The latest chapter in Fresno’s substandard housing crisis is a rundown motel near Roeding Park, where tenants have been without heat for more than a year, units suffer from vermin and mold and city officials acknowledge the place essentially operates as an illegal apartment complex.
Hotel California, near Roeding Park at 530 N. Weber Ave., represents the next iteration of Fresno’s housing crisis, which has thus far concentrated on apartment complexes. Kumar Sharma of Los Angeles County and his wife have owned the 49-unit complex since September 2015.
A local housing advocate alerted city code enforcement leaders last month to the situation at Hotel California.
Apart from having no heat, some units have mold, infestations of cockroaches and mice, uneven or unsecured flooring, holes or cracks in the walls, leaky faucets, missing shower heads, missing window screens and missing smoke detectors. Units with a kitchenette are $250 per week and those without are $175 a week. Tenants said he charges extra to rent a refrigerator.
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Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, talked to nearly a dozen tenants at the property late last month with Elaine Robles-McGraw, the city’s neighborhood revitalization manager until 2015, who was on the mayor’s code enforcement task force.
“I told city officials, ‘This is your next Summerset right here,’ ” she said. “This place is a fire waiting to happen.”
Sharma said he mostly lives on the property because he couldn’t find a trustworthy on-site apartment manager. Yet he said he didn’t know the property’s heating system was inoperable until recently, when tenants started complaining.
City manager Bruce Rudd said code enforcement officers inspected the property late last month and informed Sharma that he should expect a written notice that, at minimum, will order him to fix the heat within 18 days.
But Rudd said the situation presents a Catch-22: Hotel California essentially operates as an apartment complex, which means it’s in violation of its zoning permit with the city. If Rudd enforces city code, he could inadvertently get people who have no other housing options evicted.
Rudd acknowledged that the city could end up relocating tenants, some who may not be so eager to leave the place they’ve called home for years.
“It’s a real fine line and this isn’t the only motel probably operating this way in our community,” he said.
Multiple tenants said they complained to code enforcement about the motel conditions, but Rudd said the department never received a complaint about the heat. He said there was one open code case for water penetration from an upstairs unit that allegedly has since been corrected.
Some tenants said Sharma charged them $25 for a small portable heater, while others said he gave them one for free. Landlords are required by law to provide a working heater. Rudd said the portable heaters are supposed to be an interim solution.
The motel has had a history of trouble – including drug dealing and two murders since 1990. In 1993, the then-owner was arrested for allegedly renting rooms to cocaine dealers for a cut of the sales. And in 2010, a Fresno man was sentenced to 46 years to life in prison for strangling a woman and setting her body on fire in one of the motel rooms the year before.
Sharma said he’s been robbed at gunpoint twice and now carries pepper spray in his pockets. He put the property up for sale three months after he bought it but said he hasn’t gotten a good enough offer yet.
He denied most of the tenants’ complaints, saying the only tenants who complain are the ones who owe him money. “They talk lies,” he said. “They are only trouble.”
Sharma is pursuing the eviction of tenants in four units, including one where a man who is on supplemental oxygen lives with his wife. Tenants in another unit are being represented by Central California Legal Services, claiming they are being wrongfully evicted.
Another of those tenants is Guadalupe Ramos, 68, who has lived at the motel with her son for three months. The unit, which is packed with her belongings and two dogs, has a missing and leaky shower head, cockroaches and mold.
Ramos said she intended to stay temporarily, just until she could find an apartment with better living conditions. She previously lived for two years at an apartment that was in equally bad shape.
Ramos said she’s withholding the $390 she owes Sharma until conditions improve. Sharma says she owes him more than $1,000.
Ramos was served with an eviction notice late last month. She said she has the money she owes Sharma, but not enough to pay a deposit on another apartment because she is on a fixed income from Social Security. She has started looking for another motel.
“I could have no place to go,” she said as she burst into tears.
Not everyone has a bad relationship with him. Sharma stopped Carol Saunders as she walked past his office. Saunders, 61, has lived at the motel for three years. She said she has no complaints about her room. Asked about the inoperable heat, she said her family has their own space heaters.
“We’ve had no problems,” she said. “This is our home.”
Sharma interjected: “Do I trouble you any?”
“No, you don’t trouble us Kumar, you’re good with us,” she said. “It’s just other people here want to cause problems.”
The Fresno City Council on Thursday will debate Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s long-awaited rental housing inspection plan. The proposed ordinance includes an annual rental property registry, a three-year inspection cycle and an opportunity for self-certification. Hotels and motels are not part of the plan because they are considered commercial properties.