SARASOTA — A local tenants advocacy group has filed a complaint against the city of Sarasota’s Code Compliance Office and the department's special magistrate this week, calling for an investigation into his tenure and removal from the position because of what the group calls a conflict of interest regarding a mother and local activist Alaina Martinez.
The complaint was submitted to city officials on Monday by the Manasota Tenants Union on Martinez’s behalf and describes the condition the group says Martinez and her three children have been living in at a property the magistrate and local attorney owns on 46th street in north Sarasota.
Several issues in the home, including dilapidated plumbing, a raccoon infestation and pre-existing black mold were cited in the complaint. The magistrate, Richard Ellis, denies any conflict or improper handling of Martinez's tenancy.
Martinez says that because of her complaints and requests for a mold test and temporary housing during the mold remediation, the landlord retaliated by sending an eviction notice and a notice of an increase in rent of more than $1,000, set to begin in August.
The mold, Martinez contends, caused her oldest son's hospital visit in late May.
“It’s an old house, I accept that, but if there is a real health issue here then I can’t accept that,” said Martinez, who is active with BLM Manasota, which refers to itself as a local community organization made up of local activists and community members covering Sarasota and Manatee counties. “The mold is on the ceiling right above his bed … I immediately sent pictures to them (code compliance) and they did have someone come out. He walked around and inspected the house, and I could see the alarm that went off in him.”
She says a few days later, around June 3, Ellis called informing her that her lease was terminated because of the mold.
Ellis, who has served as a special magistrate in Sarasota since 1999, owns a few other properties in the city, Sarasota County records show. He is listed as the property owner of the home on 46th street which was purchased in 2012, according to the county's records.
As a special magistrate, Ellis presides over code enforcement cases that are reported to the city of Sarasota. Violations such as red light infractions, parking, and vessel forfeiture are typical of the cases Ellis said he handles.
In some instances, a magistrate may assess fines or place an order for a lien against a property. Ellis stated that his special magistrate duties do not involve tenant-landlord disputes.
"Generally speaking, with code enforcement it's whether or not someone has violated the city code as it applies to their housing," Ellis explained. "Many times it's just as simple as the grass is too high."
Ellis confirmed he ordered a mold inspection at the home he rents to Martinez. The test results showed 'elevated spore counts,’ he told the Herald-Tribune. However, Ellis said he did not retaliate against Martinez and that he isn’t in the position to provide housing to her because of family obligations and financial constraints.
Ellis said that a second property two doors down from the property he rents to Martinez was recently vacated due to mold as well. He said via email that the lease termination was necessary due to the circumstances.
“I called Ms. Martinez and indicated that I did not feel it was appropriate to continue with her month-to-month lease agreement given any health threat that might exist to her or her family,” Ellis wrote.
“I have always been diligent in addressing any issues or conditions that might arise at the property. The narrative being spun by activists about me is false and slanderous. I always took care of any issues in the house and conducted an inspection of potential mold the day after mold was reported in May.”
Martinez and the tenants' group maintain that Ellis knew of the mold prior to Martinez taking up the lease last year and that Ellis abused his position as a magistrate by denying the Section 8 voucher holder a safe space while he remedied the mold issue.
Now, Martinez and her three boys are in search of a home before an eviction notice is filed and the family loses her voucher status.
The federally funded Housing Choice Voucher Program, known as Section 8, assists low-income, disabled and elderly residents acquire affordable housing in their areas. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) maintains the program and allocates money to states.
Though the program assists individuals and families with rental support, waitlists for the vouchers have historically been long — sometimes up to several years before a tenant's name is pulled from the random lottery of over 1,000 eligible recipients locally.
Voucher holders typically pay no more than 30% of their income towards their monthly rent.
“It’s like pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” Martinez said. “We’re in the middle of a housing crisis and I have to hurry and find a house to keep my kids together, safe. There have been many sleepless nights.”
The termination notice went into effect immediately on June 7, the one-sentence letter said. Martinez said she was given 15 days to vacate the property before an eviction notice was filed.
“At no time have I ever used my position as Special Magistrate to pressure Ms. Martinez or any tenant or individual in any way,” Ellis said.
Sarasota's communications office issued a brief comment Thursday about the alleged conflict of interest in Ellis' position as code enforcement special magistrate stating: "We are aware of an ongoing dispute between a landlord and a tenant. However, there is no active code compliance case, and the city has no involvement in this matter."
Samantha Gholar covers social justice news for the Herald-Tribune and USA TODAY Network. Connect with her at email@example.com or on Twitter: @samanthagholar
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Attorney and special magistrate denies tenant's retaliation claims