Attorney General Maura Healey is suing a Lynn landlord, alleging that he intimidated tenants and threatened to report them to immigration authorities so they would not complain about dangerous and unsanitary living conditions in their apartments.
Healey also is seeking a preliminary injunction Wednesday in Essex County Superior Court against the landlord, She Ling Wang, to prevent him from approaching or communicating with current tenants, who fear retaliation.
"What was reported to us is that Mr Wang was tormenting his tenants, essentially harassing them, intimidating them," Healey said in an interview. Retaliation against tenants is illegal in Massachusetts, she said, and Wang has allegedly mistreated several renters.
"This has been part of a pattern and practice, which is a violation of our state's civil rights laws," she said.
Healey's office launched an investigation into Wang after a WBUR report on unlawful evictions during the pandemic. That story detailed tenant Robelio Gonzalez's claim that the landlord had threatened to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“This landlord tormented his tenants, causing them to fear for their own safety. No one should have to live like that."Maura Healey
Gonzalez had stopped paying his full $1,600-a-month rent in July, he said, after a leak in the ceiling destroyed his family's belongings. There was also a bedbug infestation that he said the landlord failed to remedy.
The landlord filed a notice to evict the family — despite the coronavirus eviction ban. On Oct. 5, ICE agents showed up outside Gonzalez's home and held him for several hours in a car, ultimately releasing him because his partner's underage daughter was in the house alone.
Healey's investigation found that Wang allegedly violated fair housing and consumer protection laws, in addition to civil rights laws. The AG's lawsuit says Wang would frequently enter apartments in the three-unit building without notice, and failed to address conditions including "lack of hot water, water leaks, ceiling collapses, mold, recurring and severe vermin infestations, gas and electrical wiring issues," and nonfunctioning locks on the main door.
"This landlord tormented his tenants, causing them to fear for their own safety," Healey stated. "No one should have to live like that."
Wang denied any wrongdoing and called the allegations "totally wrong." In a letter to the AG, a copy of which he shared with WBUR, Wang denied calling ICE on Gonzalez and said tenants had not been truthful with him.
The AG alleges that Wang has a pattern of threatening and harassing tenants. For example, Wang texted Gonzales photos of the WBUR story, underlined his name in red and stated, "Mr. Robelio, the game is over ..."
In another case, he allegedly physically threatened a female tenant and later said he would call ICE to get her deported. In other incidents, Wang allegedly threw part of a smoke detector at a tenant while a child was standing by and banged on an apartment door repeatedly while the child hid under the kitchen table in fear.
But Lynn's Inspectional Services Department in September had found the hot water tank in the apartment shut off, due to a hole in the system, according to the AG's complaint. Wang failed to repair the problem within 24 hours, as ordered, and Lynn ISD filed an application for a criminal complaint against him in Lynn District Court. Wang allegedly confronted Gonzalez for calling the city and said, "I have ways of getting you out of here."
As of February, Wang had yet to obtain from the city a permit for the work, indicating that he either "personally performed the repairs or had an unlicensed contractor do so," the AG's complaint says.
The AG is seeking unspecified civil penalties and restitution for the tenants.
Gonzalez, who is undocumented, had to meet again with ICE officials later in October and may have a path to citizenship. The AG has issued him a U-visa certification, which is for victims of crimes who assist law enforcement.