Santa Ana Tenants Declare Rent Strike in Fight for Repairs
About 75 Santa Ana families, faced with eviction if repairs are not made on their slum apartments within two weeks, called a rent strike Monday in an effort to force their landlord to bring the buildings up to code.
The strike, effective immediately, was announced at Monday night’s City Council meeting, which was attended by about 300 of the estimated 500 people who live in the six buildings in the 1200 block of West Brook Street. The tenants told the council their landlord, Carmine Esposito, has ignored city housing inspectors’ orders to repair the properties.
By withholding rent, the tenants said, they will deprive Esposito of almost $30,000 income every month.
Esposito said rent from the apartments amounts to about $20,000. That loss, coupled with the city order to vacate the buildings, has “caused me a tremendous (financial) problem,” he said.
“I’m certainly not refusing to fix up the buildings, but the city doesn’t have any money to help,” he said. “Every dollar (of rent) since I owned the buildings has been spent on the buildings.”
Myriad of Deficiencies
The six buildings were cited late last year for a myriad of problems, including, but not limited to, structural and electrical hazards, plumbing deficiencies, overcrowded conditions, vermin infestation, broken windows and deteriorated walls, cabinets, ceilings and floors.
Rita Hardin, Santa Ana’s code enforcement coordinator, confirmed the posting of notices to vacate the Brook Street buildings by Feb. 23. The notices were preceded by official inspections of the properties, at which time housing inspectors issued citations demanding repairs on each building, she said.
Instead of complying with the orders to repair the buildings, Esposito requested a single permit “to repair all the units without submitting plans and without telling us what he intended to do or telling us how he would make the repairs,” Hardin said. “He said he wanted the city to work with him.” Hardin said Esposito had scoffed at the standard method of complying with city directives.
“He said he had no intention of following that procedure and would not do any of the work. He said he would get an attorney and sue the city because we wouldn’t work with him, whatever that meant,” Hardin said.
With Esposito taking that attitude, Hardin said, she had no choice but to order the properties vacated, but she added, “We will not force the tenants out.” The order wasmeant to alert tenants that “they should avail themselves to (the) Legal Aid (Society of Orange County) for advice on paying rent,” she said.
‘It’s really not an owner problem, but I’m going to fix them even if (the city) doesn’t give me the money.’
--Landlord Carmine Esposito
Esposito, who lives in Villa Park, said Monday he is doing everything in his power to repair the buildings but must deal with a bureaucratic system he didn’t understand until recently. He said he has applied for permits to fix up two of the buildings, and two additional applications will be handed in today. Next week, he said, he will ask for permits on the two remaining buildings.
“I was extremely confused when I talked to Rita Hardin,” he said. “I didn’t understand the city requirements. It was a communication problem.”
Esposito said he has been singled out by the city administration, and that all of the owners of the buildings--called the Esposito Apartments--should receive notices. Although one of the group of about six partners lives in Europe, he said, others “live right around the corner here in Villa Park.”
He called Hardin’s statement that he had refused to comply “absolutely false” and added, “She is making up a bunch of stories.”
Nativo Lopez, spokesman for the David Coalition for Housing, a citizens’ group that has fought for relocation assistance for tenants evicted from substandard housing, said Esposito “hasn’t done a damn thing” for the properties.
Statement to Press
In a statement released to reporters before the council meeting, Lopez said the Brook Street tenants have the David Coalition’s “firm support in battling one of the most notorious slumlords in Orange County.” The tenants said a trust account will be opened this week to receive the rent payments they are withholding.
On the notice of code violations issued for each of Esposito’s buildings is an explanation of the appeal process a landlord can follow to dispute claims made by housing inspectors. “He did not appeal anything,” Hardin said.
“Why should I appeal?” Esposito asked. “I plan to fix them up. There’s nothing to appeal.”
Dave Hermance, an inspector who visited three of the buildings, said he found crumbling balconies and swaying staircases that are “downright unsafe.” In one garage apparently used as a bedroom, inspectors found a child’s plastic swimming pool filled with urine, Hermance said.
An October, 1983, article in The Times chronicled Esposito’s ownership of several buildings in the Buena Clinton section of Garden Grove, which housing officials consider the worst slum in Orange County.
Hermance, the Santa Ana inspector, recalled a telephone conversation with Esposito in which the landlord “didn’t seem to realize Santa Ana was going to take the action it did.” Esposito seemed to feel that since Garden Grove was not prosecuting him, Santa Ana should not, Hermance said.
“But we’re not going to take him by the hand. If he has too many properties, that’s his own fault,” Hermance said.
Esposito said he and his partners have owned the buildings five or six years and have reinvested “every dime” of rent money in the properties, including an installation of solar panels that cost almost $75,000.
He called on the city and federal governments, tenants, the Legal Aid Society, lending institutions and anyone else involved to cooperate in solving the problem.
“Don’t make me the bad guy. It’s really not an owner problem,” he said. “But I’m going to fix them even if (the city) doesn’t give me the money.”
“The tenants don’t have a problem; the owners do,” he said.
In June, 1984, Esposito obtained a building permit to repair one of the buildings after an errant motorist drove into it, Hermance said. He said that although the structural deficiencies later cited by housing inspectors “had to be wrong at that time, he just let them slide. He apparently wasn’t concerned about them,” Hermance said.
Esposito said he made no further repairs last summer because “no one told me I had to.”
After announcing the rent strike, Lopez said the David Coalition had chosen the council meeting to press for action to upgrade the relocation assistance program.
He and other tenants called on the council to allocate an additional $24,500 to administer the program, a proposal already on the evening’s agenda. The motion later passed 6 to 1, with Councilman John Acosta casting the lone dissenting vote.
Moreover, Lopez said, the city’s occupancy code should be relaxed in certain instances, to avoid eviction of law-abiding tenants. The group also said public hearings should be held in target neighborhoods two months before housing inspections “to gain neighborhood support and cooperation.”
The 200-seat council chamber was filled to overflowing by the crowd of tenants, most of whom are Latino. Many members of the audience carried placards that read, “Repairs Now” and “Respect Family Size.”
Shortly before the meeting began, the tenants sang “We Shall Not Be Moved” in Spanish.
“Aggressive legal action against irresponsible and recalcitrant apartment owners should continue unabated without forcing mass evictions of families,” the tenants’ statement said.