $35,000 in civil penalties to the city.
In the meantime, the residents say the condition of their homes has continued to deteriorate.
About 10 or so of the residents at the Garden Street apartments met to talk with Noozhawk last Wednesday afternoon. Clarke interpreted for several who could not speak English.
Nearby, children kicked a soccer ball in the apartment’s inner courtyard, which holds what used to be a swimming pool that has since been filled in with dirt.
Almost everyone there, especially the children, is covered in dozens of bites.
Bedbugs feed on blood, and are usually more active at night, biting while the host is sleeping and retreating during the day. Infestations have nothing to do with cleanliness, but the bugs are notoriously hard to get rid of.
“We want justice,” Garcia said. “We’ve complained so many times.”
When asked why the family doesn’t just move, Garcia explained that Pini doesn’t require the security deposit that other landlords do.
It’s not unusual for companies to require one or two months of rent on top of the security deposit, which can add up to $4,000 or more just to move in, she said.
Garcia also admits that Pini doesn’t enforce the number of tenants in a given unit, which is appealing to many families living below the poverty line.
“That’s why we’re living with Dario,” she said. “We have nowhere else to go.”
Garden Street tenant Alicia Sandoval agreed.
She’s been living at the apartments for seven years, because “we can’t afford any other house,” she said.
Speaking with Noozhawk in the kitchen of his Garden Street apartment, Juan Martinez described what his family has been through.
In the kitchen’s corner, blue duct tape covers the gaps around the door to the water heater, where he said many of the roaches come from.
Three weeks ago, Martinez and his wife took their 9-year-old daughter to the emergency room after she had developed a high fever. The girl was covered with the bites, he said.
Doctors were unsure what the lesions were at first, but when Martinez came home from the hospital, he examined his daughter’s bed.
Shining a flashlight into the sheets, Martinez said he found it “full of bedbugs.”
When the family couldn’t get rid of them, Martinez said he went to Pini’s office three times to try to get the landlord to address the problem, but with no luck.
Other residents said they contacted Pini, but were told the problem was because they owned a dog or because their apartments weren’t clean enough.
The Martinezes have lived at the complex for a year, and say they are always cleaning to try to eliminate the problem.
Indeed, many of the Garden Street apartments were clean, with the faint smell of bleach in the air.
“It’s not worth what you pay for it,” Martinez said.
Supporters of Pini have said he provides affordable housing to those who would otherwise be homeless, but Clarke said he doesn’t buy that argument.
He said those who believe that “need to tour a few of his properties or live in one for a week.” He added that the rents, which are at or above market rate, and the substandard conditions make the apartments “neither affordable nor is it acceptable housing.”
Standing at Martinez’s front door, Clarke asked if he built the wooden screen door that covers the entrance with a fine mesh. Martinez replied that he did it to keep the bugs out.
As for the lawsuit, “My wife and I were afraid he would do something to us,” he said of Pini, adding that other families were afraid to come forward, too.
“Money is the only thing that seems to matter to him,” Martinez alleged.
Rent is not cheap, either, said Maria Hernandez, adding that she pays $1,950 for a two-bedroom apartment on Garden Street.
“I clean all day, and it still doesn’t help,” she said.
Residents say it is common to have to replace mattresses, couches and even televisions when they were ruined by the bedbugs and roaches. They acknowledge spending thousands of dollars to do so.
Liliana Sanchez, who spearheaded the lawsuit by contacting Clarke, has lived in the apartments for nine years, but says conditions are the worst they’ve ever been over the last two years.
She said she’s gotten rid of two televisions, including one large flat-screen, after they were ruined when cockroaches nested inside.
“We had to throw almost everything out,” she said.
Sanchez’s son, Christian, a 17-year-old Santa Barbara High School student, said he’s had two cockroaches crawl into his ear at night while he’s been in bed.
Clarke said Sanchez’s 10-year-old son, Julio, was also diagnosed with what doctors have only termed “a cockroach-related illness.” He added that the boy has had respiratory trouble from breathing in fecal matter that has turned to dust in the apartment.
Several residents, including Sanchez, said they were afraid of Pini, who they say will sometimes go door to door collecting rent himself.
But Sanchez said it’s important for people to speak up — even immigrants who may be afraid of retribution or unable to speak English.
“It’s scary, but I’ve got everyone behind me,” she said.