City stuck paying thousands for abandoned Fresno Inn residents

The Fresno BeeMay 22, 2014 

Displaced Fresno Inn tenant Rea Allison, 50, addresses terrible living conditions at the recently condemned motel Thursday, May 22, 2014 in Fresno.

CARMEN GEORGE — The Fresno Bee

Since a rundown Fresno motel was closed by city officials earlier this month, tenants have still not been given relocation money by the motel owners -- a burden that's fallen on the city.

Fresno Inn owners were blasted at a news conference Thursday in downtown Fresno, where speakers said owners should be paying up, not the city.

The city has forked out almost $30,000 to temporarily house displaced tenants at another motel since May 7, when officials said the Fresno Inn was imminently dangerous and condemned it.

Code enforcement found 42 code violations, including a dangerous gas leak, said attorney Heather Rozzo with Kirkland & Rozzo, a Fresno law firm.

"This gas leak was described to me as so dangerous that if someone had lit a cigarette, the building -- the Fresno Inn -- would have exploded, and the children's center next door would have been disintegrated," Rozzo said at the news conference organized by the renters' rights group Tenants Together. "It is just ridiculous."

How many code violations have owners fixed? Zero, Rozzo said.

Of the 65 people displaced from the inn west of Highway 99, those needing assistance were housed temporarily by the city at the Ashlan Inn, about three miles away. On Wednesday, the city will cease paying for the temporary housing -- which the Fresno Inn owners were supposed to provide for two months, Rozzo said.

Rozzo's law firm in February sued the motel owners, Casa de Campo LLC, a company based in Silicon Valley, along with the company's principals, in Fresno County Superior Court on behalf of 28 tenants. The next court hearing is June 4, when Rozzo will ask for an emergency court order to make owners provide relocation payments.

Displaced Fresno Inn tenant Rea Allison, 50, said she paid $550 a month to live at the inn. Conditions were bleak: cockroaches were routinely "coming out of everywhere," electricity didn't work, and a front door had been "kicked in" so many times before she starting renting that it didn't lock properly.

Rozzo added: "This building is literally decaying ... You have mold growing in the walls, you have ceilings caving in, you put your hand on the wall, your hand falls through the wall."

Fresno Inn owners have been trying to empty the motel since at least August. At that time, three-day vacate notices were served, claiming high-speed rail construction was beginning in September -- which Caltrans said was untrue. Later that month, a second wave of vacate notices were served, this time claiming the city approved a plan to turn the Fresno Inn into a "vacant building." City officials said no such plan had been approved.

The inn's manager, William Leyton -- who Rozzo said is also an owner -- said Wednesday that owners couldn't be contacted for comment, and no comment will be provided because of pending litigation against the company.

Fresno's community revitalization manager, Elaine Robles-McGraw, said the motel's owners told her they didn't have the "resources to do anything" with the property.

"I said, 'What would you like me to tell your tenants?' " Robles-McGraw said earlier this month, "and he said, 'Tell them whatever you want.' "

Many of the owners are doctors and real estate investors from Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, Rozzo said. She's "sickened" the company would swoop in to "take advantage of people who don't really know their rights."

"It's like they are robbing our city. It's like they are pillaging our city."

Substandard renting conditions is a "widespread problem" in Fresno, Rozzo added. She's encouraging others to speak up and join together to demand change, then "we could actually do something about this problem."

Mark Standriff, Fresno's director of communications and public affairs, said the city has done everything allowed by state law to try to force compliance from Fresno Inn owners.

"We've been addressing multiple and ongoing violations since March of 2013," Standriff said. "During that time, the city has conducted numerous inspections, issued citations and notices and orders, as well as securing and boarding up unsafe units."

The city is also demanding reimbursement from the owners for tenants' relocation expenses, he said.

Of the 44 households displaced from the Fresno Inn, 29 found permanent housing -- either through support agencies or on their own -- seven are in the process of identifying permanent housing, and eight chose not to seek assistance from the city, Standriff said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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