SARASOTA — A local tenant advocacy group filed a lawsuit against the City of Sarasota Code Compliance Office and the department’s Special Magistrate this week, calling for an investigation into his tenure and his removal due to what the group calls a conflict of interest concerning a mother and local activist Alaina Martinez.
The complaint was filed Monday with city officials by the Manasota Tenants Union on Martinez’s behalf and outlines the state in which the group says Martinez and his three children live on a property that the magistrate and attorney local own 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 mismanagement of Martinez’s hire.
Martinez says that due to her complaints and requests for mold testing and temporary housing while the mold was being remediated, the landlord retaliated by sending out an eviction notice and a rent increase notice of more of $1,000, which is expected to begin in August.
The mold, Martinez argues, caused her eldest son to visit the hospital in late May.
“It’s an old house, I accept that, but if there’s a real health issue here, I can’t accept it,” said Martinez, who is active with BLM Manasota, who identifies himself as a grassroots 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 them pictures (code compliance) and they had someone come. He walked around and inspected the house, and I could see the alarm that had gone off in him.
She says a few days later, around June 3, Ellis called to let her know her lease was up because of mold.
Ellis, who has served as a special magistrate in Sarasota since 1999, owns a few other properties in the city, according to Sarasota County records. He is listed as the owner of the house on 46th Street that was purchased in 2012, according to county records.
As a Special Magistrate, Ellis presides over code enforcement cases that are reported to the City of Sarasota. Offenses such as red light violations, parking and confiscation of vessels are typical of the cases Ellis said he handles.
In some cases, a magistrate can impose fines or order a lien on property. Ellis said his special duties as a magistrate did not involve tenant-landlord disputes.
“Generally, with code enforcement, it’s about whether or not someone has violated the city’s code as it applies to their dwelling,” Ellis explained. “A lot of times it’s as simple as the grass is too high.”
Ellis confirmed that he ordered a mold inspection at the house he rents from Martinez. Test results showed “high spore counts,” he told the Herald-Tribune. However, Ellis said he did not retaliate against Martinez and was unable to provide him with accommodation due to family obligations and financial constraints.
Ellis said a second property two doors down from the property he rents from Martinez was also recently vacated due to mold. He said by email that the termination of the lease was necessary due to the circumstances.
“I called Ms. Martinez and advised that I did not believe it was appropriate to continue her month-to-month lease given any health threats that may exist to her or her family,” Ellis wrote.
“I have always been diligent in resolving any issues or conditions that may arise at the property. The narrative that militants tell about me is false and slanderous. I always took care of any issues in the house and did a potential mold inspection the day after the mold was reported in May.
Martinez and the group of tenants argue that Ellis knew about the mold before Martinez took the lease last year and that Ellis abused his position as a magistrate by denying the holder of the Section 8 voucher a space safe while he fixed the mold problem.
Now Martinez and his three boys are house hunting before an eviction notice is filed and the family loses their good status.
The federally funded Housing Choice Voucher program, known as Section 8, helps low-income, disabled and elderly residents acquire affordable housing in their area. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) administers the program and allocates funds to states.
After:Sarasota Housing Authority opens waiting list for Section 8 vouchers
Although the program helps individuals and families get rental assistance, waiting lists for vouchers have always been long – sometimes up to several years before a tenant’s name is drawn. of the random lottery of more than 1,000 locally eligible beneficiaries.
Voucher holders generally pay no more than 30% of their income for their monthly rent.
“It’s like pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” Martinez said. “We are in the middle of a housing crisis and I have to rush to find a home to keep my children together, safe. There have been many sleepless nights.
The termination notice went into effect immediately on June 7, the one-sentence letter reads. Martinez said she has 15 days to vacate the property before an eviction notice is filed.
“At no time did I use my position as a special magistrate to pressure Ms. Martinez or any tenant or individual in any way,” Ellis said.
The Sarasota Communications Office released a brief comment on Thursday about the alleged conflict of interest in Ellis’ position as Special Code Enforcement Magistrate, stating, “We are aware of a dispute in between a landlord and a tenant. However, there are no active code compliance cases, 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 protected] or on Twitter: @samanthagholar