With help from CASA, Md. tenants file court claims seeking end to high water bills and unhealthy living conditions

Erwin Rodas, a Bedford Station resident and plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging conditions at the property, says his bathroom is in bad shape and needs repair. (Maryland Matters/Rosanne Skirble)

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Tenants from two largely Latino communities in Maryland filed complaints in state and federal court against their landlords this summer, seeking to address what the plaintiffs call illegal water fees and unsafe and discriminatory housing practices.

Residents in the Middlebrook Mobile Homes park in Germantown and the Bedford Station and Victoria Station apartment complexes — a dense cluster of nearly 600 apartments in Langley Park — recently discussed their living conditions and the legal cases with a reporter. These are their stories.

Surprise water bills

When Ana Laura Garcia arrived at Middlebrook Mobile Homes 23 years ago, she was one of two Latino families. Today, the community, tucked into grassy rolling hills off of Frederick Road in Germantown, is almost entirely Latino.

“The rent is cheap, but other things are expensive,” Garcia said, referring to the spike in monthly water bills, and late fees that she began to notice three years ago.

Since that time, it has been a growing concern for many of the 1,000 residents who own the 200-plus trailer homes parked there.

The water bills coincided with a change in management in 2018 and installation of new meters.

Garcia, originally from Mexico, earns her living remodeling homes. “I do the hard work, the construction, tiling the floors, things like that.”

She is also a community leader. Ten years ago, she almost single-handedly led an effort to rid the neighborhood of drugs and prostitution. “I went to the police, and made it happen,” the 53-year-old legal U.S. resident said.

Now she heads the tenant association formed to push back against the hike in water services, which in Montgomery County is a combined bill for both water and sewer utilities.

Among her neighbors is Maria Portilla. Born in El Salvador, Portilla has lived in the United States for 21 years, the last three at Middlebrook. She pays an average $120 a month for water.

“My mother, who lives in a house, pays less and her bill comes every three months,” Portilla said.

Other cases are more extreme.

Berta Bonilla, a 15-year resident complains that in September 2018, she received a combined bill for nearly $800.

“As a housecleaner and single mother of four, these water bills have forced me to make tough financial decisions for my family, which have gotten worse during the pandemic,” she said.

Bonilla says some bills came with incorrect summations, incorrect rates and incorrect amounts of water usage. Garcia and Portilla reported the same, although others had no irregular charges.

Molly Boyle is a spokesperson for Horizon Land Management, the property owner that operates Middlebrook and 10 other mobile-home communities in the state. She says residents are billed for what goes through their meters which are placed on their own lines.

“All of the bills are posted in the office for the residents to see. Horizon just passes through the bills from WSSC,” Boyle said.

As for Bonilla’s nearly $800 water bill, Boyle says Horizon refunded half.

“They understood they had leaks on the property and had to repair the leaks,” she said.

Lawsuit is a last resort

“Management is telling us, you’re wasting water. You’ve got a leak. Check it,” Garcia said.  “And when we do, [we find] no such leak exists.  And, if we don’t pay, some residents fear they will be evicted.”

Conservation measures haven’t seemed to help much. Garcia’s family of three buys bottled water, and she showers at the gym. Portilla conserves with shorter showers. Bonilla collects rain water in a barrel for her plants and other daily chores.

Ana Laura Garcia (left) and Maria Portilla (right) water a neighbor’s garden using rainwater collected in a barrel. Garcia heads a tenant association formed to push back against the hike in water services at Middlebrook Mobile Homes in Germantown. (Maryland Matters/Rosanne Skirble)

But the tenants say, bills were never adjusted, and frustration grew, which was the impetus for the tenant association to join forces with CASA, the largest member-based Latino and immigrant organization in the mid-Atlantic region. They worked with CASA organizer Alex Vazquez, to rally on their behalf and for those dealing with the most egregious cases.

“Unfortunately, after multiple attempts to work together with the management office and Montgomery County, the residents have exhausted all attempts to address these urgent concerns,” he said, calling the lawsuit a last resort.

Ana Laura Garcia waters neighbor Berta Bonilla’s plants using rainwater collected in a barrel. Garcia heads a tenant association formed to push back against the hike in water services at Middlebrook Mobile Homes in Germantown. (Maryland Matters/Rosanne Skirble)

On July 7, CASA staff attorney Jonathan Riedel filed the complaint in Montgomery County Circuit Court against Horizon Land Management, headquartered in Crofton, and Middlebrook MHC LLC, challenging illegal fees and alleging intimidation.

Twenty-eight tenants joined as plaintiffs including Garcia, Portilla and Bonilla. “Delving into the law and delving into the detail, something didn’t look right,” Riedel says. “It looked like Middlebrook was just being a little careless with how they were billing.”

An average family of four uses 55 gallons per person per day. One early bill detailed 51,000 gallons over a month, or enough to fill three swimming pools. Riedel said it has to be something else.

“Either it’s the landlord’s fault, or the sub-meter’s fault, but it’s certainly not the tenant’s fault,” he said.

Other charges against the landlord include failure to properly maintain water systems, to monitor and inspect residents’ water usage to identify abnormalities in usage, and threats of eviction when residents challenged a bill.

Defendant calls claims baseless

A statement from Horizon Land Management disputed these claims.

“We are deeply disturbed by the baseless and defamatory allegations in this lawsuit. Horizon Land Management operates Middlebrook in full accordance with the law. We value our community and work closely with residents to address concerns. Prior complaints brought by this group have been reviewed by Horizon and Montgomery County and found to be without merit. We are confident that once again these accusations will be proven to be false.”

Garcia said tenants want to work with the management company.

“We want to meet and talk directly to the owner, to tell our stories in a respectful and non-confrontational way to put all of our cards on the table so that [the owner] understands what’s going on here,” she said.

Riedel hopes that the case can lead to a better relationship between the company and the community.

“Sure, the tenants want their money back if they paid extra and we want to prevent this from happening in the future,” he said. “They want some kind of accountability. It’s about transparency and the community well-being.”

A federal case for fair housing

On a recent Sunday after a hard rain, more than 70 residents including mothers with children in strollers ventured out into the grassy area in front of the Bedford Station apartments standing shoulder to shoulder with neighbors from nearby Victoria Station. Tenants from these two complexes in Langley Park, largely dominated by Hispanic immigrants, have disproportionally faced the most extreme impacts of the pandemic including high infection rates, job loss and food insecurity.

Dressed in a bright red CASA T-shirt with Si se puede — “Yes you can” — written across the back, community organizer Lidia Rivas, said these outdoor meetings began last September in support of a rent strike and a moratorium on eviction, but have also given rise to complaints about unhealthy and dangerous housing conditions.

Tenants from Bedford Station and Victoria Station cheer with CASA organizer Lidia Rivas (center with megaphone). Rivas has hosted outdoor meetings since last September in support of a rent strike and a moratorium on eviction, but the gatherings have also given rise to complaints about unhealthy and dangerous housing conditions. (Maryland Matters/Rosanne Skirble)

“We’ve been out here for 11 months, rain or shine, and we know that united we will win,” she said to a cheering crowd.

During the meeting, Rivas updated tenants, advising them on how to respond to the state and federal eviction protections.

She also introduced the five plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court last month, which details longstanding grievances with landlords at the apartment complexes.

Norma Beltran, a-single mother of two from El Salvador, addressed the crowd.

“I’m asking for your support,” she said. “I joined the case because of the bad living conditions. We are ignored no more.”

Conditions deteriorating around families

Conditions at the complexes, as described in the complaint, are “deteriorating in real time around the families living in them” and “would shock the conscience of most Marylanders and others living only a short distance away.”

Beltran said that’s been her story for the last nine years at Bedford Station.

On a recent tour, she stepped over a puddle in a basement strewn with trash, mouse droppings and an old mattress, before heading upstairs. Later, in her kitchen, she lifts a fancy red cloth that hides mold and rotten wood underneath.

“Same thing in the bathroom,” she said.

Norma Beltran steps over puddles of standing water in the basement of her apartment building at Bedford Station, which is also littered with trash and harbors mice and insects. (Maryland Matters/Rosanne Skirble)

Another plaintiff, Erwin Rodas, hopes the landlords “feel some shame and fix things.”

A sheet sections off the entryway of his two-bedroom apartment, shared among five people, including the three teens stretched out on the bed watching TV on a recent afternoon.

Rodas pointed to holes in the wall and water still dripping from ill-fitting windows after the rain. He’s had electrical failures, insect infestations, and “mold all around — in the kitchen, the bathroom and the walls.”

“Nothing changes,” he said.

Tenants at Bedford Station and Victoria Station pay between $1200 and $1900 for one-, two- and three-bedroom rentals. Rodas and Beltran said they had trouble finding housing for anything less.

“The apartment looked bad from the start, and they promised me that they would fix things, but never did,” Rodas said.

Arbor Realty Trust, a publicly traded investment company that owns the apartment complexes, is one of the largest multifamily housing landlords in the country and the primary defendant in the case.

“This case is very simple,” said Joe Donahue, whose family-owned law firm, The Donahue Law Firm, has taken the case on contingency, along with and Jonathan Nace of Nidel & Nace. “In becoming a landlord of that scale, it has created a conflict of interest. They have to ensure profits for shareholders, but above all provide safe homes for their tenants.”

According to the complaint, there is “overwhelming evidence that Defendants discriminated against communities of color in the State of Maryland – and particularly in Prince George’s and Montgomery County – through their targeted purchases of multifamily housing in low-income communities of color and premediated their neglect of the properties in which Plaintiffs and those similarly situated live.”

And, as a result, the attorneys said, the company is violating the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

Benjamin Klubes, co-managing partner with Buckley LLP, representing Arbor Realty Trust denied the allegations in a written statement.

Tenants at the Bedford Station and Victoria Station apartment complexes said in a federal lawsuit that trash perpetually blocks parking lots and basement access areas, leading to rat and rodent infestations. (Maryland Matters/Rosanne Skirble)

“Bedford and Victoria deny the allegations in the Complaint. Since acquiring these properties that were previously in financial distress, Bedford United and Victoria United have invested millions in capital improvements that have resulted in substantial improvements for tenants,” the statement read.

It goes on to say: “Bedford and Victoria have been and are committed to focusing on maintaining the properties to provide quality and affordable rental housing to the community and serving all our residents’ needs.”

While five plaintiffs are named in the complaint, a request for class-action status could be certified by the court. If granted, the case could apply to all the tenants in properties that Arbor Realty holds, extending far beyond the two apartment complexes in Langley Park.

“For me this is personal,” Beltran, one of the plaintiffs, said. “I hope that the problems get resolved for all of our neighbors. And, if not, we will keep fighting.”

Megaphone in hand, Rivas told the tenants in the courtyard: “This may take years, but we’re not going away.”

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