The evening of June 21-the day this issue of CityBeat hits the street-more than 200 tenants facing eviction from a large apartment complex in Linda Vista were expected to turn up for a meeting at a nearby Catholic church. There, they were going to demand that, before the 110-unit apartment complex was torn down and replaced by condos, they be given the same rights afforded renters under the city's condo-conversion ordinance. Under that law, updated by the City Council earlier this month, tenants of apartment buildings slated to be converted into condos are entitled to three months' rent to cover relocation costs, a 90-day notice to vacate and assistance in finding a new place to live.
Because the Linda Vista project involved the demolition of existing units and not a conversion, residents were entitled to nothing except the 30-day notice required by state law. City Councilmember Donna Frye and a representative from the company building the condos had been invited to attend; both accepted the invitation. The property owner had not responded to two letters of invitation from a parish priest.
Shortly before this issue went to press, CityBeat received a call from the property owner, Bernard Lewis. When asked why he hadn't responded to the letters, Lewis said there was no point-after more than two years working with housing developer The Olson Co. on the land-sale, the deal was off. The Olson Co. hadn't yet purchased the land-Paul McNeil, project manager for The Olson Co., said in an interview Monday that the deal was contingent upon city approval of the project and on tenants vacating the apartments-something that likely wouldn't have happened until early 2007. McNeil also said that under terms of the land-sale, Lewis would have been responsible for providing relocation benefits; Lewis told CityBeat that The Olson Co. was responsible.
Lewis, whose family has owned the apartments for 60 years, met with representatives from The Olson Co. Tuesday morning. He said he didn't like the direction the deal was moving in and decided shortly before he spoke to CityBeat that he wouldn't be selling the land. (CityBeat contacted McNeil, who said he hadn't yet spoken to Lewis and didn't want to comment until he did.) At 75, Lewis said he was ready to retire and had hoped to sell off the land. McNeil said The Olson Co. was willing to spend between $15 million and $20 million on the property.
So where does that leave the tenants? Andy Sobel, an organizer with the San Diego Organizing Project (SDOP), a social-justice-focused group that works with area churches advocating for low-income families, said the Wednesday night meeting would still happen regardless of the status of the sale.
Sobel has been working with tenants from the Linda Vista Apartments for more than a year on how to handle the eviction. He first learned about the possible condo project shortly after SDOP helped tenants take Lewis to court in January of last year. In that case, an overgrown tree cut power to the apartments; despite tenants' complaints, power wasn't restored for several days. Tenants prevailed in the lawsuit and were refunded rent for the span of the power outage.
A lot of the issues they planned to discuss at the meeting were still valid, Sobel said-the condition of the apartments, for one, is a big issue in the Linda Vista area. Several tenants told CityBeat that their units were poorly maintained, a complaint Lewis disagreed with. Also, tenants had hoped to be the driving force behind an ordinance that would protect other low-income renters whose apartment buildings were going to be torn down. Then there's the issue of tenants who moved out of the Linda Vista Apartments, unsure of when they would be evicted.
Severina Ayala and her husband Humberto Ramirez moved out of their apartment in May; shortly after, they received an itemized list of repairs: $75 to repaint, $100 to re-carpet, $125 for cleaning costs plus $110 for other minor fixes. Ayala's sister, Cordelia Bolanos, lived in the unit for a decade before Ayala and Ramirez joined her four years ago. When Bolanos first moved in, "The bathtub was already old and the faucets were leaking," Ayala explained through an interpreter. "The [landlord] wouldn't replace it."
It's not just a matter of being charged for damages her family didn't cause, Ayala said. When she received the bill, plans for the apartments to be razed were still moving forward. Ayala said she sent a letter to Lewis about the charges but never got a response. Currently, more than 30 units sit empty. McNeil said The Olson Co. had asked Lewis not to re-rent the units. On Wednesday, Lewis said he planned to fix up those units and put them back on the market.
The Linda Vista Apartments sit on 5.5 acres of land next to the Linda Vista community center. Roughly 350 adults and 250 kids call the apartments home, according to an SDOP survey. Though there have been problems with drug sales and gangs in the area-the apartment complex was also a target in recent immigration sweeps-residents have been aggressive in attempts make the area safe. The apartments hug a large park where, on a recent Sunday afternoon, right as the Mexico vs. Iran World Cup match concluded, kids bee-lined from their apartments to the community center's huge field to join an informal soccer game.
Santiago Eliazar, who's lived at the apartments for 10 years, said it's a close community there and the thought of eviction was tough. "The only thing we want is to provide a safe environment for our families," he said.
The Linda Vista Apartments are products of San Diego's World War II employment boom, built in a hurry more than 60 years ago to accommodate defense-industry workers, said Ed Cramer, chair of the Linda Vista Community Planning group. "They were built pretty substandard," he said. "They all came out of the same cookie-cutter."
City Councilmember Frye, whose district includes Linda Vista, said she's made an effort to work with property owners in her district to upgrade apartments. "The apartments there are in awful condition," she said of the Linda Vista area in general. "So whether or not they're even a safe place for the residents to live is questionable. But the fact of the matter is, it still does provide some affordable housing."
The Linda Vista Apartments are a rare thing in San Diego: two- and three-bedroom units there rent for between $1,000 and $1,150, far less than the county average of $1,245 to $1,550, making their potential demolition that much more significant. The SDOP survey found that most households spend more than half of their monthly income on rent-the median household income at the apartments is $2,000, Sobel said. According to a survey conducted by the San Diego County Apartment Association, three-bedroom units are hard to come by in San Diego. There are only 2,633 countywide and currently less than 5 percent of those are vacant.
Cramer said the Linda Vista area is in desperate need of revitalization. He was out of town Tuesday, but in an earlier interview, he said he was counting on The Olson Co. project to go through. "We haven't had any new construction in the last 15 years," he said. "You see building, building, building everywhere; we have none of it. This one, with Olson, that's the beginning of some development funds" in Linda Vista.
Estela Rubalcaba-Klink, a city housing counselor representing Frye's district, said that while it's not difficult to find two-bedroom units in Linda Vista, a lot of families she meets with are afraid the push to revitalize the area means that other buildings will be converted or razed in the near future. She knows of five families from the Linda Vista Apartments who, realizing it was unlikely they'd find multi-bedroom apartments for the same rent, purchased homes elsewhere.
Severina Ayala and her husband went in with her sister to buy a home in City Heights after realizing it was the best option. "We might as well put money into something that's ours," she said.
Sobel said he was relieved to hear the deal was off, but wondered whether this was Lewis playing hardball with Olson. Lewis, however, told CityBeat he wasn't open to negotiating and would likely hand the property over to his kids.