RICHMOND -- Nestled among the charming sidewalks and rolling hills of the Point Richmond historic district sits a three-story red brick building. Slow trains rumble by, and many of its windows offer sublime views of local landmarks and swaying trees.
But a group of tenants alleges that inside is a veritable house of horrors ruled by an imperious, penny-pinching landlord who drives over in his Mercedes to demand rents while ignoring their pleas for decent living conditions.
Five tenants, with the help of a Point Richmond law firm, in April sued Walter Connolly, owner of the Single Room Occupancy (SRO) building, for a dozen complaints, including maintaining uninhabitable premises, intentional infliction of emotional distress, retaliatory evictions and stealing their security deposits.
Connolly, a 72-year-old Marin County architect who owns three buildings in Point Richmond, flatly denied the allegations and called the law firm, Tenax Law Group, a "hit-and-run group out for a settlement."
"I feel like I do a lot of good in the neighborhood," Connolly said. "I help house mentally and physically disabled in a clean place and safe place. This lawsuit is a money grab, a shakedown."
But there is little doubt that animus between Connolly and residents in his 37-unit building has festered for months, if not years. Connolly bought the 100- year-old building in 1992 and rents out tiny rooms, giving disabled people, ex-cons and those on fixed incomes a chance to have an address in the city's poshest enclave.
Rents range from $600 to $850, Connolly said, and include basic utilities. For that, tenants get rooms as small as 100 square feet, and none with bathrooms or kitchens. Some rooms have sinks.
The second and third floors each have one community shower and two toilets. There is a small kitchen on the second floor for all tenants. But the real problems, tenants say, are bedbugs and other pests, along with a lack of central heating and plumbing that frequently backs up.
"The place is a mess, and he never does anything to respond to complaints," said Patrick Yarnell, a 67-year-old military veteran and retired pipe fitter who is one of the plaintiffs. "I'd like to see Connolly live here, but then I think that I don't want to see him or talk to him any more than I have to."
The suit, which also names Roger Porter, Deon Jenkins, Melvin Jenkins and Leonard Turner as plaintiffs, alleges that Connolly's building doesn't provide adequate heat or ventilation, is infested with bedbugs and roaches, lacks working smoke detectors and features a "constant presence of urine and feces."
The suit asks for general damages, punitive damages, restitution and an injunction against further unlawful conditions and contract breaches.
On a tour of the building Monday, Connolly, dressed in tan slacks and a blue button-up shirt and sipping from a Starbucks cup, chatted with tenants and pointed out numerous upgrades that he said he financed, including piping and electrical components.
"I'm easy on tenants," Connolly said.
But water pooled in the hallway, which resident Lewis Gomez, 33, said came from his leaky sink and soaked many of his possessions.
Connolly blamed Gomez for clogging the sink. Another tenant, Viva Sherman, 45, had a plastic bottle full of bedbugs and roaches she said she plucked from her bed and skin.
Connolly disputed whether the dead insects were bedbugs but promised to come the next day and do the extermination work himself. Several other tenants said they liked living in the building and praised Connolly for being a good landlord.
Councilman Tom Butt, who has known Connolly for decades, said he has heard grumblings linked to the building for years, both from residents complaining about Connolly and other residents of the neighborhood complaining about the tenants.
"Owning an SRO is a tough business to be in," Butt said. "But Walter has always been a character, so I guess he likes it."
Connolly said he is the victim of opportunistic attorneys and one tenant, Porter, who galvanized the others. Porter moved out last week after being given a notice to vacate, Connolly said.
Connolly accused Porter of spray painting "slumlord" on his building's exterior multiple times and has surveillance video that appears to show Porter vandalizing it. Porter would neither confirm nor deny that he spray-painted the building.
Porter said Connolly retaliated against him by destroying some of his property while heat-treating his room after he complained of bedbugs.
"What I will say is I was tore up by bedbugs for months, my property had been destroyed, and I was a victim of constant harassment; it was a year of hell," Porter said. "He is a slumlord; the right thing was written on that building."
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.