Landlord years overdue on sewer bills, officials say; tenants in jeopardy

jnsbranti@modbee.comFebruary 3, 2014 

— More than 40 low-income tenants – including dozens of children – may be forced out of their homes here next week because their landlord is years overdue on paying the sewer fees on those rental properties.

Stewart Hatler, one of Tuolumne County’s biggest landlords, owes the Jamestown Sanitary District about $38,000 for sewer service to more than a dozen housing units on and around Ninth Avenue.

If Hatler doesn’t pay by Wednesday, the neighborhood’s sewer connections will be shut off. That will make those properties – a mix of rundown mobile homes, duplexes and traditional houses – legally uninhabitable, triggering evictions by county officials.

Stunned tenants say they learned about the unpaid bills last week, and they’re scrambling to find affordable housing elsewhere on such short notice. Several of Hatler’s tenants insisted their rental agreements state that sewer service is included in their monthly payments, and that they had no idea he wasn’t passing on the money to the sanitary district.

“We were dumbstruck,” said Linda Martin. She and two roommates have been renting a three-bedroom mobile home on Ninth Avenue from Hatler for $845 per month, and they’ve already paid him for February. “We were all paying our rents. A lot of the people around here are seniors, disabled or low-income families.”

Martin said tenants are panicking about having to find places to move so quickly.

“We don’t want to displace anybody,” said Patti Ingalls, who manages the Jamestown Sanitary District. She said her “heart goes out” to the tenants there, but her small public agency can’t continue to allow Hatler to slide on his financial obligations.

Ingalls hopes Hatler will pay by the deadline.

The Modesto Bee’s efforts Monday to contact Hatler were unsuccessful.

This isn’t the first time Hatler has run afoul of government agencies over unpaid debts and substandard housing allegations regarding rental properties.

Several of his housing units have been demolished by government agencies because they were so dilapidated, and about 50 of his properties were threatened with tax auctions last year to recoup unpaid property taxes.

Crystal Martinez has been renting a two-bedroom duplex from Hatler for nearly a year. The single mother said her $750 per month rent is supposed to include sewer, water and garbage fees.

Martinez said she started paying the water company directly when she discovered that bill wasn’t being paid, and she said she has gone without regular garbage service since she moved in. The 32-year-old mother of five said she was shocked to learn the duplex’s sewage debt is $5,600.

The sanitary district charges about $41 a month per housing unit, so that sewage debt appears to represent more than five years of unpaid bills.

“I blame the landlord,” said Martinez, who depends on public assistance to cover most of her housing costs. Since learning she may be forced out, she said she’s been scrambling to find another place for her family. “But I keep hitting dead ends. … In this county, if your rental history is with Stewart Hatler, people label you as low class.”

That’s unfortunately true, said Beetle Barbour, housing resources director for the Amador Tuolumne Community Action Agency. “Tenants get a kind of smear on them because they’ve rented from Hatler,” Barbour confirmed. “It’s really not fair.”

Barbour is all too familiar with Hatler’s Ninth Avenue neighborhood. She said government agencies have demolished about seven seriously substandard homes there in the past four years.

“People in Tuolumne County call it the ghetto. It’s a bad situation,” Barbour said. “Most of those there have quite low incomes and they don’t have any resources.”

Though Hatler was legally responsible to financially compensate his previously displaced tenants, Barbour said her public agency ended up paying to assist more than 20 of them.

“We knew Stewart was never going to help anybody,” Barbour said. “He’s the largest landlord in the county. He told me he owns 120 rentals, and he hasn’t been able to keep up with them.”

Hatler is 83 years old. He was a building contractor at one time, but the state revoked his contractor’s license in 1997 because of shoddy work he had done on a Tuolumne County construction project.

Doug Oliver, Tuolumne’s chief building inspector, said his office has been trying for more than a decade to get Hatler to fix substandard housing issues in the Ninth Avenue neighborhood. He said numerous notices have been issued there for problems such as deficient heating and water systems and for serious structural deterioration.

Oliver said that if sewer service gets cut off there, his department will make sure everyone moves out.

Barbour said any tenant there who needs help relocating is urged to contact the Amador Tuolumne Community Action Agency at (209) 533-1397, ext. 238 or ext. 225. Tuolumne County landlords who have housing units they’re willing to rent to those displaced residents also are encouraged to contact that agency.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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