Housing Blight

Hotel California residents remain without heat, but Fresno leaders call motel housing a ‘necessary evil’

As Fresnans celebrate Christmas, residents at the rundown Hotel California are wondering when their living conditions will improve as city leaders grapple with how to address all motels that operate as apartments.

One resident, 68-year-old Guadalupe Ramos, had to move all of her belongings into a different unit Thursday night after a water leak caused her room to flood.

Richard Burrell, who runs an organization called Live Again Fresno, is the residents’ biggest advocate. He visits the motel, near Roeding Park at 530 N. Weber Ave., twice a week to provide hot meals and Bible study. On Thursday, a concerned neighbor called Burrell and he rushed over. What he saw made him take out his phone-video camera and hit record.

“There’s already, I’d say, close to half an inch of water across the floor. The ceiling is getting ready to cave in right now,” he says in the video, as the camera pans from the bed to the ceiling. “You have probably over 1 yard – a little bit over 3 feet – of the ceiling that’s already retaining water. It’s bubbling; it’s beginning to crack.”

The water started leaking on Ramos’ bed. By the time Burrell took the video, only the plastic-covered mattress remained as water dripped steadily, pooling in the middle.

City spokesman Mark Standriff said the upstairs resident’s sink had been plugged, causing water to overflow and run beneath the cabinet, under the sink and through the ceiling of Ramos’ unit.

Ramos moved into another unit Thursday night, but she and others at the motel worry that the ceiling will crack and flood someone. Residents said at least seven units have been damaged from water leaks in the past few months. Burrell and other advocates are trying to help motel residents find permanent housing.

Kumar Sharma of Los Angeles County and his wife have owned the 49-unit complex since September 2015. A local housing advocate alerted city leaders last month about the conditions there.

Violation history

The Hotel California has had a history of trouble, including drug dealing and two murders since 1990. Thursday wasn’t the first time a resident has dealt with a water leak. Records for 26 cases illustrate the motel’s code-enforcement history as far back as 1996, four cases since Sharma bought the complex.

The same issues come up again and again: inoperable heat, water leaks, vermin including bed bugs, electricity and water services shut off because the owner didn’t pay the bills. In 2005, the city sued the owners for frequent crimes such as prostitution, drug violations and substandard conditions.

“This place has been a rat hole for a long, long time,” said City Manager Bruce Rudd.

In October 2015, a resident complained that the heat didn’t work and was provided a space heater. Asked why code staff didn’t address the inoperable heat before the case was closed, Rudd said, “I don’t have a good answer to that.” He said it’s obvious the repair didn’t address the root problem and that code inspectors should have asked to see the source of the problem.

That appears to be a recurring theme in Fresno. The Bee’s investigation of substandard housing in May, “Living in Misery,” turned up numerous accounts of cases closed before all issues were fixed, or properties with the same violations throughout the years.

In February, a Hotel California resident complained that the bathroom sink was leaking under the cabinet and creating mold, that there were holes in the ceiling and wall, and cockroaches. In July and August, residents in multiple units complained of water leaks, rodent infestations, mold and faulty toilets.

In September, Ramos complained of bedbugs and having no heat. The file states that code enforcement received a receipt for pest control but says nothing about the heat.

Units with a kitchenette are $250 per week and those without are $175 a week. Despite the 2015 complaint to code enforcement, Sharma said he didn’t know the heat didn’t work until recently.

People living at the Hotel California say they’d live elsewhere if they could. Some have disabilities, some have children, some have lived there for months or years. One man breathes with the help of an oxygen tank.

Many say they arrived at the motel seeking temporary shelter until they could find an apartment, but fixed incomes, bad credit or a history of evictions keep them from finding stable housing. Many one-bedroom apartments in Fresno are cheaper than the Hotel California, but those who can’t save for a security deposit are stuck. Housing advocates are trying to get as many motel residents into apartments as possible, and some property managers have agreed to waive deposits.

Standriff said Friday that Sharma is trying to comply, that his contractors obtained permits and are starting repairs. Sharma has given out portable space heaters and he said about half of units have working heat again. But some residents said they don’t plug in the portable heaters because when they turn it on, the lights turn off or their electric cooking burners short-circuit.

City Councilman Oliver Baines, whose district includes the Hotel California, visited residents on Friday. On the phone with Rudd, he called the situation a “mess” and said the portable heaters aren’t good enough. He suggested everyone be moved to another motel temporarily. Sharma told him every unit will have a working heater by next week.

Necessary evil

The Hotel California 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. Instead, after making sure the Hotel California gets cleaned up, he plans to expand the process to other motels with long-term residents.

Rudd has a list of 10 motels that either have active code-enforcement cases or look like they have health and safety violations. Many are along Blackstone Avenue or North Parkway Drive.

He acknowledged that the city’s approach has been to ignore motels that violate their zoning as long as they are clean and well-maintained. Until the city’s stock of affordable housing improves, he said, the long-term motels are somewhat of an interim solution.

“For lack of a better term, this is a necessary evil,” he said.

Andrea Castillo: 559-441-6279, @andreamcastillo