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A Fine Mess 

A monumental sewage eruption shows tenants the downside of living in the Presidio

Wednesday, Oct 22 2003
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At 11:38 on the morning of July 25, Blake Manning, a 23-year-old 7-Eleven clerk, awoke to what sounded like a rushing waterfall in the Presidio apartment he shared with two roommates. "Dark water was spewing from the seal between the toilet and the floor," he recalls. "It was coming out of every possible orifice in the bathroom. And there's no nice way to say this: Everything that was coming out was shit -- we could see peanuts."

The sewage gurgled into the three bedrooms and the hall closets of Manning's $1,895-a-month unit at 1590A Stillwell Road, reaching a depth of 1 to 2 inches. Manning used his mattress to block the brown liquid from penetrating deeper into his bedroom, and dammed off other areas of the apartment with clothing. One of his roommates, A.J. DeFlaminis, a 27-year-old art student, arrived home to find smelly fluid seeping through the apartment's hardwood floor and subfloor into the carport below the four-unit building.

The roommates reported the incident to the Presidio Trust, the federal agency that manages the Presidio, and maintenance staffers arrived 15 minutes later. The workers stopped the initial sewage flow, and the Presidio Trust's cleaning company, Aurora Janitorial Services, arrived to mop up the apartment. Shortly thereafter, the roommates and their neighbors say, workers opened a pipe in a maintenance room adjacent to the carport. Manning says this unleashed a spray of "pressurized shit" that remained airborne for 15 to 20 feet and continued for about 15 minutes. The cleanup consisted of hosing the liquid down the street toward a storm drain that empties into the bay, says DeFlaminis.

But the tenants' plight was about to become much more complicated due to their Presidio address. Because DeFlaminis, Manning, and their roommate, Nathan Klimachefsky, a 27-year-old Radio Shack employee, resided on federal property, they were not covered by city and state tenant protection laws. The San Francisco Health Department has no jurisdiction in the Presidio. Moreover, tenants have no right to a jury trial in the event of a dispute, thus severely inhibiting their ability to obtain damages from the Presidio. Instead, they must file a claim with the Presidio and submit to arbitration if they're unhappy with the outcome.

After the sewage eruption was stopped, DeFlaminis, Manning, and Klimachefsky felt upbeat. The Presidio maintenance and cleanup crews had responded promptly, and the property manager, John Stewart Co., offered to put them up in a hotel. They chose instead to stay in a vacant Stewart Co. apartment close to their own unit, since they would have had to pay the $115-a-night hotel bill upfront and apply for reimbursement later as part of their federal claim.

But the situation quickly went south. The roommates returned to their apartment the day after the backup to discover that the cleaners had performed unsatisfactorily. "A blind 80-year-old grandma could have done a better job," says Manning. Numerous stains were visible, and DeFlaminis noted a "yellow ring around all the baseboards where the sewage had been." Disturbed, the tenants asked for a health inspector to examine the premises -- which under city law they would be entitled to. The Stewart Co. reportedly responded that they "don't do that" but sent over the janitorial service to scrub the place again.

On July 28, the Stewart Co. instructed the three tenants to leave the premises for allegedly not paying that month's rent. The roommates regarded the notice as a blatant effort to punish them for being so demanding. The eviction threat was quickly dropped, however. Ted Gullicksen, of the San Francisco Tenants Union, views the firm's behavior as par for the course. "John Stewart Management has a really bad reputation for strong-arming tenants," Gullicksen says. "They have a reputation for acting above the law and just sort of intimidating tenants out."

Through a spokeswoman, the John Stewart Co. declined to comment for this article, citing the possibility of future litigation. Presidio Trust spokesman Ron Sonenshine says that although "we never like to have problems like this," his agency handled the incident properly.

DeFlaminis says that a John Stewart property supervisor, Darin Delagnes, then tried to make things right by offering the three roommates a better unit for the same rent, with $500 thrown in for moving expenses and "pizza and beer." The tenants refused, noting that since many of their personal effects had contacted raw sewage, it was essential that they be cleaned before being moved to a new apartment. In response, Delagnes reportedly offered to have their belongings tested for contamination at an independent facility. The tenants agreed verbally, and went to the leasing office to sign the new lease.

But the leasing office staff had never heard of the deal; DeFlaminis holds that "every number and condition had changed." The leasing agent, he says, refused to put the deal in writing, instead promising that the new terms would be added later. They would have to move on their own, and seek reimbursement of the promised $500 in their claim to the Presidio. Suspicious, the tenants did not sign. "It seemed like they were trying to hustle us," says Klimachefsky.

As time passed, the roommates repeatedly asked for an independent health inspection of their apartment. On Aug. 3, while sifting through the damage, they noticed that mold was visible on many of their possessions. DeFlaminis says mold had bloomed in four or five colors on several furnishings.

Without notifying the tenants, the Presidio hired PSI, an environmental consulting firm, to inspect the premises on Aug. 12. PSI took only four samples and tested for just two bacteria strains commonly associated with sewage backups: E. coli and total coliform bacteria. According to DeFlaminis, "they just checked the clean parts," leaving sewage stains untested, including a large smear on a closet door and discolored areas on the subfloors through which the waste had seeped. DeFlaminis also wanted the apartment tested for hepatitis and tuberculosis. PSI's testing showed that total coliform bacteria was present in the apartment. While not necessarily dangerous itself, the presence of total coliform indicates the likely presence of additional, more harmful bacteria.

PSI's Bob White led the inspection. He agrees that "a stain on the wall still can have bacteria present," and should be tested for more types of bacteria than just E. coli and total coliform. But White adds that PSI did not notice any significant stains in the premises, and he believes the cleanup was satisfactory.

Adding injury to injury, the roommates say, the Presidio Trust changed the locks to their unit on Aug. 25 while their belongings were still inside, and then moved their stuff into a portable storage container -- without the tenants' permission. In the process, contaminated and uncontaminated items were mixed together.

DeFlaminis and his roommates are still adding up their losses, but they figure they are owed up to $5,000 in damages and expenses. Among their out-of-pocket costs were ruined furniture and clothing, DeFlaminis' artwork, dry-cleaning bills, and masks and rubber gloves they used to handle their tainted things. But other than submitting a claim to the Presidio Trust, they have few options to recoup their losses. If the Presidio disallows their claim, or only pays part of it, the roommates have no other alternative but to submit to arbitration.

Their lease, says San Francisco housing lawyer Paul Utrecht, is "very pro-landlord because of the unique situation of the Presidio. Things that would not be enforceable by private landlords are. California and the city have a number of limitations on what a landlord can do, and some of those don't apply in the Presidio."

Utrecht, who represents both tenants and property owners, and who met with the roommates, says he was particularly concerned with the waiver of a jury trial and mandated arbitration if the tenants are unhappy with the damages the Presidio is willing to pay. He explains that "juries are relatively favorable to tenants because most jurors are tenants in San Francisco, and most arbitrators are probably owners. And, of course, jurors tend to act on sympathy, and sympathy gets you more money."

Utrecht adds that the institutional bias of arbitration "favors the repeat players," i.e., landlords. California law guarantees a residential tenant's right to a trial, he says, because "it's recognized that [arbitration] is an unfair advantage for landlords." For all practical purposes, the arbitrator's decision is final, leaving little room for appeal. Utrecht says he advised the tenants not to take legal action against the Presidio Trust because the cost of litigation outweighed the likely recovery. Lawsuits, he notes, "are all about what they're worth, and against a private landlord [this case] would be worth quite a bit."

Meantime, the three roommates have found new digs. DeFlaminis and Manning got a place together on Nob Hill, while Klimachefsky moved to North Beach. They say a cockroach infestation has broken out in the Stillwell Road building, and at least one of their neighbors there is also moving as a result of that and the Presidio's inadequate response to the backup.

The motto of the story, according to Manning: "Don't live on federal land."

About The Author

M.J.F. Stewart


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