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They live in rat-infested, moldy homes, but say that’s better than what’s coming next

Bathroom floors are collapsing because of water damage from faulty plumbing in some apartments. Others reek of mold. Tenants say rats enter through holes in the walls and floors. Police officers are frequent visitors. These are some of the conditions at a downtown Modesto apartment complex.

“It’s an ugly place, but it was someplace for us to have shelter,” said 53-year-old Paul Romero who has lived in one of the apartments for three years with his girlfriend and her two sons. His two daughters also sometimes stay there. “At least we were not sleeping at the river or in a park.”

The two-story building of 27 studio apartments is home for about 80 poor people, including roughly a dozen children. Rent is $575 a month for a 350-square-foot apartment or $585 for one of the 400-square-foot apartments and includes utilities, except cable and internet. Several tenants said despite the conditions, this is better than being homeless.

But the building at 624 Ninth St. won’t be anyone’s home for long. The city has declared the property unsafe and unfit for human occupancy. Rather than make the repairs required by the city, owner Steve Arakelian had eviction notices given to tenants Saturday. Tenants have 30 or 60 days to leave, depending on how long they have lived there.

Modesto also will seek $1,000 a day in civil penalties dating back to May against Arakelian for not complying with the notice and order the city issued him to correct the building’s deficiencies. The city will seek the penalties at a July 27 Board of Building Appeals hearing.

The evictions come as Stanislaus County is experiencing a rental housing crisis for low-income tenants, said Mark Galvan, landlord tenant case manager with Project Sentinel’s Stanislaus County Mediation Center. The nonprofit helps people with housing problems.

City spokeswoman Amy Vickery said Modesto is working with several agencies — including Project Sentinel, Community Housing and Shelter Services and the county’s Community Services Agency — to help tenants find housing. The city has provided residents with information and will do more. For instance, social service agencies will be at the building next week so tenants can learn about the resources available to them.

“We understand (tenants’) fears and frustration.” Vickery said in an email. “Our first priority is the safety of residents in our city, and this building has failed multiple inspections and therefore has been deemed unfit for human occupancy.”

She said Modesto’s Municipal Code requires property owners to provide tenants with relocation benefits in these circumstances. They include a payment equal to two months of the current rent or the rent at the new residence, whichever is lower. Arakelian said he cannot afford this, especially since tenants stopped paying rent once the city placed notices June 29 declaring the building unsafe.

“We believe the owner has the means as well as the moral and legal responsibility to help these tenants,” Vickery wrote in response. But the city could pay the benefits to the tenants and then go after the property owner for the money.

Arakelian said he does not have the money to repair the building — which he bought a dozen years ago — and has put it up for sale. He claims some of the tenants are responsible for the building’s condition because they vandalize and damage it. He said repairs cannot be made fast enough to keep pace with the harm these tenants create.

“I have no choice but to evict the tenants,” he said. “I’m very sad about that. I’m tired and beat up. It seems like the tenants are winning. But this breaks my heart. These are poor people, and they don’t have any place to go.”

He said some tenants can be a challenge because they may have been homeless or struggling with or have struggled with mental illness or substance abuse. He said a handful of tenants have jobs but others receive Social Security, disability or public assistance. He said their average income is $900 to $1,000 a month. Some tenants appear to be hoarders, but even those who keep their apartments neat and clean complain about rats and cockroaches.

Arakelian said some tenants let friends stay with them, which causes more problems. He claims he has been too lenient and has let some tenants stay rather than evict them, though they may owe him thousands in back rent. “I’m a softy,” he said. “I’m a nice guy. I let these people take advantage of me. I don’t know what they are going to do without me. There is going to be a lot of suffering. I’m suffering, too.”

But several tenants tell a different story.

Ophelia Cooper said she, her husband and their three children moved in to a first-floor apartment in January. She points to a litany of problems, including water dripping from the ceiling above the stove, a shower that floods the bathroom if you shower longer than two minutes, and a bathroom sink in which only the hot water works and is hot enough to burn your skin.

She said they keep the water to the toilet shut off because it leaks, and turn the water on only when they use the toilet. They also have to use a plunger when they flush the toilet. “I’ve told him about all of this stuff,” she said. “This is the only place we can afford. I didn’t know it was so bad. I didn’t know.”

Cooper said Arakelian claims to care about his tenants. She is not buying that. “It’s one thing to pretend to be compassionate. (But) you have to do something to really be compassionate.”

Francisco Alvarez’s apartment is a few doors from the Coopers. The 78-year-old said he has lived in the building for two years and gets by on $1,200 a month from Social Security. When asked about his apartment, he points to the holes. “He needs to fix it. Rats are all over the place,” Alvarez said. “They come out at night.”

Some tenants said the building has been in bad shape for years, and the Fire Department conducts annual inspections. So why is the city taking action now?

Vickery said the building was in worse shape this year when the Fire Department inspected it — for instance, a subsequent inspection found 6 feet of standing water in the basement — and tenants complained to inspectors and invited them in to check their apartments. That resulted in the city conducting in-depth inspections compared with the basic ones conducted by the Fire Department.

She said the building also has drawn the attention of the Police Department’s beat health unit, which was restarted this year. The unit works with city departments to tackle neighborhood problems, including nuisance and blighted properties. Police spokeswoman Heather Graves said the building has generated a high number of calls. She said since mid-2011, officers have issued 564 case numbers. She said those case numbers include arguments, fights, assaults, ambulance calls, security checks, and search and arrest warrants.

This is not the only rental property Arakelian and his wife own. The Turlock couple own rental properties on Rouse Avenue in an unincorporated neighborhood in west Modesto and on Herndon Road and Sam Avenue in an unincorporated area between Modesto and Ceres.

Two tenants told The Bee they did not have problems with their rentals, but other tenants described problems similar to those at the Ninth Street building. They include sewage coming up from a shower drain and infestations of cockroaches and rats.

Galvan with Project Sentinel said it always has been difficult for low-income residents to find decent, affordable housing in Stanislaus County, but it has gotten worse. He said while rents held steady for several years, they started increasing last year and that trend has accelerated this year.

He suspects that as people are getting priced out of the Bay Area they are moving to Tracy and Manteca, causing rents to rise there. The effect is being felt here. He said people who have been in the same rental for at least a decade and been good tenants are seeing their rent go up twice in the same year, say $50 followed by $75.

“These people are on a fixed monthly income,” he said. “And there are some challenges to come up with the money to move, (including) the first month’s rent and a deposit. We need more housing and housing people can afford.”

Breanna Dye and her boyfriend, Richard Pena, and their two children — 3-year-old Destiny and 4-year-old Isaiah — are living Galvan’s words. They have rented a second-floor apartment in the Ninth Street building for about a year and are trying to move.

Dye said she has found a one-bedroom apartment. But the family needs $700 for the first month’s rent, a $700 security deposit and the cost of background checks for Dye and Pena. The family lives on the $650 to $700 Dye brings home every two weeks from her job at a fast-food restaurant, plus food stamps. Pena stays home with the children. Dye said Arakelian won’t give them their $500 security deposit.

Dye and Pena said they are recovering addicts and trying to build a good life for their kids. They said they are grateful to have a roof over their heads despite the building’s problems. Dye said they did not have hot water for a few months when they moved in. They heated water on the stove and poured it into the bathtub to bathe their children. Now the electrical in the bathroom does not work. And they have rats.

“At this point,” Dye said, “it’s going to be really difficult to find another place without the money Steve (Arakelian) owes us. I really don’t know what is going on. We were thinking of staying in a motel until we figure out what to do. But that’s going to leave us really broke. I can’t give you answers. I cannot even give myself answers.”

Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316

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