Fire hazards keep popping up at San Jose apartment complex
A fatal fire burned through this building at Foxdale Village Apartments in January 2019, resulting in the death of a young mother. File photo.

    A fire-prone apartment complex in East San Jose has repeatedly received warnings about missing and defective smoke detectors and other fire hazards for years, according to city records.

    On numerous occasions, code enforcement officials flagged missing and non-functioning smoke detectors and carbon monoxide devices at Foxdale Village Apartments, a low-income apartment complex owned by KDF Communities that’s been the subject of lawsuits and public complaints over living conditions.

    City inspectors frequently identified other possible fire hazards during their visits, which took place between 2016 and 2020. Inspectors documented cases of combustible materials stored in furnace closets and emergency escape windows blocked by furniture, posing an obstacle to residents trying to flee a fire. Inspectors also noted units that stored barbecues with propane gas burners on patios, and grease-covered stoves and walls that could provide fuel for fires.

    Property management appears to have addressed all the fire hazards, according to records of follow-up inspections. But the presence of these violations—and the fact that they continued to crop up in other apartments over several years—is worrisome given recent fires at Foxdale.

    Heating up

    In 2018, a fire occurred at an apartment at 1340 Foxdale Loop, displacing five residents, according to city records. Months later in January 2019, a second fire occurred at 1310 Foxdale Loop, killing tenant Arnita Ponce. An individual living in the apartment denied using candles or space heaters or smoking in the home, according to a San Jose Fire Department incident report.

    KDF’s fire problems extend beyond San Jose: In 2018, Redwood City fined KDF $35,000 after it abandoned an apartment complex that burned up in a fire in 2013.

    “It’s common that (detectors) are inoperable, or the batteries are dead,” said Kashana Ashford, a resident at Foxdale, adding that replacing batteries is the responsibility of the landlord. “They don’t do the bare minimum here unless they’re put in the spotlight.”

    Mayra Peterson, spokesperson for KDF Communities, told San José Spotlight that all apartments at Foxdale are equipped with smoke detectors and that property managers inspect them annually. She said that at Foxdale and other properties, it’s often tenants who remove smoke detectors, sometimes because they’re cooking or smoking in the unit. She added that if a tenant discovers the batteries in their detector have died, they should ask the property manager to replace it.

    “We are very on top of making sure everyone has a working smoke detector,” Peterson said.

    San José Spotlight was unable to reach officials with VPM Inc., which manages the Foxdale property.

    “Installed detectors are part of the state building code and they are vital to building safety—detectors can save lives,” city spokesperson Cheryl Wessling told San José Spotlight. “Our inspectors are required to uphold state and local building codes.”

    Records obtained through a request under the California Public Records Act indicate there are several open cases at Foxdale units.

    Pest control

    KDF and VPM have been repeatedly sued and criticized for allegedly subjecting tenants to dangerous and unsanitary living conditions. In July, tenants at Foxdale went without water for two days after management failed to inform them about a ruptured water main. Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco, who expressed alarm about the water issue, did not respond to a request for comment.

    Tenants have complained about vermin infestations, which is borne out in the records obtained by San José Spotlight. Inspectors identified severe cockroach infestations in several units.

    “I observed live cockroaches throughout the kitchen, living room, closets and ceiling,” one inspector wrote, responding to a tenant complaint in 2019. An inspection in a different unit the following year noted a tenant complained about cockroach eggs and roaches in their refrigerator, dishwasher, both bathroom light fixtures, furnace closet and doors.

    There are some indications that VPM and KDF are not responsive to tenant complaints. One inspector who documented mold-like substances, mice droppings and a possible leak in the ceiling at Foxdale reported that the complaining tenant said they contacted management about the rodent infestation to no avail.

    “(She) told me she already informed the manager and they told (her) that they are behind fixing things and gave her rat traps,” the inspector said.

    Mold is also cited frequently in the enforcement records as appearing on windowsills, bedroom walls and ceilings. Ashford and her family lived in a hotel for a period of time while the property manager renovated her unit due to toxic mold.

    Ashford said other tenants have similar problems in their homes, but don’t complain because it could jeopardize their living situations. She said this makes it similarly challenging to start a tenants association that can bring issues to management as a group.

    “What you have out here, sadly, are people who are violating the terms of their rental agreements by subletting,” Ashford said. “They have complaints, but they don’t want to do anything to address them because it would (cause) management to look into what’s happening at their unit… it’s a hard thing.”

    Maria Reyes, a local community advocate, said she’s concerned about the fire hazard issues at Foxdale, as well as other problems related to security and sanitation. She said the tenants are not happy with the landlord or property manager.

    “I’m hoping we can get rid of this company,” Reyes said, speaking of KDF.

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

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