Fresno officials red-tagged a central Fresno motel Thursday after deeming it a fire hazard, effectively shutting it down.
City Manager Bruce Rudd said bad wiring has made Hotel California, near Roeding Park at 530 N. Weber Ave., unsafe. The hotel owner must relocate residents by Monday. Otherwise, the city will work with local agencies to find them new shelter and charge the owner for any costs.
It is the latest problem for the hotel’s residents, many of whom have lived without working heat for more than a year.
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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 lack of heat and other substandard conditions there.
Sharma, who lives most of the time on the property, complied with the city’s demands for heat. Rudd said that as of Wednesday, all but six units have working heaters. But when a building inspector visited the property that day to ensure the work was being done correctly, he noticed the units had the wrong subpanels (breaker boxes), which were installed without a permit before Sharma bought the building.
Rudd said these subpanels don’t provide protection against electricity overloads. Breaker boxes that work correctly shut off power if too much electricity is being used because, for example, someone is blow-drying their hair while watching TV with the lights on and running the heater and refrigerator.
“The panels that were installed don’t have that, so you could literally pull 100 amps (of electricity) through that panel,” he said. “And when you start pulling that kind of amperage, there is the possibility of a fire occurring within the walls.”
Low-income housing advocates set up an online fundraiser for help relocating Hotel California residents. To donate, visit www.gofundme.com/hotel-ca-relocation-assistance
Sharma also had to hire a security guard to keep constant watch on the motel in case a fire breaks out. He was directed to unplug all appliances he allowed, including refrigerators, hot plates and air conditioning units.
Paul Salazar, who has lived at the motel for a year and a half, complained about having to unplug his refrigerator, which is stocked with $150 in groceries, now even though he doesn’t have to move out until Monday. “I feel like I’m being burned,” he said.
Sharma said he will ask the previous owner if she can complete the repairs. He said he isn’t sure how much it might cost to repair but estimated around $30,000.
“This is not my mistake,” he said. “I am not doing anything illegal.”
This is not my mistake.
Kumar Sharma, owner of Hotel California
Elaine Robles-McGraw, the city’s community revitalization manager until 2015, said she told city officials a month ago to inspect the building’s electrical and plumbing systems. And residents told code inspectors the system short-circuits when they have too many appliances on at once. But Rudd said building inspectors have different expertise than code enforcement inspectors.
Rudd has a list of 10 other motels, many along Blackstone Avenue or North Parkway Drive, that likely have health and safety violations. He said he doubts Sharma will operate Hotel California strictly as a motel in the future.
“He may be willing to address code issues, but he would need to address the underlying issue that it’s not actually operating as a motel,” he said. “We have to come up with a long-term strategy to address this and all the other substandard housing challenges.”
Sharma said he won’t convert the motel into an apartment complex. Instead, he’ll allow people to stay for no longer than 28 days. On Thursday, one woman said she was recently told to stay at another motel for one night after 28 days at Hotel California. She said Sharma allowed her to come back the next day.
The Hotel California situation is the latest problem with low-income housing stock to come to light in Fresno. The Bee’s series “Living in Misery” showed how many renters live in unsafe housing in the city.
Rudd and other city officials met with low-income housing advocates Wednesday and Thursday, including the Housing Authority, Live Again Fresno, Faith in Community, WestCare Foundation and Fresno Madera Continuum of Care. The city needs help coordinating relocation of the motel residents.
This isn’t the first time motel residents in Fresno have had to be relocated. In 2014, the city shelled out almost $30,000 to temporarily relocate tenants of the condemned Fresno Inn after owners failed to provide the money. And in 2009, city officials condemned the Storyland Inn. Some tenants were relocated to Hotel California, then called the Sahara Motel.
Rudd said the city won’t do what has been done in the past – move long-term residents from one motel to another. Instead, the city is reaching out to landlords willing to waive deposits and get the residents what they truly need: permanent housing.
“Doing what we’ve done in the past doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “We’re just contributing to the problem.”
City officials don’t have much time to make that happen. Thursday morning, code enforcement officials taped red-and-white signs to each door that read, “Cease occupancy by 9 a.m. on Monday 1-9-17.”
Motels being evaluated by Fresno code enforcement ▪ Knights Inn, 4061 N. Blackstone Ave. ▪ Red Roof, 4141 N. Blackstone Ave. ▪ City Motel, 2309 S. G St. ▪ Big Star Motel, 2325 S. G St. ▪ El Muir Motel, 2339 S. G St. ▪ Gables Motel, 2833 E. Church Ave. ▪ Valley Inn, 933 N. Parkway Ave. ▪ Welcome Inn, 777 N. Parkway Drive ▪ Sierra Inn, 949 N. Parkway Drive ▪ The Palace Inn, 797 N. Parkway Drive
Nearly 20 residents also met with attorneys for Central California Legal Services, who explained their rights as tenants. Attorney Marcos Segura said they are owed one month’s rent plus enough money for a down payment on utilities and a security deposit.
The residents said Sharma had offered to refund that month’s rent if they move out. Segura advised against it.
“If you take that money, whatever he’s trying to give you, he might have an argument saying, ‘Well, I gave them their money back and that’s the relocation they accepted, so I don’t owe them the other amount.’ ”
The Hotel California has had a history of trouble, including drug dealing and two murders since 1990. Records for 26 cases illustrate the motel’s code-enforcement history as far back as 1996. The same issues come up again and again: inoperable heat, water leaks, vermin including bed bugs, and electricity and water services shut off because the owner didn’t pay the bills. In 2005, the city sued the owners because the motel was the site of frequent crimes, such as prostitution and drug violations, and because conditions were substandard.
In October 2015 and again last September, residents complained that the heat didn’t work in their units. Code enforcement staff did not follow up to ensure the heat was fixed or check the heat in other units.
Motel residents say they’d live elsewhere if they could. Some have disabilities.Some have children.Some have lived there for months or several years. 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 better housing.