Cactus Gardens apartment complex. Photo by Dave Maass.
San Diegans know what it's like to live in a county Bill Horn helps supervise, but CityBeat wanted to know what it's like to live in a community wholly controlled by the man.
Horn owns four apartment properties, for a total of about 100 units. Last year, he refinanced the three Escondido properties to the tune of $2.35 million. In 2007, he refinanced the third, in San Marcos, for $2.5 million.
We have maintained the anonymity of the tenants who currently live on Horn's property.
Horn's Cactus Gardens Apartments is a 40-unit property in San Marcos. Trash and junk have accumulated in many of the parking spaces, but the perimeter is generally well-kept.
The problem, residents say, is on the inside.
"Horrible, horrible, horrible," is how one tenant describes the condition of the carpet when her family moved in three years ago. She says, through a Spanish translator, "I've replaced some of it myself, bit by bit. I am worried that it's a health hazard."
There are asthmatic children in the building, the tenant says, and some families have been waiting more than three years for new carpets. Another tenant went so far as to publish a rant two weeks ago on the apartment's Google listing, calling it the "worst place in San Marcos."
"Good customer service is important to encourage long-term, regularly paying tenants," Horn responded via e-mail, pointing out that his other three properties are complaint free. Regarding Cactus Gardens, he says, "Tenants are encouraged to contact the manager to resolve issues they may have with their units."
His tenants, however, tell CityBeat that the manager of the facility won't respond to their complaints.
"[The manager] says, If you're gonna complain, complain to the police,'" one tenant says. "I don't know if that's normal."
It's not normal, at least not according to "calls for service" and "deputy action" records kept by the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, which enforces law in San Marcos. During the last three years, deputies recorded roughly 120 events at Cactus Garden for matters including child molestation, burglary, battery, car-jacking and drug possession. There's nothing in the crime-analysis data about carpets.
"Less than 18 percent of the calls required a follow-up report and case number, with half of the calls being domestic disturbances," Horn said after reviewing the data. "Reading the report reminded me why, as County Supervisor, I've always fought for our families by supporting shelters for battered women, funding youth programs, and working on anti-gang measures to make our neighborhoods safe. I think the report was a reminder that safe neighborhoods start within the home and we need to continue to find new ways to address this problem."
Going back to the inside of the home: While no one called the sheriff to report carpet problems, on March 25, 2010, a tenant finally called the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health about a rat infestation.
The county investigator substantiated the complaint, but the flooring, again, was the main issue. The carpet had been removed, leaving the carpet tacking bare on a concrete slab floor. The linoleum was peeling, and the walls had holes in them. The tenant told investigators this was all the result of water damage that went unrepaired for three months. The investigator issued a number of deadlines for fixing the unit and controlling the vermin.
A month later, the repairs had been made, but the pest problem hadn't improved.
"Observed several (5-6) live cockroaches and excessive mouse droppings in kitchen unit," the investigator noted. The inspection reports indicate that the property manager may have waited weeks to spray the unit and initially ignored the county's recommended treatment. The inspector declared the problem officially "abated" on May 19, 2010, seven weeks from the original complaint.
"Pest control is a part of the regular maintenance that occurs at all of my buildings," Horn says, adding that the carpet problem was fixed within three days of the inspection. "If they had contacted the on-site manager, they would have had a quicker response."
A tenant contradicts Horn's claim, telling CityBeat that cockroaches are a problem throughout the property, especially during the summer. This is backed up by inspection reports from 2008 that found cockroach infestations in several apartments. Residents said they had tried multiple pest-control methods, but the cockroaches kept coming from the complex's laundry room. The manager claimed ignorance.
"I've complained [to the management] before," a tenant tells CityBeat . "They supply us with roach motels."
Get out of here
During the last three years, Horn has filed four "unlawful detainer" suits against tenants at his Escondido properties, only one of which resulted in a sheriff-executed eviction.
The most recent case was filed in spring 2009. The tenant, Paula Cruz, acknowledged that she could no longer afford the rent and would leave the complex.
"The problem is that I need money to pay for the other apartment, and I can't pay for both apartments at the same time," Cruz wrote in a court document. "I am on disability and my son lost his job 6 months ago. I am legally disabled. That is why I have had trouble making the rent for this apartment."
She also asked to set up a payment plan to pay Horn the money she owed. The court, however, ruled that Cruz owed $2,500 in back rent plus lawyer's fees.
"An impartial judge looked at all sides of the issue before ruling in our favor," Horn says. "I don't think it would be fair to Ms. Cruz to rehash the situation or second guess the judge on the reason he determined that a payment plan was an unfeasible option. I have a lot of good tenants that honor their commitments . There are exceptions and my managers try to work with them. The courts are a last resort."
A former tenant, Marcella Cobb, who was sued by Horn in 2007, says that in her case, a lawsuit seemed to be the first move. Less than three weeks after she moved into one of the Escondido apartments, the landlord gave her a notice to move out. In Cobb's version of the story, she tried to explain that her roommate bailed out on her, but she'd make up for his half of the rent at the middle of the month. Cobb says she wrote a letter to Horn and received no response.
"The apartments are really nice. It's just that whoever he has running it there is just crazy, and then, when you go over his head, he's not even responding," Cobb tells CityBeat .
A judge found that Horn miscalculated what Cobb owed and, as of Sept. 20, 2007, the case was dismissed. Horn remembers it slightly differently, initially telling CityBeat a judge ruled against her before correcting himself.
"The courts did not find in her favor," he clarifies. "It can take time to get in front of a judge and after I filed with the courts she eventually moved out. The judge dismissed the case because she no longer lived in the apartment and to this day, she has not paid the rent she owed. It was a rare exception but it had to be done. I have a lot of good tenants, once in awhile, you have to deal with a bad one."
Enrique Limón and Justin McLachlan contributed reporting to this story.