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Closer Look: Bay Area Problem Tenant Emerges In Oregon

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A sign advertising an apartment for rent is displayed in a window in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

SONOMA COUNTY (CBS 5) — A few weeks ago, CBS 5 reported on a woman who avoided paying rent for years. She had numerous court judgments against her, and owes more than $100,000 to landlords, some in the Bay Area.

Recently, she turned up in Oregon, but her stay there didn’t last long.

When CBS 5 first caught up with Gwen Smith, it was late October in the Sonoma County town of Forestville. She sped past our cameras as we tried to ask her about eight court judgments against her totaling $183,000, judgments in favor of landlords such as Connie Cook in Sebastopol.

“She started claiming that the apartment was uninhabitable. The water was not healthy, there was a gas leak,” said Cook. A judge ruled Smith’s conduct of not paying rent and filing numerous legal actions “malicious” and a “tactical delay” and awarded cook $49,000 in damages.

After leaving Cook’s house, Smith moved to Oregon renting a room in Lance Hilt’s house. Within days, Hilt said he realized he had made a big mistake. “I got the roommate from hell,” he said.

Hilt said she put a lock on her room, and started complaining about everything. “It’s all about her, she’s like a fulltime job,” he said. He managed to evict her.

Then Smith moved into Pamela Joy’s house and soon started “threatening” her, according to court documents. “I put a lock on the inside of my bedroom door because I was afraid to not lock it at night when I was asleep,” said Joy.

Joy also took Smith to court. In an audio recording from the Jackson County Circuit Court, Smith was heard talking back to the judge. “She was arguing with the judge, it was to my mind really shocking,” said Joy.

But one thing that didn’t happen to landlords in Oregon, and was the financial ruin for some in California, involved Smith withholding rent.

In Oregon, if there’s a landlord tenant dispute, tenants still have to pay rent into an escrow account held by the court. Whoever wins gets the money.

“The court says to the landlord we are going to hold onto this rent and by the way Mr. Tenant you have to keep paying every month into the court,” said Janet Portman a nationally renowned tenant rights expert.

Portman thinks it’s a good way to stop abuse on both sides. “There is a neutral referee involved, namely the court,” she said.

The Oregon law allowed Hilt to evict Smith from his Ashland home and get his money back, within 3 months. Pamela Joy got her out even faster, in just one month.

It’s a far cry from what happened to Connie Cook in California. Smith kept on living in Cook’s converted barn for 16 months without paying rent while she fought her eviction in court. That eventually caused Cook to lose her home to foreclosure.

Coincidence or not, Smith is apparently back in the more tenant friendly Bay Area. Most recently CBS 5 found her at a park in Sebastopol, fixing what looked like breakfast, and tending to her cats.

Portman sees the case as a good example of why California should also adopt an escrow law. “I don’t see a good argument that could be made against it,” she said.

But that would require lawmakers to pass a bill and the governor sign it, which could take time. That’s something former landlords say Gwen Smith doesn’t deserve. “She causes such havoc in a person’s life,” said Hilt.

“The damage that she causes is not just to people’s property. She leaves a psychological wound,” said Joy.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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