North Sacramento woman, 4 kids face eviction in rent dispute due to rodent problem

Behind the refrigerator at Ruthie Smith’s house in North Sacramento last week, a mouse lay dead in a trap, surrounded by its droppings.

This is not a new problem for Smith, who rents her home from the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency. She’s photographed similar scenes for the past two months. Mice live around and sometimes in her home.

SHRA, a government agency, has sent workers to address the problem twice, records show. It persists.

The mice have aggravated Smith’s allergies and caused health problems for her children, she said.

Smith asked SHRA to let her move to another house, but was told nothing was available. She said she has repeatedly called SHRA officials letting them know the mice are still around.

So she skipped paying rent for September, saying that she had sunk hundreds of dollars into traps and other vermin control. She pays market rent to the agency and receives no housing subsidy.

SHRA responded Tuesday by telling her to pay $1,200 within three days or to vacate the property.

“There’s nowhere I can go,” said Smith, who lives with and cares for four children, two of whom are bipolar. “We will just be walking.”

SHRA, like any landlord, has a legal right to evict a tenant for not paying rent, said Lawrence E. Green, a professor of law at UC Davis. Also, like any landlord, it has a legal responsibility to ensure that rental homes are habitable and fit for occupation.

Tenants can withhold some rent to make repairs necessary to keep a home habitable, Green said.

But what makes a home unfit for occupation is a matter for a court to decide on a case-by-case basis, he added. It’s usually not a good idea, he said, to simply stop paying rent and stay in a home.

“It’s unclear when a pest problem might require a landlord to take action,” he said, adding that “if a local health official finds a rodent infestation, it may result in a building being designated as substandard under health and safety laws.”

SHRA officials said their workers had previously told them the vermin problem was resolved.

Though the letter Smith received said she has three days to leave, she actually has until Sept. 17 to pay rent or vacate, due to complexities of the law, said MaryLiz Paulson, SHRA’s assistant director.

In the meantime, Paulson said, SHRA will send workers out again to try to eradicate vermin at the home.

“We plan to go out and see the unit with pest control and have the issue resolved,” Paulson said.

After that, SHRA will continue to work with Smith, Paulson said, but “she really should have the rent available – she needs to have the rent money available at the time the issue is resolved.”

Smith said she no longer believes the problem can be quickly fixed and still wants SHRA to move her. She has had trouble finding another home with low rent that could accommodate her children.

“I’ve been looking. I can’t find anything else,” she said. “And if I moved, they wouldn’t be doing what they need to do for my family.”