By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
George Parsons has inspected apartments that are so bad, he wouldn't let his dog sleep in them.
One place was so bug-infested, he watched a mother pull cockroaches out of her baby's nose. At another rental, a man lifted up the carpet and asked his downstairs neighbor to pass a beer up to him through the gaping hole.
Sometimes the horror of walls crawling with scorpions, floors covered with mice and kitchens rotting with mildew sends Parsons running outside with his mouth covered.
"I've been in the worst places you can imagine," he says. "Those landlords get away with murder, and that's what I'm here for."
Parsons' work as an inspector for the Arizona Tenants Association has been a side job to his full-time position working inside a Wells Fargo bank vault. Inspecting rentals is much more fulfilling, he says.
Once a slum renter himself, Parsons relishes every rodent infestation and moldy cabinet he can find because they can help an unhappy tenant get out of a lease. By Arizona law, repairs left unfixed, like those listed by Parsons, are grounds for breaking a lease. So when tenants call ATA wanting a way out of their lease, one of the first steps is to send out an inspector.
"The more inspections I do, the more help I do for people," he says.
But Parsons isn't doing any inspection work these days. Instead of fighting landlords, he is caught in a fight between Ken Volk and Janet Lucchesi, leaders of two tenant advocacy organizations whose disdain for each other runs deeper than most tenant-landlord disputes.
Volk, a well-known tenants' rights advocate, says he has been evicted from ATA, the 500-member nonprofit association he created and ran for seven years. He says Lucchesi, an employee he hired, stole ATA from him while he was on vacation in France last summer.
She says he walked away from it and expected her to take it over.
Still, in retaliation, Volk set up a competing organization, Arizona Tenants Advocates. But the start-up is no match for the association he built from the ground up, he says.
What he really wants is revenge. "I want Janet out of there," he says.
Volk has filed one lawsuit and plans a second, aimed at regaining control of his business.
At stake is a moneymaking program that Volk developed for helping renters break their leases. That service brings in about $5,600 a month for whoever is controlling ATA.
But Lucchesi isn't about to give it up. Without the lease termination service, ATA wouldn't be able to pay its three counselors, who take about 100 calls a day from tenants with landlord problems, says Lucchesi. The association as it operates today would fold, she says.
Already, costs to defend the association against Volk's legal actions are squeezing ATA, which recently sent an e-mail appeal to its members for donations so it can continue paying its attorney. "It's just financially wiped us out," says Lucchesi.
Volk's attempt last winter to get an injunction to stop Lucchesi from running ATA and the break-lease program failed, but he is promising an appeal, as well as a copyright infringement suit that will allege that ATA is using the lease termination documents he created.
Some worry that the feud is hurting ATA, one of the few organizations in the state helping renters who have lost their security deposit, are having trouble getting repairs done or need to get out of their lease.
"They're both going to fall," says Parsons. "That's going to hurt the business."
For Volk, launching ugly, drawn-out battles to get his way is nothing new.
Brash and eccentric, Volk's crusades for tenant rights have grabbed local headlines and earned him the spotlight as the renters' spokesman in almost every tenant-related news story in the past decade.
Volk's interest in renters' rights was triggered by his own experiences at Fiesta Park Apartments in Tempe, including the cockroaches that crawled over his bed at night. Exterminators sprayed his apartment, but the bugs continued to pour in. With neighbors complaining that they, too, were overrun with cockroaches, it was obvious that the whole building needed to be treated for an infestation, he says.
When Volk's landlord, George Clancy, refused, Volk took him to court. He polled every resident he could find at Fiesta Park, asking them to list the problems in their units. Cockroaches were one of their chief complaints. To reenact the scattering of cockroaches from one of his vents, Volk taped the dead bugs on his wall and invited city officials on a tour of his apartment and the complex.
Volk and other tenants were also trying to get Clancy to fix some potholes in the parking lot. If he refused, Volk informed him, the tenants would hire a contractor on their own and deduct the bill from their rent, which state law permits them to do, Volk says.
Court records in the case show Clancy opted to get his own contractor, but the pothole repair did not begin by the agreed-upon deadline. So Volk brought in an asphalt contractor to fill the potholes. Clancy, however, barricaded them off, telling Volk that he and an apartment manager were "prepping the pothole and were completing the job," according to court documents.