Editorials

Mold, rats, bedbugs — and now eviction? Paso Robles must help Grand View tenants

It’s bad enough that the 200-or-so tenants of the Grand View Apartments in Paso Robles have been living in squalid, moldy, vermin-infested housing for the past few years.

At least they had a roof over their heads — even though it often leaked.

Soon, they may not even have that.

As The Tribune reported, the Santa Barbara owners of this shamefully neglected, 54-unit apartment complex have decided to shut it down rather than make necessary upgrades.

Residents have been given 60- and 90-day notices to vacate, depending on how long they’ve been living there. They’ll receive $1,000 for relocation expenses and their security deposits will be returned. Oh, and they’ll be able to be reimbursed a measly $200 for fumigating their apartments.

But wait, it gets worse.

Unless all the buildings in the complex are professionally fumigated — one estimate puts that cost at $45,518 — they won’t be allowed to bring their belongings with them if they’re lucky enough to find another apartment.

And that’s going to be incredibly difficult, given the lack of affordable housing in the area.

That means dozens of families, including 62 school-aged children, could wind up out on the street right around the holidays.

That can’t happen.

Local officials cannot just throw up their hands and say there’s nothing they can do.

These tenants have been complaining for years about bedbugs, cockroaches, rats, mold, leaky roofs, gaping holes in walls and ceilings, and backed-up plumbing.

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Francisco Ramirez shows a welt on his arm from a bedbug bite. Ramirez a three-year resident of Grand View Apartments, said black mold, bedbug bites, roaches and mice are common at the Paso Robles complex. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Conditions are so bad that a judge ruled in May that tenants no longer had to pay the $1,480 to $1,750 a month they had been shelling out for the privilege of living in these rat-infested hell holes.

What did public officials know?

Records show that both the city of Paso Robles and the county of San Luis Obispo knew about problems at the complex and requested management to make improvements, yet the situation dragged on and on.

In response to complaints, the city arranged in May 2017 to inspect the buildings, and according to an email from city staff, found “broken windows, missing smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms and fire extinguishers, infestation, accumulation of trash, general deterioration and lack of maintenance.”

Grand View staff agreed to take care of the problems, and the city did some follow-up to make sure the work was done.

Yet in September 2017, a county environmental health specialist inspected a single unit and found cockroaches crawling up wall and around the floor, cockroach fecal matter and “evidence of empty bedbug skins, blood spots and stains on bedding and corners of mattresses.”

“Tenant habits do not appear to be contributing to the infestation,” the letter says.

It also requests the owner and manager “to abate the above violations as quickly as possible.”

That didn’t happen; the property was declared a substandard building under the California Health and Safety Code.

“County Environmental Health referred the matter to the city of Paso Robles, the controlling jurisdiction, for commencement of code enforcement action,” the County Counsel’s Office told The Tribune via email.

Yet according to attorneys now representing the tenants, it appears the city took no further action. (The city did require repair of some units damaged by fire in September 2018.)

No further action, even though officials were aware that the tenants — many of whom speak limited English — were reluctant to come forward to file formal complaints.

No further action, even though the fed-up tenants eventually filed a class-action lawsuit in May 2019 that featured a laundry list of unsanitary and dangerous conditions, including this gem: “Raw sewage outside of the apartment units on the common ground attracting vermin and rodents.”

No further action, even though local media, including The Tribune, toured the apartments and took photos and videos of the squalor.

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Black mold on a window and wall in a Grand View Apartments unit. Residents say black mold, bedbug bites, roaches and mice are common at the complex. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

We don’t get it.

Once officials became aware of the recurring problems — regardless of how they found out — they should have intervened, rather than simply waiting for formal complaints from residents.

What more could have been done?

Here’s one example: San Luis Obispo County once filed criminal charges against an 89-year-old landlord who repeatedly failed to make necessary repairs to some rentals in Nipomo. He was placed on probation, and when that failed, a judge ordered him to spend four days in jail.

Yet for the owners of Grand View, not even a slap on the wrist.

This can’t happen again.

Officials may be reluctant to take action that could result in the condemnation of scarce affordable housing units, but gross violations like bedbugs and rats and raw sewage can’t be ignored.

Every city in the county, as well as the county itself, should re-examine its policies for dealing with building code and health and safety code violations to ensure tenants are protected.

What next for Grand View tenants?

Public officials could still take action to provide at least a small measure of relief for families stuck at Grand View.

Even now, those residents are at risk, and they will be as long as they remain in rundown buildings crawling with bugs.

An attorney representing the tenants in the class-action lawsuit has suggested a number of remedies.

First on the list: The city could begin an immediate abatement action to force the landlords to take at least some minimal action to resolve the worst health problems, including fumigating the entire complex.

Residents also should be given more time to find other housing.

As horrible as conditions at the apartment complex may be, it’s better than being out on the street. That would be an even bigger public health crisis, since there’s not enough room in emergency shelters for so many families.

The attorney for the tenants also has suggested other temporary housing solutions, such as tents, local hotels or even the old, state-owned Paso Robles Boy’s School, though that would likely involve too much red tape.

Ideally, though, families would be able to move immediately into permanent housing.

Housing advocates like Peoples’ Self Help Housing and the Housing Authority of SLO County are doing as much as they can, but they have a limited number of units available, and there’s the problem of the vermin infestation.

Until that’s resolved, renters won’t be allowed to transfer their belongings to other apartments.

Down the road, there may be financial compensation for the tenants. The class-action lawsuit is wending its way through court, but that could take months, possibly even years, to decide.

These residents can’t wait that long.

Public officials have a legal — and humanitarian — duty to act on behalf of these tenants who have endured nightmarish conditions far too long.

We strongly urge the city of Paso Robles to immediately pursue every available housing opportunity or legal remedy to find safe residences for these tenants.

After that, they need to take a close look at how to prevent this from happening again.

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