This story was published originally March 10, 1991.
The first baby fell in March 1988. Shong Yang, 2, passed through a 7-inch gap in the apartment's railing and landed on the asphalt 9-1/2 feet below.
Her brother, Tou Lue, fell from the same second floor last July. Then 18 months old, he crawled under a bottom rail and plunged to the pavement, his parents said through an interpreter.
His sister was only bruised and scraped. But Tou Lue lost consciousness, and doctors told his parents that it might take years to determine whether the bump on his head would become something more serious.
For Ker Yang and Mai Lee of Fresno, parents of the two, there is more to wonder about than the bump on the boy's head. They wonder whether it will happen again.
They are among the tenants who accuse their landlord of neglecting their apartments - neglect that has caused fear and concern among Southeast Asians, the majority of the tenants in Fresno apartment complexes belonging to John and David Bruce Hovannisian.
Ker Yang and Mai Lee said through an interpreter that they had repeatedly asked their landlord, David Hovannisian, 35, of Fresno, and his property manager to rewire or replace the railing. Instead, it is now guarded by a patchwork of string and boards put up by tenants. Hovannisian refuses to comment.
The tenants say that their landlord is exploiting their ignorance of American law and their inability to speak English.
"He knows that they don't complain or take him to the Health Department or call lawyers, " said Xeng Lee, who manages a Clovis apartment building owned by David Hovannisian's father.
At The Bee's request, an independent licensed building inspector examined some of the apartment buildings owned by the Hovannisians. The inspector noted safety concerns at three of the five Hovannisian buildings he examined.
David Hovannisian's houses and apartments, combined with the Fresno-area holdings that he administers for his father, John Hovannisian, 62, of Tulare, bring in about $2 million in rent every year. That estimate is based on property records showing that the Hovannisians and their wives own about 650 rental units in and around Fresno. The estimate assumes 90 percent occupancy and an average rent of $285 per month.
Their tenants recite a litany of complaints about living conditions, from faulty refrigerators, air conditioners and stoves to sewer problems and dripping ceilings. Maintenance logs contained in 1988 court records showed that the Hovannisians' property manager received dozens of complaints every week.
Some families say they have suffered 2-1/2 years without heat, a month with the toilet emptying onto the floor, four months with an electrical short that cut off half the power and resulted in a fire.
Nonetheless, the Hovannisians enjoy a relatively good reputation among Fresno-area housing and health officials. When agencies call them with complaints they are addressed, officials say.
In the city of Fresno, however, rental units are inspected only after a complaint has been lodged. That means that poor and sometimes unsafe conditions are not corrected because the agency charged with enforcing standards never gets the complaint and sees the problem.
And sometimes, even when there is government intervention, it is not enough.
One child died four days after being found at the bottom of a Hovannisian swimming pool. The water was so dirty that the youth who dove in after Melia Vang, 7, couldn't see her body until he got under the surface. The pool had a string of Health Department citations for filthy water before and after Melia's death.
Attorneys for Melia's family filed a lawsuit, alleging that the pool water's lack of clarity contributed to her death. The Hovannisians' insurance company, without admitting liability, agreed on Jan. 14 this year to pay $150,000 to Melia's family.
John and David Hovannisian declined to comment about their houses and apartments and their tenants' complaints.
Real estate runs in the Hovannisian family. It started with John's father, Kasper Hovannisian, who settled in Tulare around 1920 after fleeing Armenia, where his family had been massacred.
Kasper Hovannisian managed to acquire farmland and rental properties despite the Depression and widespread efforts to keep Armenians from buying land. His specialty was buying homes in freeway rights-of-way and having them moved onto his land. By the time he died in 1971, the transformation from refugee to real-estate investor was complete.
The business has been profitable. A bank statement John Hovannisian provided for a lawsuit in 1976 - stemming from a house-sale-gone-sour - showed his net worth to be $2.26 million. Property records show that he now owns just over 1,000 parcels of land in the valley, including more than 460 houses and apartment buildings.
David, who works for his father, started buying his own property within a few years after earning a bachelor's degree in business administration from Fresno State University in 1978. Most of his purchases have been multi-unit apartments from foreclosure sales. His acquisitions now house about 500 families.
In 1981 or 1982, according to court records, John and David Hovannisian hired real-estate broker Jerry Saylor to manage most of their Fresno-area properties. As a result, the tenants generally don't deal directly with the Hovannisians. But they do deal with one of Saylor's companies, Sayland Property Management.
Like the Hovannisians, Saylor refused to be interviewed.
Sao Yang met Saylor in early 1988. David Hovannisian had just purchased a 34-unit apartment building at 5216 N. Sixth St.
The apartment is one of three that David Hovannisian owns just west of Fresno State University in an area known as "Sin City." It owes its name to the days its apartments were reveling grounds for students.
Now barefoot Asian children are everywhere. Fruit vendors drive through in the mornings and gardens rise in swimming pools filled with dirt. Old women slit the throats of chickens and pluck them in the yard.
Saylor offered Yang half off his rent to manage such an apartment building and to help fill vacant units. Yang accepted, and within three days the 20 vacant units in the complex were filled, mostly by Yang's relatives.
In a court deposition last year, Saylor gave one reason he liked renting to Southeast Asians: Minimal problems with rent collection and property destruction.
"We cater to them, " Saylor said. "We have thousands of them as tenants."
Managers Toulong Thao at 3758 E. Olive Ave., Seng Vang at 1435 E. Cambridge Ave. and Yao Yang at 1381 E. San Bruno Ave. told similar stories of being recruited by Saylor to fill their apartments with Hmong. Thao and Vang are in David Hovannisian apartments; Yang's is owned by John Hovannisian.
Fire and water
California courts have determined that rental agreements contain an implied warranty of habitability. This means that although the house or apartment may not necessarily be pretty, it must above all be safe. It also means that the plumbing and sewer connections must be in good order, the heater and electricity have to work and the roof cannot leak when it rains.
Tenants of John and David Hovannisian say that many of their houses and apartments do not meet this definition of habitability. An independent licensed building inspector, Henry "Les" Maxwell of Visalia, found habitability, safety and other problems after inspecting four Hovannisian apartment buildings and one house for The Bee.
Maxwell noted safety concerns at three of the five Hovannisian buildings he examined, in addition to habitability concerns such as a faulty sewer line at one house, a leaking roof at one apartment and a broken heater at another.
Nhia Dang Vang, his wife and five children have waited 2-1/2 years for the heater in their apartment to be repaired. Speaking through an interpreter, Vang said the family bought a small electric heater and is making do.
The manager of their apartment, Xeng Lee, said he has complained to Sayland "many times" about the Vangs' non-functioning wall heater. Their apartment, at 1232 Harvard Ave. in Clovis, is owned by John Hovannisian.
The smell from her bathroom drove Choua Vang, her husband and their three children from their apartment for two weeks in December.
Vang, who lives at a John Hovannisian apartment at 929 N. Monte Ave. in rural Fresno, said a month elapsed from the time the toilet started overflowing to when septic work was completed. That was after she refused to pay December's rent.
Pao Thao and Ka Yang Xiong waited about four months last year to have half the power restored to their apartment at 2620 W. Andrews Ave., owned by David Hovannisian.
Pao Thao asked his children to call Sayland. They did, he said through an interpreter, about three times a week beginning in May.
But it was not until about September that workers restored the electricity, he and his children said. That was some time after a fire began near the interior wires of his living room - a fire that was put out quickly because Thao felt the heat in the corner wall.
Thao and his family were asked, as were many other Hmong tenants, why such headaches had not driven them from their apartment.
The usual answer was that the rent, which averages about $285 for two bedrooms, is cheap, and that they like living close to relatives, on whom they rely for child care, transportation and other support.
The Saylor agreement
Hovannisian tenants blame Sayland for repairs not being performed. But 1989 court depositions indicate that Saylor does not believe he is responsible for maintenance of the Hovannisian buildings.
In exchange for finding tenants, collecting rent and handling complaints, Sayland receives 4 percent of the Hovannisian rent money collected. A copy of the contract between Saylor and John Hovannisian, dated Sept. 28, 1988, says that Sayland "is not responsible for performance of maintenance."
In a court deposition Jerry Saylor gave last August, he was asked whether he did, in fact, supervise the maintenance of the dwellings.
". . . Without exception, " he said, "no one spends John or David Hovannisian's money except John and David Hovannisian."
Saylor said that logs of tenant maintenance requests were given to the Hovannisians daily. Saylor said also that once the logs were handed over, his office did not check to see whether the Hovannisians had performed the requested work.
Among the Fresno-area public agencies charged with monitoring health and safety concerns of rental properties, the Hovannisians have a fairly good reputation.
Tony Atkission, chief of housing standards for the city of Fresno, said, "I will tell you that Hovannisian takes care of his business when we have a complaint."
Housing inspections in Fresno are not performed on a regular basis, but only after receiving a complaint. A records check of David and John Hovannisian's largest apartment buildings in Fresno showed that none had unresolved complaints.
County health inspections are also performed only upon complaints.
County health officials say the Hovannisians have been cooperative in dealing with the pool in which Melia Vang nearly drowned in 1988.
Melia was disconnected from life-support systems July 6, 1988, four days after being found at the bottom of a pool at 4728 E. Shields Ave., an apartment complex owned by John Hovannisian.
The pool has been cited three separate times since the girl's death for being dirty or green with algae.
Each time the county gave the Hovannisians five days to clean it. Each time they complied. Last December, the pool was given a passing grade at its initial inspection.
Because of Melia's death, the Hmong residents who watched her being pulled from the pool have learned to call the Health Department when the water turns green.
It is progress.