Tenants Advocates & Association
by Emily Murphy
Say the name Tim Wright anywhere near campus and eyebrows will raise. People's ears will perk up to hear what story is going to be told: to see if that story is similar to their own.
"If you walk into a public building in Tempe and ask, virtually everybody there knows him," says Jeff Sullivan, a Rentals Tempe tenant.
Tim Wright is the man behind the largest rental company in Tempe, Rentals Tempe. He has been described as a young Al Capone look-a-like, with his model-quality good looks and his expensive suits. He owns approximately 160 residential rental units in Tempe, most of which surround ASU. Some streets, such as Farmer Avenue, which runs along the railroad tracks west of the university, have eight or more Wright rentals on them within two or three blocks.
But Wright is not known for his mass of property or for his past modeling career. He is known by many as a sign to avoid when looking for a place to rent. The beige and green Rentals Tempe sign makes some potential renters turn away from a house, after hearing stories of the reputation that is Tim Wright: a landlord whose rental company has 65 pending civil cases in the Tempe justice courts, and a man who has sued and been sued by more tenants than any other landlord in Tempe.
In the beginning
Jeff Sullivan and his roommate, Chiho Nakagawa, moved into their Rentals Tempe home on July 1. The house was within walking distance to ASU, which was appropriate for Nakagawa since she is an English graduate student at the university. It also had an evaporative cooler and an air conditioner, which was advantageous for saving money, and had a nice size yard.
They signed their lease, paid their security deposit and $100 nonrefundable administration fee.
Ten days after moving in, they received a note, stapled to their door, from their rental company:
'This letter is to remind you that the time for your walk-through inspection report has expired - it was due within 7 days of move in. If you do not notify us immediately of any problems or needed repairs, we must assume the house is in perfect condition...If you do not report the problems, we will have to assume the house/apartment is in perfect condition and you will be held responsible for all damage when you move out.'
"But they didn't even give us (a move-in) form or talk to us about it," Nakagawa says, holding up the letter. "Then they just send us this letter saying we had seven days."
Sullivan and Nakagawa then comprised their own check sheet, a six-page list of damages to the property ranging from missing screens to an inoperable evaporative cooler.
After making a complaint to Rentals Tempe about the broken evaporative cooler, and later the air conditioner, Sullivan called the City of Tempe. Some maintenance was done on both units, but still neither was in working order.
Sullivan says three weeks passed and temperatures in the house reached over 90 degrees while the air conditioner ran continuously.
After making another complaint, Rentals Tempe removed the evaporative cooler from the property and notified Sullivan and Nakagawa in another notice that the company was going to "discontinue maintenance" because the company found the tenants to be unsatisfied with any maintenance person that was sent to the house.
According to Tempe's rental housing code, "every supplied facility, piece of equipment or utility shall be so constructed, installed and maintained that it will function safely and effectively and remain in sound condition."
"But I didn't know anything about the law at the time," Sullivan says, wiping sweat from his face.
A helping hand
For students and Tempe residents like Nakagawa and Sullivan, ASU provides a free legal advice department. David Swain has worked in the ASU student legal assistance office since 1984, and has seen a wide range of issues walk though the door.
"About 20 percent of the people who come in here are here about landlord/tenant issues," Swain says, "and Rentals Tempe is the single biggest landlord that I've had complaints about."
Swain says that while he hears a lot of similar complaints from students (mostly about unreturned security deposits, miscellaneous charges or lawsuits) he only hears their side of the story, making it hard to judge what is really fair behavior on Rentals Tempe's behalf. "But I wonder whether or not the charges are legitimate since I get so many complaints about the same things and he seems to sue for the same things. But I'm not there. It's hard to say who's right."
One ASU graduate student, who preferred to be unnamed since they are currently involved with a lawsuit involving Tim Wright, sought help from Swain after having a security deposit was cashed and extra charges were added for damages to the property.
"They came in here with a camera, took pictures, didn't bring a list (of previous damages) with them and didn't talk to me," the tenant says. "Then they charged me for the film and developing."
Ken Volk, head of the Arizona Tenants Advocates, has dealt with Wright on more than one occasion. Aside from being sued by the man himself, he has also helped multiple renters with their suits, lease and property issues.
"This has all been going on with Tim for ages," Volk says. ATA is currently helping approximately 70 different parties around Arizona with their lease and landlord problems, one of which is ASU interdisciplinary art and dance junior, Kara Kirkpatrick, who had lived in a Rentals Tempe home for a little more than a year and briefly worked as a cleaning woman for the company. After being approached by previous renters, wondering if she had noticed thousands of dollars worth of damages to properties that were in decent shape, she decided to quit. "At that point, I just couldn't do it anymore. People need to know that when they rent from these people, they most likely won't get their security deposits back and if there are any problems, they probably won't fix them," she says.
Kirkpatrick had her own problems with her home, and says she has decided to terminate her lease early because of the lack of response from Rentals Tempe. "There is a leakage problem with the shower that has caused mold to grow in the walls and they aren't fixing it. It is a threat to my safety and health to stay in the house."
When she tried to get out of her lease, Rentals Tempe attempted to make her sign a confession to all property damages, which would mean Kirkpatrick would be fiscally responsible for maintenance to the property, she says. At that point she contacted ATA.
"I really am unaware of my rights and what I can do," she says. "And Tim knows a lot of the legal terminology. I know (Rentals Tempe) goes to court constantly. When I worked for them, Tim and the general manager would always talk about it."
Volk sent an inspector to Kirkpatrick's home, who made a list of problems with the property, which Kirkpatrick sent it to Rentals Tempe. They then had 10 days to fix all problems, otherwise Kirkpatrick had a legal right to end her lease early, Volk says.
A few days later, Kirkpatrick received a notice of abandonment, stating that since she had abandoned the property, Rentals Tempe would be changing the locks and removing everything from inside the home, which Volk says is an attempt to take the property back from the tenants.
But according to Volk, the tenants had not abandoned the house, and Wright was trying to take control of their property. "In order for there to be abandonment, the rent has to be unpaid, but they had clearly paid their rent." Kirkpatrick says she brought the payment to Rentals Tempe to their attention, to which they gave no response. Kirkpatrick has decided to sue for $1,800 worth of damages for retaliation.
A lot to handle
Steve Tseffos has lived near campus for 21 years and spends his time restoring houses, selling some of them and renting out others. As a landlord and resident of the Maple/Ash neighborhood, the name Tim Wright is a common part of his vocabulary. "We're all very familiar with Rentals Tempe and what they're doing. What Tim has done with rentals around ASU are in some ways good and others bad. When you're not Rentals Tempe, you attract renters. But there's also an educated sense among renters now, and a lot of people have become suspicious of landlords because of Tim Wright. He's given landlords a bad name."
Volk also says that while Wright is a big landlord, there are others that own a lot of property around ASU, but none with the complaints Wright receives. "Glenn Wilt, an ASU professor, also rents a fair amount of property to students. But I have yet in the past 10 years of doing this, gotten a complaint about Mr. Wilt," Volk says. While Rentals Tempe brings up over 60 pending civil cases in the justice courts, Wilt brings up four since 1989. "He's much more understanding of tenants and doesn't charge them for things that he sees as his responsibility. Students seem generally happy with how he runs things," Volk says.
But Tseffos points out that managing over 150 properties is not an easy task, and by doing so, a landlord could get overly suspicious of his tenants, making him more aggressive than may be necessary. "When you get that many places, you can't be as picky as you would like to be. While Tim may hold people to a certain standard, there is really only so much he can do. What ends up happening is that he rents to more students than other landlords do, and they are young and there's a high turnover rate." While Tseffos and other neighbors would like to see more invested into Rentals Tempe properties, that would drive up costs, and therefore students out.
Cindy Trumbauer, former office manager of Rentals Tempe says a little more than half of the renters were students, but that the problems that arose with tenants were not strictly student-caused. "There was a large mix of people," she says. "And we've had students whose houses were immaculate and people who were in their 40's that destroyed the property." She added that many times problems would arise with tenants who insisted that the company pay for things damaged by the tenants. "That was part of why I left. Not only did Tim and I have different views, but I also got to the point where I took things too personally. I've seen newly renovated houses that were totally destroyed by tenants. That kind of behavior just made me sick."
Wright and Rentals Tempe had no comment, but Wright's former lawyer, Peter Spiess says people have to be careful not to judge Wright for the number of cases he has or the stories people have told. Many times, Spiess says, Wright is forced to sue tenants in order to evict them for not paying rent or for other problems. Tenants, he says have a habit of suing for unwarranted misholdings of security deposits, such as in 2000, when eight tenants joined their cases against Wright, where Spiess represented Wright. "And (Wright) wasn't charged with anything," he says. "All the tenants testified in the first case, which resulted in a judgment in favor of Tim Wright and an award of $24,000 to Tim for attorneys fees. Where upon all the other tenants settled and agreed to pay his fees also."
Spiess says that in this case, tenants were impeached with evidence that proved them to be lying in court. "There were carpet samples and photographs brought in proving that not only did Tim not owe the tenants anything, but that the tenants actually owed him quite a bit of money. It was awful to see how they destroyed these properties."
Tseffos says he has not had to deal with tenants in court, or severely damaged properties, and that one lawsuit would make him upset. "You can't be getting as many complaints as Wright does and not be doing something wrong. He must be doing something different than most people."
originally published: September 4, 2003
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