Organizers of a Santa Ana rent strike said Friday that despite new posted warnings by the city ordering tenants to leave two Minnie Street apartment buildings, they intend to remain.
"We won't move. We'll go to jail first," vowed organizer Nativo Lopez, spokesman for the immigrant rights organization Hermandad Mexicana Nacional.
The warnings were posted Tuesday after city inspectors found that the previous owner had failed to fix rotting ceilings, open sewers, cracked walls and conditions "dangerous to the people living there," said George Gragg, Santa Ana community preservation manager.
"It's a misdemeanor to be (living) in the buildings right now," he said, and a decision on whether to order the removal of the 12 striking tenant families is pending. Of the 16 families remaining in two buildings, four are non-striking tenants.
Criminal charges were filed in July against the previous owner, Michael Gonzales, a real estate salesman in Tustin, alleging that he failed to make repairs. The charges were dismissed in December after Gonzales claimed that he hadn't been able to raise enough money to make repairs because of the rent strike.
John Cogorno, Gonzales' attorney, said that once the rent strike began, Gonzales was unable to make mortgage payments and the properties went into foreclosure.
"The charges were just outrageous and totally unjust," Cogorno said.
According to Gragg, city inspectors first found Gonzales' buildings at 1030 and 1102 S. Minnie St. to be substandard in October, 1984. At the time, inspectors found deteriorated walls and ceilings, broken windows, rotted floors, cracked sinks that didn't work and dangerous or loose railings on stairways. Also, kitchen cabinets had either suffered water damage or were missing.
Gonzales sought permits for repair work, Gragg said. But three months later the tenants, who had been angered about the landlord's failure to make repairs earlier, started a rent rebellion. With no rental income from the 20 apartments, repair work stopped.
"Basically it boiled down that he had no income coming in," Gragg said. "He was trying to get a couple of buyers interested, but the buyers, with the rent strike and everything, thought it wasn't a good investment."
Gragg, who oversees the city's code enforcement program, said it was a classic example of an apartment owner with little property management experience getting in over his head.
Although Gonzales made some "diligent efforts," Gragg said, the situation typified "folks who are unable to manage property getting into situations like this."
Gonzales found a buyer but not before he filed for bankruptcy for the limited partnership that owned the buildings for almost two years. His attorney said Gonzales may have lost about $100,000.
Decided Against Paying
Gonzales said that if the strikers had paid into a receivership (appointed by the court last spring as a result of a Legal Aid lawsuit on behalf of the tenants), "I could have done the repairs."
At the time, tenants decided against paying rents to the receiver, arguing that it was a form of reward to landlords for neglecting their properties. Instead, they paid into a trust fund now held by Santa Ana attorney Sal Sarmiento, said Lopez.
The 20 one-bedroom apartments on Minnie Street generated about $7,000 a month in revenue. Rent was $375 monthly.
Crystal Sims, Legal Aid's managing attorney who filed a tenant lawsuit against Gonzales, had a different opinion.
"Look, someone bought the property and held it as a limited partnership and borrowed heavily and was obviously going to get a big tax advantage. Meanwhile, time went by and no repairs were made and he decided to sell after the city brought enforcement pressure. Now the city is, in a sense, evicting the tenants," Sims said.
Sims said it is the tenants, who have paid monthly rents for blighted conditions, who suffer.
"All the tenants ever wanted was to have the place fixed up, but they're the ones who'll be on the street," she said.
The city now must begin its code enforcement process with the new owner "from scratch," Gragg said.
Because Gonzales did not give the city the new owner's name, Gragg said, officials began a paper chase and finally found that Gonzales transferred title to one corporation, then to John Colasanti with a limited partnership known as, "1030 and 1102 Inc." Colasanti could not be reached for comment Friday.
The recent sale of the property and inspection have increased tensions at the apartments.
Thursday night a Santa Ana police officer on routine patrol inadvertently created a stir when he walked into the apartment courtyard to investigate whether a group of people in an upstairs apartment were supposed to be there.
Resolved to Remain
When the officer advised them they shouldn't be inside the building, some tenants thought the police were trying to remove them, according to the apartment manager and some tenants.
Police Lt. Earl Porter, area commander, said police simply "don't do evictions."
The incident sparked some tenants' resolve to remain.
"I've lived here 10 years with my husband and my four children. They've grown up here. This is our home," tenant Maria Ochoa said in Spanish.
As Ochoa pointed to a hole in a bathroom ceiling, she asked: "We've paid our rent for all these years. How come we can't get these apartments fixed up?"
Lopez said their fight is a matter of principle. "If they left now, they would be no better than the landlords. They want to improve their living conditions and leave something proud so they can say: 'This is our home.' "
Although tenants have offered to pay for needed repairs, it is unlikely that the city or the new owner will accept the offer, Gragg said.
Meanwhile, the situation, Gragg said, has gone "from bad to worse."
"In some apartments you can see through the floors at the people living below you. It's a real mess and unfit for human habitation," he said.