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Ex-Tenants in Slum Get New Lease on Life

Former Residents of Oxnard-Area Complex Are Starting Over, With Help From the Community

May 12, 2003|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

Last Christmas, Rose Puga and her neighbors were evicted from El Tapatio apartment complex near Oxnard.

Tired of rodents, mold, faulty plumbing and a septic system that often caused effluent to back up into their showers and sinks, the low-income families who lived in the building began withholding their rent money. Eviction notices soon followed.

Five months later, as her former landlords face criminal charges, Puga is settling into her new Camarillo townhouse and marvels at her good fortune.

"All I wanted was to get my bathroom fixed, but I never expected all this," said Puga, a stay-at-home mother of two. "It's like I won the Lotto. From rags to riches, that's what this really is."

Since Ventura County officials placed them at the top of government-subsidized housing lists, most of the 41 former Tapatio tenants have moved into places worthy to be called home. They are also paying less than or roughly the same as they did at their now-condemned apartment complex. All are still struck by the outpouring of support and generosity they have received in recent months. "Please thank everybody for us," said Susan Gutierrez, a Tapatio tenant who had been on a subsidized housing waiting list for two years before county officials intervened. "We got a lot of help." When news broke that the tenants were about to be evicted during the holiday season, the local community sprang into action. County officials began looking for replacement homes for the families, most of whom receive rent subsidies under a federal program known as Section 8. The program provides landlords up to 70% of the rent.

Meanwhile, local nonprofits, churches and police officers donated toys, clothes and turkey dinners. A construction company dropped off a truckload of food and toiletries.

When it was time for the families to put down rent deposits and pay moving expenses, local businesses and the longshoremen's union made monetary donations. And when the Tapatio residents realized they would need furniture to fill their new spacious apartments, they gladly accepted the community's hand-me-down dressers and couches.

Ventura County officials had logged numerous complaints from Tapatio tenants since 1996, but the owners always managed to skirt prosecution. Then the tenants staged a revolt, drawing attention to their squalid living conditions.

As a result, owners Samuel and Altagracia Martinez were charged earlier this year with 14 misdemeanor counts, including failure to provide heating, smoke alarms, running water and properly working toilets. The couple, who took over the property in 1996, have pleaded not guilty and a hearing is scheduled for June 16. Officials in the district attorney's office said they cannot remember the last time a landlord in the county was taken to criminal court for these types of violations.

The Martinezes, who live in Lennox in Los Angeles County, have declined comment. But their attorney, Joel Tamraz, has said his clients did not know about the property's many problems. He is planning a civil suit against the former owners, he said.

For her part, Puga said she researched numerous places before finding landlords who would accept Section 8 recipients as well as the family's pit bull. Because low-income housing is so scarce, she still can't believe her luck.

Her new home is by no means extravagant, but it's much larger and a major improvement in every way over her old room at El Tapatio. There, the family's main piece of furniture -- a large bunk bed -- took up most of the space in the dorm-sized apartment. Now Puga scrambles to fill her new place with furniture. Before, she, her husband Guy and their two young children had to use a neighbor's bathroom because their toilet was broken and septic waste backed up into the shower. Now she has more than one functioning bathroom.

"My daughter had a dream we were going to get a house with a lot of stairs," Puga said, referring to their three-story townhouse, where there is a bedroom on each floor. "When I walked in here, I just had a feeling this was it."

On a recent afternoon, Puga's daughter Jasmine, 10, was busy cleaning her room. A sign hung on the door warning trespassers to keep out.

Downstairs, Puga keeps a framed newspaper photograph taken during one of her squabbles with the Tapatio property manager. A friend gave it to her as a gag birthday gift, and she has kept it as a reminder of what life was like before.

Proud of her new home, Puga vows to help prosecutors battle her former landlords in court.

"If I can be there when they knock it down, then I'll be there," she said, referring to her old apartment building. "I want to show my kids that when you fight for something that's right, you see it to the end."

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