Fire damages ‘nightmare’ house in downtown San Jose
A fire gutted this house on Sixth Street in downtown San Jose on Jan. 9. The landlord, Peggy DeMaio, has a history of run-ins with tenants and housing advocates. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

A landlord accused of abusing city housing policies to enrich herself is now facing allegations of neglect from tenants at a building gutted by a fire last week.

The fire that broke out on Jan. 9 consumed part of a blue Victorian house at 139 N. Sixth St., just a couple blocks from San Jose City Hall. Ernie Rosillo, who has lived in the house for three years, said he and several other tenants have been displaced, including his brother—a veteran who has lived in the house for three decades.

Rosillo, who witnessed the fire, claims another tenant started it. San Jose Fire Department spokesperson Erica Jay told San José Spotlight the department responded to the fire and the cause remains under investigation. San José Spotlight was not able to independently verify if police booked or charged the tenant named by Rosillo, and therefore is not naming him.

Rosillo claims he complained about the tenant for months to his landlord, Peggy DeMaio. He said the tenant threatened him and tried to steal his mail. Rosillo claims DeMaio ignored or dismissed his complaints, and also refused to fix a leak and massive hole in his ceiling.

“This could have been prevented,” Rosillo told San José Spotlight. “All she had to do was fix the ceiling leak and get rid of this guy, but she refused to cooperate with us or acknowledge our pleas.”

Tenant Ernie Rosillo said his landlord Peggy DeMaio did not respond to his complaints about fixing this hole in his ceiling. Photo courtesy of Ernie Rosillo.

Rosillo also claims DeMaio has not offered him or any other tenant financial assistance for temporary stays in hotels.

DeMaio told San José Spotlight she is the landlord for the North Sixth Street property, but refused to speak about the fire aside from a comment about the police response.

“The police don’t come there,” she said. “I was on the phone for over an hour before they finally came when the fire started.”

This isn’t the first time DeMaio has been accused of mistreating tenants. In 2017, DeMaio was caught evicting longtime residents and collecting government subsidies by leasing to homeless veterans. DeMaio’s actions were legal under a city housing policy that allows landlords to bypass rent controls for groups like veterans that struggle to find homes. But city officials said the policy was never intended to be used as a tool for kicking out tenants to enrich landlords.

Prior to this revelation, a news report revealed DeMaio tried to evict a 92-year-old veteran from his home after she purchased his building and wanted to increase rent. Public outrage prompted the City Council to approve a new ordinance limiting the circumstances under which landlords can terminate leases.

DeMaio and her son, Anthony, were also sued in federal court in 2018 by a group of San Jose tenants who lived at a housing complex on 2145 Randolph Drive. The suit, filed by the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, claims the DeMaios ignored an order from city code enforcement to correct various problems in the house that made it uninhabitable, including long-term water damage to a balcony and staircase and mold. The suit alleges the DeMaios destroyed a porch and put a hole in the bathroom from which sewage leaked.

The city condemned the property, forcing tenants to move out immediately. The DeMaios were legally obligated to pay for the relocation of tenants, but allegedly refused to do so. The suit settled in 2019 for an undisclosed amount.

Rosillo said many of the issues in the house—such as the leak and hole in the ceiling—predated DeMaio’s takeover as landlord. A former tenant of the North Sixth Street house, Jamie Foberg, told San José Spotlight she discovered mold behind the walls of her unit when she lived there between 2016 and 2018. Foberg said every time it rained water would come in through the roof, behind the walls and soak the carpets.

“I literally called it ‘Nightmare on Sixth Street,’” Foberg said.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter. 

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