At 101, Ramona Merle may be the oldest resident of Balboa Island.
As one of Newport Beach’s busier landlords in her younger days, she began renting properties to vacationers six decades ago, long before short-term rentals became a hot political issue in town.
She still owns three rentals in the city. In fact, when asked about her accomplishments, she decided that being a landlord pretty much sums it up.
Merle and her husband, Ray, invested in their first summer rental property on Balboa Island in 1956. The couple, who then lived in Garden Grove, pooled their resources and bought 309 Amethyst Ave. for $14,000. The two-bedroom home with a studio brought them $256 a week in rent during the summer and the same amount monthly during the winter.
They both had full-time jobs — he for a shipping company and she for the Long Beach port pilots.
By 1963, they had increased their holdings to six rentals. At that time, owners did everything themselves, Merle recalled.
""We worked hard to keep it clean and stocked with kitchen utensils, toilet paper, bed pads and pillow slips, but the renters provided their own linens,” she said. “I remember one Saturday in August — we had 23 beds to check between noon and 2 p.m.”
On Balboa Island, short-term rentals are permitted in many areas. The city of Newport Beach now is exploring the possibility of expanding guidelines and rules for local short-term rentals amid the growth of online listings.
Merle and her husband rented out everything they could get their hands on, including the bayfront home where Merle now lives. Before moving into it full time in 1981, she and Ray rented it out for two years. One of the vacation tenants was Hollywood actress Beverly Garland, who rented the house two summers in a row.
Garland, who died in 2008, had a film and TV career that spanned more than 50 years and was perhaps best known for playing the second wife of Fred MacMurray’s widowed character in the series “My Three Sons.”
When Garland tried to rent the Newport house for a third year, Balboa Island Realtor Lora Vance told her the owners were living there and it was no longer available, Merle said.
Garland replied, “Oh, well, contact him and see if he’ll let us have it,” Merle recalled.
Vance told her, “You can talk to him yourself; he’s sitting right behind you.”
Ray had switched careers and entered real estate full time, working for Vance.
Merle and Vance were best friends until Vance’s death in 2005. Vance’s daughter Marlys Vasterling took over the real estate office and handles Merle’s remaining rentals — a house and an apartment on Topaz Avenue and the apartment behind her house.
Vasterling also took over her mother’s role as Merle’s friend.
“I took Ramona to Hawaii for my 50th birthday,” Vasterling said. “When I asked her if she’d like to go swimming in the bay at the Orchid Hotel, she said yes and informed me that 75 years ago she held the women’s underwater swimming record in high school. She’s just amazing, so sharp, and always catches little things and takes care of business. I would do anything for her.”
Merle credits her longevity to a lifetime of hard work and to not having children. Besides their work as landlords, she and Ray owned a 2 1/2-acre avocado grove in north San Diego, where “I climbed hills with a bag of avocados on my back, which wasn’t easy. We did the irrigating, fertilizing and crating to sell to Calavo,” Merle said.
Merle has lived independently since Ray died in 1998. She still does her own cooking and manages her finances.
She walks with a cane when she leaves the house, and her eyesight is failing, which limits her reading to an hour at a time. But she enjoys watching classic movies, and Bristol Farms’ weekly wine tasting is the highlight of her week.
A helper who visits four hours a day five days a week takes her shopping and does her hair and nails. Vasterling and Merle’s neighbors also look out for her.