Kelly Peterson thought she had found a model renter for a two-story home her family owned in Natomas. The man claimed to work in the restaurant industry. In 2014, he passed a credit and a criminal background check with a property management company and dutifully began paying rent under a two-year lease.
“He was like my best tenant,” Peterson said. “He always paid on the first of the month – and not a day later.”
But after Peterson, a video producer, and her husband, Chris Janusiewcz, a former pilot at Beale Air Force Base, moved out of state, the tenant began a decidedly unapproved renovation.
He punched holes in ceilings and the roof to install ventilation, ripped out a shower, boarded up windows and rigged the circuit box so he could illegally tap into outside electrical lines to power lights needed to grow marijuana indoors without detection from the power company.
Then last November, the man mysteriously missed a payment, just as Peterson was preparing to visit the house on a return trip to California. Later that month, the tenant, who was 34 years old, would turn up dead in a hotel in Los Angeles County. Coroner’s officials said it was investigating a possible accidental overdose, unrelated to marijuana.
When Peterson entered her house, she was taken aback. Dried-out marijuana plants were stacked in dirty heaps. The carpets were horribly stained, the walls soiled with sickly black mold. Makeshift duct work snaked in and out of rooms.
“I walked in and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!” she said. “I saw my home destroyed.”
Peterson had just experienced what has become a nightmare for many California landlords – a property-wrecking indoor marijuana operation. The gardens, frequently installed without property owners’ knowledge, can range from a few plants from legitimate medical marijuana patients to audacious whole-house grows by illicit cultivators.
Now property managers fear the passage of Proposition 64 – which allows California residents 21 and older to use recreational marijuana and grow six plants indoors for personal use – could bring increased horror stories of damage caused by reckless water use or illegal wiring.
Landlords retain the authority under the initiative to ban tenants from smoking or growing marijuana. And any indoor gardens must follow local building and safety standards and, ideally, should adhere to sensible cultivation practices.
But, fearing that renters may see Proposition 64 as a free pass to grow pot indoors, the Rental Housing Association of Sacramento Valley is encouraging landlords to specifically address marijuana in all leasing contracts.
“If you’re a property owner you can prohibit cultivation,” said Cory Koehler, senior deputy director of the association, whose members manage more than 80,000 rental properties from single-family houses to apartments. “We’re advising our members that when they have a new lease or a month-to-month (agreement) that they go over provisions with new tenants for smoking or growing marijuana.”
Fears of property abuse come from stories from people such as Peterson, who said repairs to her rental home are expected to total more than $25,000.
They’re also stoked by criminal cases, such as one involving a Sonoma County renter who in March was ordered to pay homeowners $102,000 for black mold and extensive roof and flooring damage from illegal marijuana growing.
And they’re fanned by outrageous utility bills, such as the case of a south Modesto family that got a $23,000 collection order from the Turlock Irrigation District for unpaid electricity use after a pot-growing and power-stealing renter was raided by authorities.
Some property managers say problems associated with indoor marijuana growing were actually worse several years ago than they are now. They say the situation has improved as cities and counties have enacted policies for indoor gardens for medical marijuana patients and landlords have tightened up property inspections.
But legal recreational marijuana is stirring new worries.
“My biggest concern about Proposition 64 is that it will be misconstrued and that illegal modifications to properties can cause fire danger and houses catching on fire or roofs leaking,” said Chris Airola, CEO of Roseville-based Rent Pros Property Management, which oversees approximately 1,000 rental properties in Northern and Central California. “And then there’s the smell” left by growing.
Richard Miller, Sacramento co-director for the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, said growers responsible for severe property damage are often cultivating illegally for criminal markets.
Miller argues that most medicinal users, as well as those who may soon grow for personal recreational use, are far more likely to respect properties – and living environments – by using responsible practices to control water use, humidity and odor. They’re also more likely to pay for and use electricity responsibly, he said.
He recommends that tenants who want to grow marijuana “get a signed statement from your landlord that you can do it” to avoid any misunderstandings. “And don’t leave black mold for the next tenants,” he said.
In Sacramento, City Councilman Jay Schenirer said police recently estimated there may be as many as 400 large-scale indoor growing operations in the city based on surveys of excessive electricity use, an indicator of people growing pot for profit.
At least 200 of the operations were in warehouse or industrial zones, where the city is planning to impose fees and issue permits for licensed commercial cannabis production under new California marijuana industry laws.
But Schenirer said there are likely scores of illegal gardens being grown in private homes – with plant numbers far more than the six permitted under Proposition 64 or the 400 residential square feet the city allows for medical marijuana patients.
Airola, the property management CEO, says the worst pot-growing episode he encountered was in 1998, when a rental home in Fresno was discovered to be fully converted into a pot greenhouse, complete with indoor sprinklers and not a square foot for human habitation. Construction alterations and water damage were so bad the entire house had to be torn down.
“That’s the one that I will always think about,” Airola said. “I hope I never see that again.”
Kelly Peterson doesn’t want to either. If she ever rents the three-bedroom Natomas house again, she said there will be contract specifying “absolutely no growing marijuana inside the home.” She urges other landlords to conduct frequent inspections of their properties. But, unable to collect for damages, she doesn’t think she will bother with another renter at the house.
“What do you do, especially in my case?” she said. “The tenant is dead. I can’t do anything except fix up the house and probably sell.”