Sued by Tenants, Veritas Says it Maintains ‘High Standards’

San Francisco Public Press
 — Mar 18 2019 - 8:00am

Company spokesman accuses plaintiffs attorneys of  pushing a ‘false narrative’ for profit

I n reporting on the tenant lawsuit against Veritas Investments Inc., the Public Press engaged company spokesman Ron Heckmann at length. Here are excerpts of some of our questions and his responses via email from Jan. 7 to Jan. 18. To date, this is the most extensive public account of Veritas’ response to the lawsuit, which is called Evander, et al. v. Veritas Investments, Inc., et al.

Go here to read our in-depth coverage of the lawsuit.

SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC PRESS: The lawsuit alleges that Veritas has systematically neglected essential maintenance work or performed frequent and disruptive renovations in its buildings, in hopes that rent-controlled tenants would move out so rents in their units could rise to market rates for newcomers. Does Veritas have a response to this allegation, or to any specific claims in the lawsuit?

RON HECKMANN: Veritas does not neglect repair work or perform renovations in the hope that tenants will move out. It performs repair work and renovations to ensure its buildings adhere to its high standards.

This is not mere rhetoric, it is reality borne out by data and evidence. The data establish that Veritas is one of the best and most proactive landlords when it comes to maintenance and care for its buildings. An independent firm that tracks Complaints and Notices of Violation (NOV’s) has stated that “Veritas is definitely one of, if not the most proactive property management companies in San Francisco in regard to building code complaints / violations.” This factual statement is driven by their gathering of publicly available data maintained by Department of Building Inspection (DBI), a contrast to unsubstantiated allegations made by plaintiffs’ lawyers. ...

On average, Veritas’ residents have been in their apartments for 10 years. By contrast the average length of stay for tenants moving out is approximately 3 years. We find that new residents are more transient or have more frequent life circumstances (family / jobs) that result in them changing housing more frequently. …

And note the inherent conflict between the allegations that Veritas performs too much construction work and the claim that Veritas systematically neglects maintenance work. Plaintiffs’ counsel cannot get their story straight.

Veritas treats 100% of our Residents with respect and responsive service. We have a Residents First program that establishes a means to care for all Residents regardless of rent paid or length of stay with us.

Veritas has an internal team of 20 Maintenance Technicians and support whose sole purpose is to be responsive to Resident maintenance needs and address matters promptly. We respond to complaints within 24 hours and on average address work orders in less than a week.

Much of San Francisco’s stock of apartment buildings is aging and presents the alternative of either neglect, or investment to rehabilitate these properties. Veritas chooses to invest in San Francisco and its aging housing stock. Veritas manages some properties that are older and require significant improvements and maintenance.

Additionally, we are highly responsive to new City mandates relating to Fire Life-Safety and Seismic upgrades as our tenants’ health and well-being is our priority.

While we recognize that work on a building can at times be disruptive, it is also our obligation to Residents and the City to maintain these classic properties. To minimize the impact on tenants, we follow restrictive construction hours (much less than the City allows) and other considerations to reduce the impact of construction work.

In the last year alone, Veritas has rehabilitated units and even replaced furniture, all at our own expense, of several long-term Residents who were not maintaining their units in habitable condition. There may have been other options in these cases but those were never explored and instead our Property Management team went above and beyond in an effort to keep long-term Residents in their homes at considerable effort and expense for Veritas. …

We keep detailed records of every work order, complaint or question by Residents such that we can provide excellent service. We truly look forward to the facts coming to light, as opposed to unsubstantiated blanket allegations, as it will demonstrate how Veritas is a leader in providing quality properties and quality service.

PUBLIC PRESS: You said: “On average, Veritas’ residents have been in their apartments for 10 years. By contrast the average length of stay for tenants moving out is approximately 3 years.” Could you clarify the second sentence? When you refer to the tenants who move out after 3 years, are you talking about Veritas tenants? (You’re not referring to tenants generally, citywide?)

HECKMANN: Yes, we refer to Veritas residents. Our experience is echoed by national research in which residents who are newer to properties also tend to move out sooner than long-term residents. Our experience in having, on average, residents staying in our apartments for 10 years demonstrates that Veritas has no intent to try to displace longer-term tenants, contrary to the false narrative pushed by plaintiffs’ counsel. As we have stated repeatedly, Veritas welcomes and encourages all our residents to stay in their apartments as long as they wish.

PUBLIC PRESS: You said: “Veritas has an internal team of 20 Maintenance Technicians and support whose sole purpose is to be responsive to Resident maintenance needs and address matters promptly.”

Are you able to share the company’s data/info about the work that this team has accomplished? As complete and granular as possible — type/cost of work, building location, date each case was opened/closed, etc?

HECKMANN: With 230 properties, we have thousands of work-orders we address each year — from leaky toilets to painting touchups to appliance replacements. We respond to each work-order request within 24 hours and close out work orders on average in 6.5 days. This responsiveness is built into our service level commitments and customer care standards. …

For the 39 buildings at issue in the Evander lawsuit filed on October 11, 2018, Plaintiffs cite only 14 Notices of Violation (“NOVs”) as evidence of alleged poor maintenance. But that means that most buildings have no NOVs at all. And as for the 14 NOV’s cited, 12 have already been abated, one is awaiting sign-off on a permit, and the last one is just awaiting completion of a work order on a sticking window. That is evidence of responsiveness, not neglect.

PUBLIC PRESS: You said: “Veritas manages some properties that are older and require significant improvements and maintenance.”

Can you give some examples of specific buildings that have needed extensive work? What work did Veritas do, and how much did it cost?

HECKMANN: We said “significant improvements and maintenance,” not merely “needed extensive work” as you restated it. The nuance is important. 634 Powell is an example where Veritas upgraded basic systems, including electrical, plumbing, security, roofing and common areas, to improve the building. It should further be noted that the residents sued the prior landlord for substandard conditions and, since acquisition, we have been actively addressing the property on a holistic basis. Plaintiffs’ counsel pushes the false narrative that Veritas just does cosmetic work to attract tenants, but that narrative is at odds with the reality that Veritas invests in improving basic infrastructure, in addition to the more obvious improvements like upgrades of common areas. That investment is good for the San Francisco housing supply.

There is an obvious inconsistency between plaintiffs’ counsel allegation that Veritas neglects its buildings and the allegation that Veritas undertakes so much construction that residents move out. All but one of the Plaintiffs in the Evander lawsuit is still a tenant. Residents are simply not being driven out. The San Francisco Rent Ordinance provides that plaintiffs’ lawyers recover attorney’s fees on such claims, providing a strong incentive to contrive such cases. And to punctuate that point, we view eviction as a last resort and our eviction rate is 0.18%, which is far less than 1%, and among the lowest in the City. Any eviction is almost exclusively due to continuing nonpayment of rent and non-responsiveness to otherwise resolve the matter.

PUBLIC PRESS: You said: “To minimize the impact on tenants, we follow restrictive construction hours (much less than the City allows) and other considerations to reduce the impact of construction work.”

Within what specific hours does Veritas allow construction work at its buildings? What are the “other considerations”?

HECKMANN: The City allows construction 7 days per week and from 7am to 7pm. Outside of emergencies or critical work, we only allow construction 5 days per week and from 8am to 6pm such that impact to our residents is minimized. We always follow City regulations and special considerations and accommodations are made on a case-by-case, where possible. In all cases we make every effort to proactively, fully inform and accommodate residents.

PUBLIC PRESS: Why does Veritas purchase primarily, if not exclusively, rent-controlled buildings? Why not purchase market-rate buildings?

HECKMANN: Apartment buildings built prior to 1979 in San Francisco are rent-controlled, and Veritas invests in this class of properties. Others invest in newer properties but Veritas has developed expertise in acquiring and managing older properties.

HECKMANN had one final comment:

Research from external and internal sources supports our record of responsiveness and customer service. First, we looked at Yelp. As measured by Yelp’s 1-5 rating system, San Francisco Property Managers who have a minimum 30 reviews averaged a 3.25 rating whereas Veritas’ property management rated 3.5 and our leasing group, a 4.0. With our own survey of Veritas’ Residents using the same scoring, our Building Managers scored a 3.9 and our Apartment quality rated a 3.5.

While we don’t profess to be perfect and there is always room for improvement, the high positives speak to a culture and Resident community of quality and service focus, as opposed to the allegations, which are isolated and lack any factual foundation. …

Do you live in a building owned by Veritas Investmants or managed by Greentree Property Management Co.? If so, we’d like to know how the company’s statements compare with your experiences. Drop us a line at editors@sfpublicpress.org.

This article also appears in the spring 2019 print edition of the Public Press.