The raccoon noise at the Maggards’ Narragansett Avenue apartment in Ocean Beach began in early May. They were often awakened around three in the morning to a racket above their bedroom. At first, they thought it might be coming from the roof. But it was too close. Meg Maggard, who is 33, tries to imitate for me the “animal vocalization” they heard, saying it sounded like “chirping, cooing, and a purr, although louder.” She and husband Ron “Woogie” Maggard, 27, say they left messages about the problem with CIS Investments, the company that manages their building, but got no response.
The Maggards and their girls, a one- and a two-year-old, occupy an apartment in between two others in a long building that stretches to the back alley. They and their next-door neighbors had often seen raccoons in the narrow courtyard that separates their building from an apartment complex to the west. Ron Maggard tells me that recently, after hearing a loud crash, he ran outside to see a raccoon lying on the deck of his neighbor to the rear. “It must have fallen out of the pine tree and knocked itself cold,” he says. “I grabbed a broom and began poking it. Then it got up and walked nonchalantly past me. Our cat was hissing as it went by.”
On the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, a foul odor overtook the Maggards’ apartment. “We thought we had misplaced a dirty diaper,” says Meg Maggard. “Then we noticed feces dripping from the ceiling over the kitchen sink. It was splashing on the window blinds and onto the girls’ sippy cups.” The couple began to panic after reading that raccoon feces sometimes carry a roundworm that is dangerous to humans.
They left a message at CIS Investments, saying the problem had to be fixed immediately since the three-day weekend was about to begin. Later that day, the company’s maintenance man showed up. He cut a hole in the kitchen ceiling big enough to squeeze his torso through. “He pulled himself out,” says Ron Maggard, “and said, ‘There are feces everywhere up there.’ I offered him gloves, but he went back up and proceeded to pull it out with his hands. He filled up a large black garbage bag.
“His boss called him for an update and then asked to speak to my wife. He told her, ‘Well, we took care of your cat-shit problem.’ Our cat is so obese he can barely jump on the porch,” says Maggard, laughing.
Before leaving, the worker boarded up a hole above the washing machine in the laundry room, which is adjacent to the apartment. It was the only place the raccoons could have been entering the attic. In the morning, says Meg Maggard, “The raccoons were racing around furiously and scratching and clawing. Then somebody came and took the board off the attic entrance. We haven’t heard anything more.” According to Ron Maggard, a neighbor from the building across the courtyard said that she saw a raccoon taking two babies over a fence.
During the following week, CIS Investments sent someone out to permanently close the hole in the laundry room. Maggard says he then began pressing them to remove whatever feces still remained in the attic and to replace the kitchen ceiling, as it still gave off an odor on warm days. Nothing happened, so he hired tenant-rights attorney Marc Whitham, who wrote to CIS explaining his clients’ rights.
By phone, Whitham tells me that the property management business is very competitive and that, to keep property investors happy, firms try as hard as they can to keep costs down. “The rental market is so tight that there is very little affordable housing in San Diego,” says Whitham. “And there is no shortage of run-down units in Ocean Beach. Tenants often are reluctant to complain for fear of being forced to move.”
If a tenant sues in court over something like vermin problems, Whitham continues, they must bring a “warranty of inhabitability” from a public agency. “With the City’s Code Compliance Department, you can’t just report your case and expect something to happen. You have to be a squeaky wheel,” he says. But Meg Maggard tells me she complained to code compliance and the County’s Public Health Services Department. “They all just passed me around. After several calls, code compliance said they only deal with new construction issues.”
Several days after Whitham’s letter to CIS, a company official and the landlord, attorney Tom Rutledge, came to the apartment and said they would paint the kitchen ceiling. When the Maggards insisted on the new ceiling, they say, it was suggested they might want to move. They have never been late paying their $1000-a-month rent.
I left a message for CIS president Rod Taylor to ask for his perspective. He returned my call an hour later. Taylor appeared to still be blaming the Maggards’ cat. “We hired Bite-Away pest control to put a trap in the attic,” he tells me. “Only the cat was caught.” But he went on to say that the ceiling in the apartment’s kitchen would be replaced.
Meg Maggard admits that her cat was caught in the trap. She said Bite-Away came out and placed two traps, “one in front of a neighbor’s door and the other on the ground outside the laundry room.” And they were placed, she claims, after the attic had been closed permanently. I call Bite-Away to see if they can resolve the dispute. The company’s “pest control manager” has not returned my call.
But I talk to property owner Rutledge and ask him whether he believes there were ever raccoons in the attic. He is noncommittal. “The root cause of the problem is irrelevant to the solution,” he says. “On advice, I’m replacing the kitchen ceiling. That’s going to cost some dough. But I love my tenants and don’t want to lose them.” ■