Rent and Rave
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.
Volk took away the barricades and refused to budge. Clancy put the barricades back and Volk took them away again until the apartment manager called the police.
"Mr. Volk repeatedly instructed the driver to dump the hot asphalt on me while I [was] working in the pothole," Clancy told police. "Mr. Volk continued to aggressively grab onto the barricade and approached within six inches of my face and proceeded to expound: 'You are an evil, evil, evil person and a slumlord who abuses everyone around you, and I will get you for this! I will get you for this! I will get you for this!'
"As he continued to berate me in this aggressive fashion, he hissed and spat the words in my face in an angry and violent manner," Clancy continued to police. "I feared he would begin striking me."
Shortly thereafter, Volk was served with an eviction notice for attempted bodily harm, harassment and intimidation of Clancy and the apartment manager, charges that Volk denied.
The only thing Clancy wanted was to get him evicted to stop him from organizing tenants, says Volk.
On the cockroach-spraying issue, the court ruled that Clancy wasn't given enough time to exterminate, and Volk lost his case. The court overturned the eviction related to the pothole matter, however, and he was allowed to stay.
Volk also succeeded in catching the city's attention, laying the foundation for what is now Tempe's rental housing code. Dave Christ, senior code inspector for the City of Tempe, says Volk was an obvious pick to sit on a task force providing input on the code.
"He brought to light conditions that existed with some of the rental housing," says Christ, who remembers Volk's tours of his apartment and letters to city council members, complaining of substandard conditions. "That got the ball rolling behind the whole concept of the rental housing code."
When a group of Arizona State University students complained that their landlord, Tim Wright, was withholding their security deposits for damages they claimed existed before they moved in, Volk put up Old West-style "Wanted" posters with a drawing of Wright scowling in a Doc Holliday tuxedo. The poster read: "Are you, or have you been, a renter who has suffered wrongful security deposit (or other) claims by this local landlord?"
The fliers, which sought to enlist tenants in a class-action lawsuit against Wright, angered the landlord enough that he sued Volk for libel. The libel suit was later dismissed when Wright failed to file the proper paperwork.
Volk guided the students through every step of the class-action process, holding press conferences and speaking out against the abuses of landlords. Wright later settled the cases with some of the students.
Volk is an agitator. "He's not one to back down," says Christ. "He will push and push and push."
Volk is a child of the '60s and a survivalist. He stockpiled for Y2K, prefers a bicycle to owning a car and grows his own sprouts. "We may have an interruption in the food supply given the global warming, especially with Bush in office," Volk says between coughs that he blames on pollution from riding his bike all over the Valley. "He's not going to pay much attention to the environmental stuff."
Volk is also fortunate when it comes to money. A small family trust fund ensures that he doesn't have to work, but Volk says the money is a privilege that allows him to give back to society through tenant advocacy.
"He has his weaknesses, but he's one of the most dedicated people I've ever seen," says Jo Ann Cool, who became ATA's secretary after Volk helped her avoid an eviction by her own landlord. "This is his passion. This is his life."
With the trust fund, Volk did all of his advocacy work on his own dime, including building up ATA. Volk purchased much of the office equipment himself, and, he says, for years never collected a salary as ATA struggled to stay afloat financially.
Then along came David Arenberg with an idea that could prop up the association and, in Volk's mind, finally pay him back for his years of unpaid service to ATA.
The idea was the break-lease program, which grew out of state law. Legislation in some states, including Arizona, provides for lease termination when a landlord has been notified of certain repairs and fails to make them within a specified time. Break-lease uses that provision by sending an inspector out to a renter's home, documenting repairs and submitting them to the landlord. If the repairs are not made, the landlord is in breach of the lease and the lease can be terminated.
In exchange for ATA's help in breaking a lease, tenants pay 60 percent of one month's rent to the advocacy organization, which averages $430 each, plus $55 dues to join ATA. The rate used to be half of a month's rent.
Megan Sedillo had already paid her $55 membership to ATA, but when she asked for help getting out of a lease because the landlord was dragging his feet in fixing the heat, the fence and the leaking sink, she was told she would have to pay an additional $405.
"I already gave the landlord $1,300," says Sedillo. "I just said forget it."
Arenberg says the program was a financial boon to the Illinois Tenants Union, where he used to work. Renters there were charged to get out of their lease, and demand for the service was high. Volk was convinced it could work in Arizona and that Arenberg could make it happen.
A self-proclaimed political activist for renters' rights, Arenberg says he's led dozens of renter strikes at run-down apartment complexes in New York. That work led to jobs with tenant organizations in New York and at the Illinois Tenants Union.
Arenberg calls himself "a brilliant organizer" and even "one of the preeminent tenant organizers in the country." But, he acknowledges, cocaine destroyed his illusions of grandeur.
Sitting in a Starbucks in Phoenix one February afternoon, Arenberg speaks loud and fast, as if he has only minutes to tell his life story. Which may be true. He says there is a warrant for his arrest because he violated his probation.
"My drug addiction has kicked my ass," says Arenberg, who has a felony criminal record. "I'm drowning in my life because of it."
Volk offered a ray of hope for Arenberg. In exchange for giving him the idea for break-lease, Arenberg says Volk promised him the directorship of ATA. By moving to Arizona, Arenberg hoped he could escape his drug problems.
But soon after he arrived, he was back on coke and back in prison. While there, he says he continued to train Volk in breaking leases for money. Once Arenberg was released, Volk put him to work at ATA. But Volk says Arenberg was too heavy-handed and clashed with staff, so Volk fired him.
Meanwhile, Volk continued to build the break-lease program and run it from his home in conjunction with the tenants' advocacy group. As Arenberg told him, Volk was able to get half a month's rent from every tenant signing up for break-lease. But as Volk's attention to the program grew, his interest in running the day-to-day operations of ATA waned.
Volk had a new baby daughter, and her mother, his girlfriend at the time, needed him to spend more time with the baby while she completed graduate school in anthropology at Arizona State University. Volk obliged, and decided to step away from ATA.
But Volk insists that he did not plan to completely sever ties with the organization. The role he had in mind was to streamline the computer system and oversee projects for the association.
For Lucchesi, ATA was an opportunity waiting to happen.
In a small, cramped office with no windows, Lucchesi sits between a pot of peach silk flowers and a bulletin board with the message, "Diplomacy Department: We do and say the nastiest things in the nicest way."
With tenant Michelle Garcia sitting patiently by her desk, Lucchesi is finishing a letter for Garcia, refusing her landlord's demands that she pay nearly $5,000 in damages to a house she was renting in Phoenix. "I think we need to be assertive when we see charges of $5,000," says Lucchesi.
Being assertive is what got her where she is today, Lucchesi explains. Ever since she found herself divorced in 1990 with two kids, little college education and limited job experience, she had to figure out how to make it on her own.
"I went abruptly from loving wife and mother and volunteer to 'you need to step up and take responsibility,'" she says. "Once you get under that kind of pressure, it's easy to direct your attention to something else."
While married, Lucchesi had been a childbirth volunteer for hospitals and charitable organizations, but she had always been interested in law. Family law seemed like a good choice, she says, especially after winning several child support modifications in court. Lucchesi decided to become a paralegal, and got her degree.
But there have been other problems in her life. Like Volk, Lucchesi has had her run-ins with landlords. She has been evicted twice, according to court records, once by a landlord who is still after her for a judgment of about $20,000 he won for nonpayment of rent, attorneys' fees and other charges for a property she rented in California.
Robert Rainville, the landlord in that case, says she could skillfully use the courtroom to her advantage. While he was trying to get the judgment against Lucchesi, she filed for bankruptcy. The filing was thrown out, however, when the court learned of assets Lucchesi wasn't reporting, namely cars she put in the name of family members, according to Rainville.
Once, when Rainville was in court for his case against Lucchesi, she was in another courtroom trying to get a restraining order against Rainville for allegedly trying to run down her children in his truck, says Rainville. Lucchesi's request was dismissed.
"I was determined that she was not going to wear me down," he says. "She's a very bright gal."
Asked what he thinks of her being the leader of a tenants' rights organization, Rainville answers: "If you wanted to find someone in home security, who would be better than a burglar?"
Lucchesi's involvement with ATA started when her landlord in Arizona was trying to evict her for failing to have a leash on her dog, she says. Volk talked with her, and was not hopeful that she would prevail. Lucchesi challenged the eviction on her own and won. When she called ATA back to gloat, Volk was impressed and soon hired her.
Almost immediately, Lucchesi says, she felt she could do a better job running the organization. Volk gave her more and more responsibilities. And by the time Volk began staying home more, Lucchesi was running the day-to-day operations of ATA. She had such a vital role, Volk worried that if she quit for some reason, he would have to temporarily shut down the association.
Volk admits that he wanted Lucchesi to take over the organization, and that he wanted her in charge while he was away in France, where he would take care of his daughter while his girlfriend completed an archaeological dig.
"His directions were to put together a board of directors to be in compliance with the Arizona Corporation Commission," says Lucchesi.
On July 7, within days of Volk's departure for France, Lucchesi held a meeting of less than a dozen people, including her brother and several others who worked for ATA. Their first order of business: to elect Lucchesi the new president of ATA. By the end of the meeting, nearly every person there walked away a member of the ATA board.
Then Lucchesi did what angers Volk most: She stopped his break-lease program, which was run under what Volk says is a sole proprietorship called the Legal Assistance Program, or LAP. Lucchesi stopped using Volk's separate bank account for LAP, which received the bulk of the program's money, and moved lease-termination services directly into ATA.
LAP had become a major moneymaker for ATA, and Lucchesi says the two relied upon each other. Under Volk's leadership, break-lease drew customers from people who called ATA for services, and part of the money paid by renters for lease termination went back into ATA.
With her taking over, Lucchesi says she wasn't about to continue operating a program run by Volk that would feed off of ATA.
Volk says that change was only one of several that he didn't learn about until he got back from France. Lucchesi had also gotten another copier for the office and stopped paying the bills on the one Volk financed. She didn't want the new computer Volk purchased shortly before leaving for France, and there were unpaid payroll taxes in Volk's name.
Afraid he would be saddled with the debt from all three, Volk confronted Lucchesi, who invited him to speak before the new board about his concerns. That presentation in September would prove detrimental to Volk's case against ATA.
Volk spelled out his intentions to the board: "I am not out to hurt or destroy this organization," he said, according to a transcript of the meeting, which was taped. "I'm not out to take over this organization. I gave away this organization by walking away and relinquishing my post freely . . . and in good will. There is no need for any kind of paranoia or feeling that I am a threat because I am not."
Nonetheless, the board was not receptive to his concerns about the copier and the computer, and tensions between the board and Volk flared, according to the transcript. At the end of the meeting, Volk told the board it was obvious there would be no resolution.
He left the meeting and went to Bank One, where he emptied the ATA and LAP accounts. Then he called Catherine Parsons, a member of the board at the time, who used to work for Volk as a paralegal.
"He said he'd been to the bank, and I told Janet immediately," says Parsons. "It was pretty psycho and dangerous."
When Volk went back to the bank a second time to withdraw funds, a Bank One executive froze the account, except for $600 needed for payroll, until the ownership issue was resolved in court.
On the night of October 4, Volk got a ride to the ATA offices and took items he says were his, including two computer towers that contained the association's database. His entry set off the alarms and the police showed up, as well as Lucchesi, who provided a statement to police. No charges have been filed.
Volk says he used some of the money he took from the ATA account to pay part of the remaining debt. Some of it also paid his legal bills related to the night he took the office equipment, he says.
And some of the money was used to pay for a new election Volk called in November, when, he says, he was elected the legitimate president. Lucchesi and other members of her board tried to attend, but Volk threw them out because they didn't have proof of their ATA membership.
Volk contends the earlier meeting at which Lucchesi was elected president was not legitimate because it did not follow the association's bylaws, which require board members to be members of the association before they are elected. According to the database Volk took from the ATA office, only two of the board members were paid members of the organization.
As for the association's debts under Volk, Lucchesi says ATA got a much better deal on a different copier, and so it didn't want the burden of Volk's payments. The board determined that the computer Volk purchased shortly before leaving for France was not needed. And the issue of property taxes in Volk's name will be left to the IRS, says Lucchesi. "We do not believe we should be held responsible for Ken's poor management decisions."
Volk tried to get a court order to stop Lucchesi from running ATA and the break-lease program, but failed. Superior Court Judge Kenneth Magnum ruled last December that there was enough evidence to show that Volk gave up the association.
Magnum conceded that there were "irregularities" in the July meeting that made Lucchesi president, but that it wasn't necessary to remove her while Volk pursued his lawsuit against ATA. Magnum found that Volk would not suffer without an injunction because he had most of the office equipment, the database (which the court later ordered him to return) and enough "intelligence, ingenuity and drive" to establish a competing organization.
Magnum did, however, allow Volk to use the names Legal Assistance Program and Break Lease Program.
Despite the ruling, Volk refuses to be pushed aside. He says he will continue the lawsuit, and admits he has taken deliberate steps to hurt the organization. Volk found renters who had problems with Lucchesi and ATA, and drafted their complaints into letters to the City of Phoenix, asking it to reconsider the free space it provides to ATA -- a deal originally worked out under Volk's leadership.
Lucchesi says Volk has been ruthless as a competitor, taking almost the same name, nearly the same Web site address and running bigger classified ads next to hers, offering cheaper break-lease services.
He also manipulated ATA's Web site. He registered variations on ATA's domain name, making it difficult for the organization to get a new online address that resembles its name. Volk also says he had someone redirect traffic to ATA's site, so that a search last month using ATA's address pulled up Volk's group, Arizona Tenant Advocates.
ATA has since changed its address from www.aztenant.org to www.aztenantsunion.org.
"It doesn't make sense for someone, an advocate for the rights of renters, to turn around and sabotage the organization," says Lucchesi.
Now, besides being under pressure from Volk, ATA is facing the loss of an important referral source. Because of complaints to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office, the agency has decided to pull ATA's name and telephone number from copies of the Arizona Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, says Mimi Griffiths, who recently retired as director of public services for the agency.
The agreement with Volk, who was in charge of the association at the time, was that the agency would continue to publish ATA's information as long as there were no complaints, says Griffiths. Now that complaints have come in, the agency will stop publishing the ATA information.
One of the complaints came from Jeff Young, a landlord who called ATA posing as a tenant after seeing the association's advertisement in New Times. "As I gathered the information, I was shocked," Young says.
He says staff at ATA never told him he should first try to work out problems with his landlord. Lucchesi, however, insists that ATA always suggests trying to work out problems before using its services.
The other complaint came from Donna Gahagans Guida, director of the Arizona Federation of Housing Counselors Inc., a publicly funded group that provides free help to tenants and landlords. After getting calls from two tenants who had problems with ATA, Guida was upset to hear how much money ATA -- a nonprofit organization -- was charging renters to help break a lease.
"What I had was people saying, 'I called ATA and they told me I would have to pay 60 percent of my first month's rent to get assistance,'" says Guida. "I didn't understand how they could charge someone and still be a nonprofit."
Lucchesi say she hopes she can get the Secretary of State's Office to reconsider, since publication of ATA's name has been an important referral source for the association. With Volk's lawsuits and other actions against ATA, removal of the name is just one more blow, she says.
Besides the break-lease program, the association's only other major source of revenue is annual memberships. At $55 a year per person, from 500 current members, ATA pulls in less than $2,300 a month from memberships.
Lucchesi says payroll alone is about $5,600 a month, and ATA wouldn't be able to pay its staff without lease terminations. Since November, Lucchesi's records show that ATA has done an average of 13 lease terminations each month at an average cost of $430 each -- just about $5,600 in an average month.
"I will do everything in my power to see that ATA survives this attack by Ken Volk," she says.
But without Volk, Lucchesi's critics say ATA has lost the kind of tenant advocacy group that pushes for change at the Legislature. "Ken was a dilettante," says Arenberg. "It's why he started the tenants' association."
Lucchesi says her goals for the organization do not include political activism. Instead, her focus is on the business of ATA, which is to provide needed services to families.
Lucchesi's business skills are apparent, says George Parsons, especially when it comes to selling ATA services. "She could probably sell an ice cube to an Eskimo."
Parsons just wishes the two would stop fighting so he could get back to inspecting homes, he says, whether it's for Lucchesi or for Volk. "We all want to help, and that's the whole idea."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.