Apartment Landlords Prosecuted

Times Staff Writer

Rodents make frequent appearances at El Tapatio -- a smattering of run-down studio apartments on a dusty stretch of agricultural road near Oxnard.

Septic tanks often overflow onto the ground, causing an unbearable stench.

Tenants awaken to backed-up shower drains, toilets and sinks. Tests have shown that some of the water is septic waste.

For five years, county officials have logged residents' complaints.

Now county prosecutors are taking owners Samuel and Altagracia Martinez of Lennox, Calif., to court. Altagracia is scheduled to be arraigned today. Samuel's court date is Thursday.

Each faces 14 criminal misdemeanor counts, including failure to provide heating, smoke alarms, running water and properly working toilets.

Through their son Samuel Jr., the Martinezes declined to comment on the case. He said his parents still do not have a lawyer.

It's unusual to criminally prosecute negligent landlords in Ventura County, officials said. In fact, officials at the prosecutor's office say they can't remember the last time anyone was taken to criminal court for these types of violations.

"Usually I get compliance before I have to file a case," said Terence Kilbride, a senior deputy district attorney who has screened these types of cases for two years. "Nobody wants to go any further than a warning, but most cases are not as bad or as blatant as this."

The Martinezes have been granted more than enough time to make improvements, said Elizabeth Cameron, a senior code enforcer for the county.

"Just when you think you've seen it all," said Cameron, whose office is handling almost 1,000 complaints throughout the county. "El Tapatio would be in our top 10 worst list. It's sad to say that these conditions exist in Ventura County."

Once known as the Missile Lodge Motel, the 80-year-old, 16-unit complex was once mostly a transitional home for migrant workers who feared deportation and seldom complained, officials said. But in the last several years, El Tapatio's demographics have changed to include mostly English-speaking families who have not been shy about airing their grievances.

"It's a family place now, and the Martinezes just aren't going to be able to get away with what they used to get away with," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Eric Dobroth. "We're taking this very seriously because it's not your typical situation. We have dozens of violations in each particular dwelling unit, and what exacerbates it the most is

Barbara Macri-Ortiz, a local attorney who specializes in housing issues, said the El Tapatio case underscores the larger problem of affordable housing in the county and state.

"It's a new phenomenon that these are all English-speaking citizens, for the most part," Macri-Ortiz said. "It just speaks to the deepening problem and growing crisis in affordable housing."

As the average sales price for homes continues to rise, families who would've been homeowners a decade ago are now renting, creating a domino effect that leaves the worst housing for the poor.

"Because the market is so tight, there's no incentives for these landlords to spruce up these places," Macri-Ortiz said. "No matter what shape they're in, they're always going to have tenants."

The county is seeking to condemn the property and relocate everyone, but tenants say their complaints would have fallen on deaf ears again if they had not withheld their rent in protest late last year.

When Yancey Hawkins, who took over the property management in October, responded by serving all 41 tenants with three-day eviction notices 10 days before Christmas, the tenants made headlines and finally got everyone's attention, they say.

County officials said the eviction notices were invalid, and a local attorney representing the tenants, Greg Ramirez, is filing a civil claim alleging that the properties are a public and private nuisance. He is asking the court to order the Martinezes to immediately remedy code violations. He is also asking for an abatement of rent, an injunction prohibiting any further action to harass or evict tenants and personal injury damages.

"These apartments are uninhabitable," said Ramirez, who recently rushed to El Tapatio when he heard that Hawkins was allegedly trying to use a phony restraining order to evict one of the tenants. "For the most part, the only reason people are there is because they have nowhere else to go."

Hawkins says he plans to completely remodel El Tapatio and once again turn it into a motel, but he needs all the tenants out before he can start any work.

"They're tearing the place up right now," Hawkins said of his tenants. "I want to remodel everything and go through that place with a fine-toothed comb. The county should be helping me get those people out."

Meanwhile, the tenants say they are in limbo as they fight to stay at a place where none of them would live if they had any other choice.

"I don't like living like this and I know all these people don't like living like this either," said Guy Puga as he and his wife, Rose, sat on the family's main piece of furniture, a large bunk bed that takes up most of the room in their tiny apartment. "If I could find something we could afford, we would gladly go."

The couple, who pay about $550 a month for the dorm-sized room, haven't used their bathroom in weeks.

"Oh, we don't go in there," said an emphatic Rose Puga. "We have to go to a neighbor's to use the restroom and take a shower."

She showed a visitor her clogged drains and toilet, closed the door and quickly rubbed sanitizer on her hands. She bought a box of it after health officials told her the water clogging her drains and toilets tested positive for sewage waste. She is concerned about the health of her children, ages 12 and 10. Her son gets constant headaches and complains of sore throats. Her daughter's asthma has gotten worse since they moved in a year and a half ago.

"I never thought all of this would happen," said Rose. "All I wanted was my bathroom fixed. Now we just want to move out and forget about this place. Believe me, we won't be looking back."

County Supervisor John Flynn said the county is assisting the tenants in finding government-subsidized housing as soon as possible.

Recent health department findings also showed evidence of rodent infestation and droppings, but Susan Gutierrez and Georgina Martinez didn't need a test to prove they had rats.

Gutierrez's rat gets in through a hole in her shower floor and has been seen in her kitchen. She is afraid to open her oven because she suspects more rodents are inside.

And Martinez, a single mother of two children, ages 4 and 10, said her rat isn't intimidated by humans or the traps they've set.

"He doesn't care, he just sits out here and watches TV," said Martinez about her frequent guest. "The kids throw things at him and he don't move."

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