Bee Investigator: Decaying bungalows to get overhaul in Modesto

Rosita Herrera, who lives in one of two of the occupied homes on Casa Blanca Court, watches firefighters train at one of the vacant homes. The entire court off Coolidge Avenue in Modesto is privately owned and a new property owner plans to refurbish the bungalows built in 1947.
Rosita Herrera, who lives in one of two of the occupied homes on Casa Blanca Court, watches firefighters train at one of the vacant homes. The entire court off Coolidge Avenue in Modesto is privately owned and a new property owner plans to refurbish the bungalows built in 1947. etracy@modbee.com

In response to a column I wrote a few weeks ago about a former farm turned dumpsite on McHenry Avenue, a reader sent me an email about another blighted property in Modesto.

“After reading your article … it prompted me to bring your attention to Casa Blanca Court on the south side of Coolidge Avenue, just west of Sunrise Avenue,” wrote Dennis Wilson. “This (is) an eyesore that degrades every single property that is located on Coolidge.”

Eyesore is putting it kindly. It looks like a ghost town picked apart by vandals.

There are 11 identical one-bedroom, one-bath bungalows in various stages of decay. Only two are occupied. The others are windowless, some are doorless, and all are filled with trash and remnants of past tenants and squatters.

Weeds and dead grass extend from the homes to the badly pitted road. There is one dim streetlight.

When I told Mr. Wilson I’d look into the property, he responded, “I don’t think it will change much!”

I am pleased to report, Mr. Wilson, that there is change in the works. A man who purchased the property this summer has submitted plans to the city for its improvement and development.

The entire court – a 0.86-acre property – is privately owned, hence the absence of sidewalks and the poor condition of the private drive not maintained by the city.

Sang Lee, a Bay Area resident who owns 15 other properties in Modesto, purchased the court for $350,000 in June.

“I try not to go into areas which require way too much management,” he said. “Casa Blanca Court is one of the more dire situations I have gone into.”

Securing the court with a wrought-iron gate is his top priority before starting construction. The bungalows’ current “open air concept” is an invitation to squatters and vandals.

“I can put up windows right now, but that’s not going to help,” Lee said. “I can put them in and they will be broken in 48 hours.”

Rosita Herrera, whose family has lived on the court for several decades, said along with the homeless, students from nearby Robert Elliott Alternative Education Center hang out in the abandoned homes while ditching class.

The Modesto Fire Department used several of the unoccupied units for training last week. Battalion Chief Hugo Patino said that with cooler weather, the vacant homes will become more of a fire danger as the homeless seek shelter and start fires inside for warmth.

While he oversaw the training, he said, a man pulled up and asked who owned the property. Patino said the man wanted to buy it to demolish all the properties and start anew.

But Lee sees potential in bungalows, and indeed they are a piece of history despite their condition.

The homes were built in 1947, according to public records.

Herrera said that according to the second owner, the original owner, Wendell Lincoln Thompson, built them as transitional housing for veterans coming home from World War II.

I couldn’t find any evidence to prove or contradict this account, but with the help of The Modesto Bee’s expert archivist, Karen Aiello, we found that Thompson appeared several times in The Bee’s society pages in the 1930s and 40s.

Here’s something you’d never see in today’s paper: “Mr. and Mrs. Wendell Thompson and sons, Wendell and Donald, of Modesto called on Mrs. May Thompson on Mother’s Day,” read one entry from 1938.

The court was annexed into the city of Modesto in 1969 within the East Coolidge Addition, parts of which extended north to East Granger Avenue, south to East Orangeburg Avenue and east to Sunrise Avenue.

Five years after Thompson died in 1988, his three sons successfully sued their stepmother for ownership of the property and the rent she’d collected on the bungalows.

The next year, they turned around and sold the court for $175,000.

I don’t know when the condition of the apartments started to deteriorate, but Herrera said they’ve been derelict as long as she’s lived there. “Slum landlord, but cheap, cheap rent,” she said of the second owner, who bought the property from the Thompson family. “That’s why I find myself back here, because it’s always cheap.”

She contributes to the $550 rent for the 624-square-foot bungalow plus garage that she shares with her boyfriend, two daughters, sister and two nieces.

Herrera’s dad did some work on the court when she lived there before. He spray-painted some of the homes on which the paint had peeled away to the cinder block and installed a streetlight.

Herrera said the homes are not insulated, and only a few of her electrical outlets work.

“These places ain’t worth it. I honestly think they should tear them down and start again,” she said. “Who wants to live in a cement box?”

Lee has a vision, though, to make the court a secure place and attract good, working families to the area by increasing the size of the units by 150 square feet.

Ideally, he’d like the homes to feature two or three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

He’d like to go bigger, but said, “If I play by the rules, I can only expand under 20 percent (of the property). Otherwise, the process is much more lengthy and I have to keep it vacant (longer) and more of an eyesore. I have already bought it and it doesn’t make any money for me sitting in the condition it’s in.”

In September, he submitted his preliminary expansion plans to the city; they are expected to be approved this week.

The city is requiring that Lee install sidewalks and keep the properties free of debris and trash, said Planning Manager Patrick Kelly. The security gate cannot exceed 42 inches in height.

Addressing the city’s conditions, Lee will submit more detailed drawings and plans for this expansion in order to get building permits, which could take one to three months.

“My goal is to move as quickly as they will let me,” Lee said. “I’m putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into this. I was never interested in buying it and keeping it a slumlord-type of situation.”

There you have it. Lee promises that his return on investment and the city’s desire to make the neighborhood safe and desirable are aligned.

I will check back next year to see if he’s delivered.

Have a question for the Bee Investigator? Email Erin Tracy at etracy@modbee.com.