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No Remedy for Eviction : Man's Gift to Hospital Puts Tenant Families in Financial Bind

December 15, 1991|RICK HOLGUIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The eviction notices hit the tenants of seven modest homes near Downey Community Hospital like a cold winter wind.

A retired businessman who owns the houses is donating three of them to the nonprofit hospital, which is buying the other four. Downey Community plans to sell all seven houses soon to help pay for future medical care for indigent patients, an official said.

The current tenants, some of whom have lived in the three- and four-bedroom rentals for more than 20 years, will have to move.

The residents acknowledge that the hospital and the owner of the properties, Roman Zweber of Corona del Mar, are exercising their legal rights. But most of the tenants say they live from one paycheck to the next and do not know how long it will take to come up with the money to move into new rentals at current market prices. Including first month's rent and security, that could amount to about $2,000 per household.

The tenants see Zweber and the hospital as Scrooges. They say it doesn't figure to be a very good Christmas.

"I work two jobs and I struggle," said Melinda Donahue, 37, a secretary and waitress who lives in one of the houses with her mother and three children.

The residents received eviction notices on Dec. 6, giving them 30 days to move. They won a respite last Tuesday night, just minutes before they presented their plight to the City Council.

Hospital Vice President Jim Klosterman arrived at City Hall and told residents that the eviction deadline would be extended by two months. He also offered to help tenants find new housing.

"The 30-day notice was really unfair," Klosterman said. "We're going to try our best to help them."

But Klosterman refused the tenants' request to help cover relocation costs, prompting them to appear before the City Council to vent their anger and fears.

"I have to move and there's no way I can do that," said Robin Hammond, who began crying as she stood before the City Council. Hammond, a part-time preschool teacher, has lived in one of the rental houses for 16 years. She has a 4-year-old daughter and two roommates.

Mayor Barbara Hayden told the tenants that she sympathized but added that the City Council had no authority to stop the evictions.

Zweber, who once owned three pharmacies in Downey, declined to comment on the specifics of the deal. But during a telephone interview, Zweber said he regrets that the renters will be displaced.

"When you're on a month-to-month basis, that happens all the time," said Zweber, 66, who is now retired. "I felt real bad about it. They're just like family to me."

Zweber said he bought the seven houses in the mid-1960s. Five of the rentals are on Manatee Street, directly south of the hospital. The other two, with faded and chipped paint, are on Brookshire Avenue.

The tenants said Zweber generally had been a good landlord who kept rents low, from $750 to $825 a month, which is a couple hundred dollars below market level. In exchange, residents took care of most of the home maintenance, from plumbing to painting. Zweber paid for materials.

But about five months ago, Zweber began working out an agreement with the hospital. Under the plan, Downey Community Hospital will buy four of the homes at market value. Escrow is scheduled to close later this month, Klosterman said. The hospital will sell those homes to recover costs.

Zweber is donating the other three houses to the hospital, Klosterman said. They will be sold, and the proceeds, estimated at more than $500,000, will be placed in a trust fund. Zweber will receive interest income from the fund until his death. The money will then be placed in a hospital fund to generate interest income for indigent care, Klosterman said.

Klosterman acknowledged that it could be years until the hospital benefits from the donation. And because of the depressed housing market, the hospital might suffer losses on the four houses it will buy and resell, he said.

"But because of the generosity of the owner (Zweber), there will later be monies coming to the hospital," Klosterman said.

One of the families said last week that they had found another rental just blocks away.

But James Flanagan, who makes a living assembling parts for diesel engines, said he will have to pay $800 a month for a two-bedroom house instead of the $730 he now pays for a four-bedroom place. Flanagan, his wife, Alannah, and their 9-year-old daughter will move next month.

But the rest of the tenants say they are upset that they will be forced out of the homes. The 60-day extension is a welcome development, they said, but their money problems will not go away.

Some of the tenants fear that they may be forced out of Downey and into neighboring cities where housing is more affordable.

Pete Gerold, a truck driver, and his wife, Debbie, have lived in one of the rentals for 20 years. They have five children.

"I really feel this is immoral," Debbie Gerold said. "This is my home."

Tears filled the eyes of Laurie Donahue, Melinda Donahue's 19-year-old daughter, when she noted the irony of Zweber's donation to the hospital.

"That gift is taking a home away from many families," she said. "I've grown up here and I love this community. I feel like I don't matter."

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