A couple leading the charge for stronger tenant protections in Woodstock is in a legal dispute with their landlord, who they say is evicting them in retaliation for bringing the company’s alleged health and safety violations to light.
In a countersuit filed Jan. 3 against Woodstock-based Advantage Plus Inc., spouses Bill Zieske and Denise Halverson make allegations of fraud, intimidation, breach of lease, and refusal to address building code violations, among other claims.
The defense answer and counterclaim were a response to a forcible entry and detainer filed by Advantage Plus for the couple’s failure to pay rent on time, for using the residence as an office, and for interfering with property showings, the lawsuit said.
All parties deny the claims against them.
The litigation is the latest incident in an ongoing clash between Advantage Plus President Mary Brown and an informal union of area renters who say her property management company routinely ignores uncomfortable or dangerous living conditions, improperly withholds security deposits, and intimidates tenants.
In September, Zieske led a group of Woodstock residents—most of whom said they were current or former tenants of Advantage Plus—to a meeting of the Woodstock City Council, where they made allegations of gross neglect of their rental properties, including finding raw sewage, leaky roofs, broken windows, and black mold in their homes that they claimed went unaddressed.
In October, the city approved a maintenance ordinance the group said might help in their fight for tenant protections. But by January, Zieske said Brown had failed to address building code violations in his Jackson Street home and was evicting him and Halverson in retribution for their role in organizing the aggrieved renters.
“Reasoning with Mary Brown didn’t work…I went to the government—the next logical step—and that didn’t get her attention either,” Zieske said. “She refused to acknowledge the problems that were cited as code violations by the city. Then I sought legislative action, hoping to the get the property maintenance act passed. That only made her entrench and become nastier.”
Included in the 61-page countersuit are claims of “lack of honesty and good faith in every communication,” “deplorable conditions,” and “deceptive acts and practices.” The document also details a physical altercation between Halverson and Brown that resulted in a call to police by Halverson but no charges being filed.
“When we heard what had happened to these people, we were utterly disgusted,” said attorney Dominic J. Buttitta Jr., who with his partner, Ross Carponelli, is representing Zieske and Halverson. “We’re here because these people are victims. We want to help these people.”
Buttitta said he is in talks with other Woodstock renters about bringing additional suits against landlords.
Brown denies the allegations in the countersuit. When asked for comment, she gave a prepared statement:
“As president of Advantage Plus Inc., I, Mary Brown, deny these allegations and have no further comment at this time due to the litigation we have with this tenant.”