South Bay couple, landlord squabble over living conditions at apartment

Many times a week, Demetrio Lopez Martinez can be found at Valley Medical Center struggling to maneuver his wheelchair around the South Bay health complex in San Jose. 

Some days he comes for kidney dialysis, others, to see a chiropractor. Whatever the reason, Martinez, who only speaks Spanish, said he never goes home in between appointments, due to his living conditions.

"The problems started becoming noticeable right after we moved in," he said through an interpreter, while sitting in his wheelchair.

Martinez, who had part of his right leg amputated due to diabetes, provided cell phone video which gave a glimpse of what he and his wife, Teresa Elena Alejandre, said they have dealt with since moving into an East San Jose studio apartment on Florida Avenue in December 2022.

The video shows roaches under cabinets; dog feces outside the couple’s kitchen window; there’s no stove, and no smoke or natural gas detectors either. The pair is paying $1,650 a month in rent.

"We rented this because, frankly, we didn’t have another option on where to live. So that’s why we rented it," said Martinez. Added attorney Steven MacDonald, "They’re low income. They’re immigrants. They take what they can get…there’s everything you can imagine in a substandard unit."

The San Francisco-based MacDonald has sued the property owner on behalf of Demetrio and his wife. MacDonald said the landlord, Ignacia Marmolejo, illegally altered her home to include a studio apartment. Then, he said she threatened the couple with eviction for reporting the various problems.

"It’s very common for a landlord who owns a single-family home to try to augment their income by creating a second unit when nobody’s looking," MacDonald said.

Fox 2 went to the home on Florida Ave. to speak with Marmolejo. She wasn’t home, but a relative called to defend her.

"Ah, I think it’s ridiculous," Alex Marmolejo said over a phone call from San Diego. He’s Ignacia’s oldest child. "(She’s) a single, divorced woman, senior citizen, that’s living on a fixed income dealing with squatters basically. That’s exactly what it is."

He conceded his mother didn’t get the required permits before creating the apartment. But he emailed pictures he said prove it was in pristine condition when Demetrio and his wife moved in. in the pictures, the walls are painted white with no stains, and the kitchen has all the appliances, which all seem to be fairly new.

He said they’re the ones that have created unsanitary conditions, then refused to leave and reported Ignacia to the city as retribution.

"They never had an issue. Everything was great for the entire year that they lived there. No complaints from them about nothing. They never told us until the day when the city called my mom," said Alex.

The San Jose building and code enforcement department told KTVU a code enforcement case was opened in January of this year, after the department received a complaint about living conditions in the unit.

The inspector found the unit is an addition to the home, legally constructed in 1985. However, it was modified without permits to include a full kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom with electrical and plumbing.  Code enforcement has ordered removal of the apartment modifications, or that the landlord submit applications for permits.

"The intelligent interpretation is, ‘I have to get my tenants out to do the work the city requires.’ However, the quick and dirty way is to force the tenants out immediately. Remove their kitchen, remove the door, whatever it takes to get them out," said MacDonald.

And that is why MacDonald believes the couple has no stove. His lawsuit seeks monetary and punitive damages, which he expects to win.

The Marmolejo family said, and the city confirmed, there have been no fines for unlivable conditions at the apartment.

"They said it was habitable…so there’s nothing wrong with the property. The only thing it doesn’t have is permits," said Alex. "I get it, he’s handicapped. But just because somebody’s handicapped…that doesn’t, just because you have something like that doesn’t mean you’re the best person in the world."

MacDonald sees this dispute as a broader fight for other immigrants who may be vulnerable to being victimized because, like Demetrio and Teresa, they have few affordable housing options in the Bay Area.

"Frankly, I would be willing to move as soon as possible," said Martinez, as he struggled in his wheelchair while moving down the sidewalk outside Valley Medical Center.

The couple is still in the house as the lawsuit moves forward.

The Marmolejo family says they feel the process is tilted in the renter’s favor. They said they’re having a difficult time finding a lawyer who’ll take the case and defend their mother.

Jesse Gary is a reporter based in the station's South Bay bureau. Follow him on the Instagram, @jessegontv