San Diego State student confronts landlords on unpermitted rental

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The mother of a student recorded the confrontation in May, while demanding a refund from the landlords.

SAN DIEGO — A warning for San Diego State University students who are desperate to rent hard-to-find, off-campus housing: Make sure you tour the property before signing a contract or putting down a deposit.

CBS 8 obtained cell phone video of a confrontation in May, involving a College Area landlord and an SDSU student.

The student, Josh Montalto, was demanding money back after discovering he had rented an unpermitted garage unit in January, located in the 4100 block of Campanile Drive.

In an interview with CBS 8, Montalto, 24, admitted he was naïve when he put down a deposit for the unit at the landlord’s office two blocks south of the SDSU campus. He signed a six-month lease, at $1,200 per month, without looking at the property first.

After moving in, Montalto said the problems began.

“The house was a dump. I will tell you that it was a dump,” said Montalto.

For starters, Montalto said, the swimming pool pump was broken for weeks.  And, he claimed, the house had a roach infestation.

“There was a ton. We had more than 50 cockroaches. I can recall more than 50,” he said.

Montalto also remembered a sewage backup and power outages when it rained.

The problems were confirmed by Montalto’s roommate, Nika Tsitelashvili, a foreign exchange student who says he also put down a deposit on the property, sight unseen.

“At one point, I was not going to sign a lease because this room was not looking habitable for me. It was very unfair. But they threatened us to not give our deposit back,” said Tsitelashvili.

A couple months after moving in, Montalto said, he started coughing. He claimed the coughing got better when left the house to travel out of state, and resumed when he returned.

“So hard to breathe. You have to keep coughing. And it was not pleasant. It’s every two or three minutes. You hear this cough constantly at night and you can’t sleep. That’s how bad it was,” Montalto said.

A few weeks later, a San Diego city inspector visited the property and told Montalto that the garage unit was not permitted as a rental dwelling unit. 

In fact, the landlord had been given notice in January to “immediately cease using the garage as habitable space,” according to the San Diego code enforcement civil notice obtained by CBS 8.

That’s when Montalto’s mother, Connie Lafuente, stepped in.

“Right away, I was concerned. I spoke with him and I said what do you feel we should do?  And he said, ‘Mom, no wonder I’m feeling sick. I think I should move out,’” Lafuente said.

The mother used her cell phone to secretly record the confrontation in May with the landlord, Waleed “Bill” Salameh, and his wife, Lana Kamouh.

“The city inspector said to my son, you should not be in this room because it’s not permitted,” Lafuente said during the videotaped conversation.

“We’ve already spent $30,000 to apply for a permit,” Salameh responded, claiming the garage unit was close to being permitted by the city.

“So, your room, essentially, is just about legit at this point,” Salameh said.

“But it’s not legit, right now,” Lafuente countered.

During the 10-minute confrontation, Salameh denied responsibility for any of Montalto’s health problems. He also claimed Montalto had damaged the plumbing at the property by putting baby wipes down the toilet, which Montalto denied.

When Salameh and his wife discovered they were being videotaped, the couple threatened legal action.

“We are going to sue you,” Kamouh said at the end of the video.

“We’re not scared of them. We are trying to expose them so they can stop and they can be responsible landlords, so they can provide a safe space for all students,” Lafuente said.

CBS 8 spoke on the telephone with Kamouh and requested an on-camera interview. Kamouh said she would ask her husband about it, but the couple did not respond to CBS 8’s request.

In a letter to Monalto, the landlord further alleged that Montalto threw a fraternity party at the house, resulting in damages and cleanup expenses, so Monalto’s deposit would not be refunded.

Montalto denied having a fraternity party at the residence. His request for a rent refund also was denied.

WATCH: Cell phone video of landlord confrontation with SDSU student:

CBS 8 reached out to SDSU, which offers students a guide for off-campus housing. The university responded with the following statement:

“While the university does not have jurisdiction in managing off-campus housing matters between residents and landlords, San Diego State University offers a wide-range of student support services and dedicated staff to assist in addressing concerns with individual students when they report an issue. These support services include the Economic Crisis Response Team (ECRT), which can provide support for any student who is facing or experiencing housing insecurity.  Additionally, SDSU’s Associated Students contracts with an outside legal services agency to provide free legal and financial services to enrolled students.”

The City of San Diego offers a search portal where past and present code enforcement cases can be accessed by street address location.