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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on November 21st, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 38 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 38

Lawsuit targeting county Housing Authority says excessive home inspections violate Fourth Amendment

By SPENCER COLE

In a cramped 323-square-foot apartment off G Street in Lompoc lives the architect of a lawsuit who says her case contesting governmental warrantless home inspections is but one of thousands.

Marsha Waldau, gray haired and bespectacled, peers up from the stack of case files and documents obscuring the wood surface of her kitchen table from view. She points to a gold framed painting on the wall behind her. A piece of the unit’s circuit breaker box is barely visible behind it.


ROUTINE DISTURBANCE
Marsha Waldau, a retired attorney living in subsidized housing in Lompoc (pictured), says management and government entities inspect her apartment and complex too much and violate her civil rights.
PHOTO BY SPENCER COLE

“My father did that,” she says. “I’ve known that painting since it was just a sketch on a table.”

During an inspection about a year ago at the apartment complex—owned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Development (HUD)—employees told Waldau she had to move the painting and that it was in violation of her living agreement.

“They were trying to tell me how I can decorate my own house,” she says, eyeing the artwork. “They were even threatening to come back up to see if I complied.”

Nothing came of the incident and the painting still hangs on that same spot of the wall, but the disagreement between tenant and management continued, as it had over the previous three years. According to Waldau, these arguments have been punctuated with what she says are recurring inspections: some by the city, others by the county, some by a private company that invests in low-income housing tax credits.

Waldau estimates that over the past four years she’s been sent notices of impending inspections more than 60 times. A number she says should at most be 16—enough for one inspection per year to be conducted by four different entities.

“I could get inspected by the city of Lompoc and then the very next day, another entity of California will come to do the same thing,” she says. “They don’t listen to each other—they won’t listen to the reporting from the guy before.”

But what’s really gotten out of hand, according to Waldau, is the complex’s management, who repeatedly tries to come into her apartment for what she calls “housekeeping inspections.”

“People have the right to refuse housing inspections by the government—which is the landlord here,” she says, her voice sharpening. “They like to say, ‘Well, you signed a contract. Your lease says that we can do this.’ But it doesn’t quite say that, and even if it did, which it doesn’t, there is something called the Doctrine of Unconstitutional Conditions.”

The term Waldau is referencing is not a series of laws passed by legislators, but instead legal precedent set by rulings in past court cases citing the Fourth Amendment.

To put it simply, she explains, a citizen cannot be made or compelled to give up civil rights in exchange for public benefits. 

David and Goliath 

Waldau retired from law eight years ago. But in the past year, she’s paid more than $5,000 in dues with the California State Bar so she could take on the the California Housing Finance Agency, the state’s tax credit allocation committee, and the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Barbara.

She will represent herself, and the list of defendants she’s seeking an injunction from doesn’t end with the aforementioned parties. There’s also the county’s housing assistance corporation, the city of Lompoc, and Redstone Equity Partners—a private real estate fund manager that specializes in low-income housing tax credits.

Waldau had originally included HUD in her suit but dropped it due to jurisdiction—you can’t sue the federal government in state court.

But even with the federal agency out of the case, Waldau stands alone against multiple parties and lawyers, who are adamantly contesting her claims.

Of the half dozen or so defendants in Waldau’s case, only two returned requests seeking comment by the Sun’s print time: the county housing authority and the city of Lompoc.

According to court documents, the county and state entities, along with Redstone, argue that Waldau’s apartment had never been inspected when she objected to an inspection, and their lawyers called the claims for injunctive relief premature.

The city of Lompoc said it had never inspected Waldau’s apartment, and the units it does inspect are done without tenants’ objections.

At least two copies of lease agreements obtained by the Sun do say that scheduled inspections are to occur at least once per year.

Multiple interviews with residents at the location confirmed that the searches did occur. The majority requested anonymity to discuss the matter.

Mark Raitt, who lives down the hall from Waldau, said he had lived at the apartments for two years but had never been inspected.

“They may have come in when I wasn’t here, but as far as I know, they’ve never been in here for that,” he added.

Waldau admits she didn’t really have a problem with one inspection per year, done by the government, as part of ensuring the quality of public housing and its programs.

“I’m not contesting the one inspection you have to be home for,” she told the Sun. “That’s not based on a lease, it’s based upon your request for a Section 8 voucher, and so what you’re doing is on an annual [basis] thing, ‘This unit is good enough.’ It’s the same process for people that use vouchers on single family homes.”

But the apartment’s management has just gone too far, Waldau said.

“Look, I think I’m being reasonable, I’m not seeking damages, only a fee waiver,” she said. “I want this to stop, for everyone. Just because the government owns a copy of the key does not mean they should have free license to enter your home if you are not there. This is about the government coming into people’s houses, invading their privacy and their rights to quiet enjoyment.”

The question her case is bringing to light is simple, she adds.

“Do people in subsidized housing have the same rights as everybody else?” 

Staff Writer Spencer Cole can be reached at scole@santamariasun.com.




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