The air reeks of mildew from bad plumbing and rotting carpets, the heat and stench forcing residents of the Villa Santiago apartments to seek relief on the dirt and concrete grounds of what officials concede is the city’s worst slum.
Many are used to the squalor, they said this week. But none had heard that salvation could be just two months away if they can manage to stay here that long.
The city and a private developer are buying the 260-unit complex to renovate it, and they will pay tenants $4.5 million in relocation benefits. Meanwhile, however, the owner has sent eviction notices to dozens of the more than 1,000 tenants, ordering them to vacate by mid-August, well before they would be eligible for the relocation benefits amounting to about $5,000 per family in moving expenses and rent subsidies.
Many residents said they are puzzled by the eviction notices, which cite overcrowding, and by the sudden interest in living conditions in the complex at Prospect Street and Maple Avenue.
“Nobody ever said anything about there being too many of us before,” said Lazaro Valencia, 28, who lives with six members of his family in a two-bedroom apartment.
Officials for both the city and the developer said they are confounded by the evictions, since the owner, John Micuda of Oceanside, will in no way benefit from reduced relocation costs.
Joan Kradin, a spokesman for the developer, Cleveland-based Forest City Properties Corp., said, “This doesn’t do anybody any good.” The company president, she said, “was quite horrified.”
Micuda did not return repeated telephone calls. A woman who identified herself as his property supervisor, and who would only say her name was Margo, said Micuda had planned to rehabilitate the property himself if the city had not approved the deal with Forest City, and therefore had sent out the eviction notices.
Margo said the eviction notices started going out July 19, six days before the City Council approved the deal in concept. The property is expected to change ownership in late September.
“Any time we give them any kind of paper, they sort of get paranoid,” she said of the tenants, insisting later that she was telling them to disregard the notices.
Pacific Relocation Consultants, the firm hired to handle the relocation effort, confirmed that only tenants who are still there when the deal closes in late September will get the money.
The evictions are the latest chapter in the apartment complex’s troubled history.
In 1991, Immigration and Naturalization agents arrested 25 people in the complex during a pre-dawn raid. City officials had denied taking part in the raid, but an internal INS investigation revealed that city code enforcement officers had illegally helped agents get inside apartments and that the agents had been briefed by Orange police.
Because of that background, some Latino groups in the city are even skeptical of the city’s motivation for the rehabilitation.
“It is a typical tool used by cities for social cleansing,” said Art Montes, president of the Santa Ana chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “It is like buying poor Latinos a ticket out of town.”
Mayor Joanne Coontz said the city’s “only motivation is to improve the living environment of a below-standard and deteriorated apartment complex.” Relocation workers, she said, will try to find homes for the residents as close as possible to their present ones.
The council members also cited the years of complaints from neighbors worried about crime and property values and the burden of trying to enforce city codes with an uncooperative owner.
As Police Chief John R. Robertson put it, “I’ll just be glad when this is all over.”
City officials say they hope to turn the complex into a $27-million model of affordable housing, after years of trying to work with the owner.
Officials from a variety of city departments maintain that the city has consistently done all it could to enforce local housing laws, but they have found it nearly impossible to keep up with Micuda. Sometimes they went to court on misdemeanor charges, other times the property owner corrected the situation cited and charges were dropped, Assistant City Atty. David De Berry said.
“We were in court a number of times with this guy,” Councilman Mike Spurgeon said. “This has been going on for at least seven or eight years. There is a trail of court records of the many code violations over the years at what we considered a slum.”
Despite the city’s insistence that it has been diligent about enforcing housing codes, the apartments, which house 660 adults and 530 children, are in disrepair. About half of the complex’s 260 apartments are abandoned and boarded over with sheets of wood. The tenants cram into the remaining 136 apartments for an average occupancy of nine people to a two-bedroom unit, according to a survey made by Pacific Relocation. Sometimes, 18 people live in one apartment.
One resident who asked to remain anonymous pointed to the air-conditioning units dotting the walls and said, “None of the air conditioners work, just the way nothing works around here.”
Nor can they find relief in any one of the pools in the complex, which are inexplicably closed off by padlocked fences. No one remembers the last time residents were allowed in.
Tenants, most of whom work as busboys, maids and day laborers, pay rents ranging from $750 to $1,000 per month for the units.
After rehabilitation, Forest City has said the refurbished apartments will rent for $762 per month, or the county standard for a family of four earning about $35,000 per year.
The owner and Forest City Properties currently are in escrow with the $14-million sale, expected to close next month, a spokesman for the developer said. The city is contributing $7 million to the $27-million rehabilitation and Forest City is paying the rest.
City Council members, who approved the deal at their July 25 meeting, said they are tremendously relieved to be eliminating a blight on their city. Spurgeon said they have received many letters commending them for the decision to put redevelopment money into the project.
“We’re breaking new ground in terms of turning things around and reclaiming the neighborhood,” Spurgeon said. “If we are going to take the city into the 21st Century, we have to take our own neighborhoods and commercial centers and rehabilitate them.”
Vilkin noted that tenants--at least those who haven’t been evicted by then--"will be going out of the squalor they are living in to safe, affordable housing.” They will not “just be given a check” but will be offered a range of options to find new housing, he said.
Mayor Coontz said officials had distributed Spanish-language leaflets by hand Friday, informing tenants of their rights under the relocation plan distributed by this weekend.