The owner of a Fillmore apartment building that was condemned by city officials because of earthquake damage contended this week that the structure is safe and threatened a lawsuit over an evacuation Friday that left 100 low-income tenants homeless.
Eric Marsh, who bought the 59-year-old Fillmore Hotel earlier this year, said a private engineer inspected the building Tuesday and determined that its cracks were a product of aging, not the Oct. 1 earthquake that rattled much of Southern California.
"It was a ploy to close the building," Marsh said. "Their purpose is to . . . have it destroyed. They used the earthquake as an excuse."
Health, Safety Violations
Fillmore officials said the 15-unit building, a former hotel, has been a source of numerous health and safety violations, but denied that earthquake damage was being used as an excuse to rid the city of a source of blight.
"It's just simply not true," Mayor Roger Campbell said. "What the city wants is for those people not to be in danger."
Joe Clyde, a city building inspector and code enforcement officer, said he recommended that the brick building be condemned after finding that fractures that once were hairlines had grown to the width of an inch after the Oct. 1 quake and Oct. 4 aftershock.
"My feeling was, 'The heck with the consequences, we've got to get those people out,' " Clyde said. "I sleep very well nights now, knowing those families are out of there."
Officials served the mostly Spanish-speaking residents with bilingual evacuation notices Friday at 7 p.m., and directed them to a Red Cross shelter set up at the Fillmore Veterans Memorial Building, a community center.
Red Cross volunteers described the evacuees as "worried and downhearted" by the move. Many of the tenants said they did not understand at first why they were being moved. Some did not leave their apartments until sheriff's deputies arrived several hours later.
"The city had no right to do what they did, the way they did it," said Marsh, adding that he will file a lawsuit seeking damages from the city. "Frankly, I don't think they would have done it to a white, middle-class apartment building."
City officials, however, said they waited nine days to evacuate the building because they needed to be sure the structure was unsafe and to arrange for the emergency shelter.
"Because of the impact on them and their families, we wanted to make sure it was a sound decision," Clyde said. "We did not want to have to move those people out. It was a tough decision to make."
The mayor said he declared a state of emergency Saturday, which could qualify the city for federal disaster aid. To help the tenants in the meantime, he said, a vacant city-owned shed near the apartment building was provided for storage. Two city workers used a truck to help some families without transportation move their belongings over the weekend.
"The biggest part of the problem now is the almost non-existent vacancy rate in Fillmore," Campbell said. "We have a real need for the people to come together and find some homes for these families."
Many of the 50 or more people who have been staying at the Red Cross shelter since Friday echoed that concern.
'Can't Find a Place'
"We've been looking, but we can't find a place," said 62-year-old Juan Davalos, who paid $400 a month for the two-bedroom apartment he lived in with his wife and four children. "They're there, but they're too expensive."
"It's tough," agreed Carlos Mota, 38, who, like many of the tenants, cleans and packages eggs at Egg City in Moorpark. "If I can't find a place, I'll just have to go to Los Angeles and look for another job."
The evacuees, who have been sleeping on fold-up cots in the Memorial Building's Girl Scout House, were granted an extension Tuesday night by the board of directors of the Fillmore Veterans Memorial District to stay in the shelter until Oct. 30.
If it were up to Marsh, though, all the tenants would be back in the white, two-story building at Main and Fillmore streets tomorrow.
"It's structurally safe," he said. "It's like saying a car's in danger of an accident if you drive it."
Flanked by about 30 of the former residents, Marsh appeared before the Fillmore City Council Tuesday night and demanded that the building be reopened.
The council denied his request, but voted to begin forming a five-member appeal board in the event that Marsh formally challenges the condemnation ruling.
"Quite frankly, it's not up to us," Campbell said. "Until we have a report saying the structure is safe, we can't take the responsibility of reopening it."
Earlier in the day, walking through the building, Marsh pointed out some of the $75,000 in improvements he said he has made since he bought the building in January.
Lighted exit signs, smoke detectors, new wiring and a few renovated bathrooms have been added to the interiors, which are still generally shabby.
Eight new washers and dryers were installed to make a laundry room on the ground floor. And a sign announcing, "Day Labor Pick Up Here" was posted outside to help residents attract work, Marsh said.
"It's nothing great, but it's livable," he said. "It's probably better than what these people are used to living in."
City officials, however, have said that it is still not good enough.
Last October, before Marsh bought the building, code inspectors sent the previous owner a warning that listed numerous health and safety violations.
"We've been trying to get him to bring the building up to a minimum standard, and he has been cooperating," Campbell said. "It's just this earthquake took its toll on a building that's just an old building."