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Ojai Prepares for Showdown With Landlady : Housing: Mexican laborers have long rented space in lean-tos or a small side house. But the city says the shelters are unsafe.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Across an oak-studded arroyo from Ojai’s Libbey Park sits an old clapboard house where Irene Suniga has lived since 1950.

From Suniga’s property you can see Libbey Bowl, where Bach and Shakespeare are performed in festivals each summer. And you can hear the whop-whop of tennis balls from grandstand courts just a long lob away.

But if Libbey Park is the pride of city officials, Suniga’s property is their shame.

For decades, countless Mexican laborers have rented space from Suniga, living in lean-tos or in a small side house that burned in 1981, killing a man. Today, immigrants still stay in Suniga’s garage, in camper shells and in a converted chicken coop.

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The tiny, 75-year-old widow says she gives her five tenants a bed and meals for about $260 a month. A sixth pays $100 for a camper shell.

“I do it,” she said through an interpreter, “because these guys can’t afford to go anywhere else.”

But to Ojai officials, it is Suniga who has profited most by allowing her native countrymen to live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

The renters’ makeshift shower--illuminated by a bare bulb dangling from an electrical cord--is a fire hazard, said Elaine Willman, city code enforcement officer.

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Until it was replaced last summer by a portable toilet, the workers’ restroom was an outhouse over a hole in the ground. Whenever the hole filled up, the outhouse was moved, she said. The stench--and litter strewn along the creek bank--has prompted repeated complaints from people at the park.

The city cracked down on Suniga in 1986, forcing eviction of perhaps a dozen laborers, Willman said. And county records show building and safety problems with Suniga’s property dating back at least 17 years.

“We have never had a case like this, one that has been so chronic,” Willman said. “Every time we go out, she welcomes us. She’s very friendly. But she’s just completely non-compliant. . . . And we’ve had it.”

A frustrated Ojai City Council last month authorized its lawyers to file civil or criminal charges against Suniga alleging illegal habitation on her property. The offenses could bring six months in jail and a $500-a-day fine once charges are entered after the holidays, officials said.

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“It’s just not fair to the people who are living there to let this continue,” Councilwoman Nina Shelley said. “If their lives are at risk, that’s my responsibility. We just can’t afford not to enforce the code down there.”

But Suniga--and some of her neighbors--remain defiant.

They said that nobody seemed very worried about how people lived on their side of the arroyo until city Planning Commissioner Lyndle McConnell built a house next door to Suniga’s this year.

“There’s been a laissez-faire attitude,” said neighbor William Dorsey, a local artist. “I don’t care about your mess, and you don’t care about mine. Then you have a planning commissioner looking down from his two-story tower, and you’ve got problems.”

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Several owners in the area, including Dorsey, are being forced to clean abandoned cars and trash off their lots, Willman said.

“He’s the guy who’s a problem,” Suniga insisted recently, jabbing a finger toward McConnell’s new house. “I never had any problem until he showed up. I was real comfortable.”

The origins of the current crackdown are in 1988, said Suniga and her neighbors. That was when Morgan McConnell, now the wife of the planning commissioner, was given city approval to build a new house on a creek-front lot zoned for commercial or recreational development, officials said.

Morgan McConnell applied to build the house and run an antique shop out of it, which made the dwelling acceptable in a business zone, Planning Director Bill Prince said. Finished recently, the house is occupied by a renter who apparently runs a business from it, neighbors said.

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Lyndle McConnell could not be reached for comment. But his wife said that the couple have not complained to the city about Suniga.

“It’s kind of a live-and-let-live situation,” Morgan McConnell said. “There’s obviously some unpleasantries in that kind of situation, but (there but) for the grace of God go any of us. So I’ve just never said anything about that.”

McConnell said, however, that the construction of her house may have focused the city’s attention on conditions in the area.

Prince said the city’s crackdown on Suniga has nothing to do with Planning Commissioner McConnell.

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“The fact that he happens to own the property next door is irrelevant,” Prince said. “There’s a long history of complaints and failure to comply with regulations.”

County documents show that Suniga has been warned about conditions on her property since at least 1974, when a building inspector directed her to meet electrical wiring codes in her tiny side house or tear it down.

Suniga took out a demolition permit, but the dwelling stood until it was leveled by a January, 1981, fire caused by overloaded or faulty electrical extension cords, said Larry Titus, chief county fire investigator.

The fire killed a Mexican immigrant who was living in the house, prompting an investigation--but no charges--by the district attorney’s office, Titus said.

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After the fire, Suniga told a fire investigator that electrical service to the small house had been disconnected in 1975, but that she had run an extension cord 125 to 150 feet from her house to the second dwelling, Titus said. The setup was illegal, he said.

Suniga--courteous and accommodating in a recent interview--said she began renting out her side house to laborers in 1953 and continued until the fire, which she said was set by a robber who tied the victim to his bed. Titus, who oversaw the fire investigation, said the man died in his bed, but was not tied to it.

“Everything I’m doing is right because there’s not any problems here,” Suniga said. “It’s cheap here. It helps them out, and it helps me out a little. Ones who are poor have to help each other out.

“I know the (city) letter says I have to get rid of the campers and the renters,” she said, “but what am I going to do? This is my life. They’re not going to give me money to live.”

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Her tenants stayed only in the small side house until 1978, when Suniga, then 62, said she became disabled and had to quit her housekeeper’s job at private Thacher School in Ojai.

Already a widow for many years, she began to rent space to 10 or 12 workers at a time--in lean-tos, in her garage and in camper shells, she said.

“The Mexicans come here to work,” she said. “We all came here to work. Believe me, I work hard here. I get up at 5 in the morning, and at 6 o’clock food is ready (for her tenants). I work very hard to maintain what my husband left me.”

The nearly $1,400 a month she receives from renters is augmented by a $394 monthly pension and $500 from renters of a second house she owns in Ojai, Suniga said.

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“I’m not a bad person,” she said. But there are “bad people” in city government who are trying to ruin her. All she wants now is to sell her property, and her two lots are on the market for $200,000, she said.

Suniga’s situation--regardless of how it is finally resolved--raises a broader question for cities that want to stem the spread of slum conditions, said Oxnard farm worker advocate Marco Antonio Abarca.

Crowded and substandard housing is widespread in Ventura County, with the 1990 census reporting that at least 20% of dwellings in Oxnard, Santa Paula and Fillmore are overcrowded.

“OK, Ojai wants to clean out this housing,” said Abarca, a lawyer for California Rural Legal Assistance. “So where are they going to put these people?

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“They’re living at the bottom, so they’re going to sleep in the hills, sleep in the orchards,” Abarca said. “Unless the people of Ojai have the political will to solve this housing problem, it’s only going to get worse every year.”

Ojai recently approved construction of 21 apartments for low-income families, and the city Redevelopment Agency is underwriting the $250,000 cost of the land. Two- to four-bedroom apartments will rent for $300 to $500 a month, said Rodney Fernandez, executive director of the nonprofit company building the apartments.

The Suniga case, said Fernandez, represents a dilemma because eliminating even substandard housing throws people into the streets.

“This is a Catch-22 policy issue,” Fernandez said. “But I have a problem with those who charge outrageous rates and do not provide minimum health and safety requirements.”

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In Ojai, city officials said they can wait no longer for Suniga to meet their minimum standards, and only the approach of Christmas stopped them from filing charges after passage of a Dec. 13 deadline for eviction.

“It would be wonderful to have voluntary compliance,” said planning chief Prince.

But Suniga said that’s not likely. She said she intends to spend the holiday season with relatives near Guadalajara.


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