From a taxpayer’s perspective, the downhill slide of several affordable housing projects in southeast Bakersfield really ticks me off.
No, I don’t live in the area.
But my money does.
And so does yours.
Over the years, we taxpayers have invested $25 million (conservatively) into the Camellia Gardens, Camellia Court and Camellia Village complexes through various forms of deferred-payment loans, tax credits and property tax exemptions. (That doesn’t include what they get every month in government subsidized rents.)
For that kind of money, I expect project owners to — at a minimum — keep the gates working.
From a common decency perspective, reports of roach infestations, rats and trash in the hallways, urine in the dryers and worse disgusts me to the core.
Kids live here.
Then to find out the property management office is only open to residents from from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays and the after-hours number is often “disconnected,” I gotta ask what the heck is going on here?
There’s no way you can responsibly manage more than 150 units on that schedule.
That’s just cheaping out at residents’ expense.
And it’s wrong.
State and county officials think it's wrong, too. After I started asking questions and met with one county official at the apartment, things started to happen. But we'll come back to that.
The project owner, private nonprofit Corporation for Better Housing, has numerous affordable housing projects in Bakersfield and across several states.
By all accounts, it has a good reputation for building top-notch projects. The nonprofit provides not just a cheap place to live, but programs for residents including special services for veterans, seniors and children.
Indeed, the Camellia complexes along Cottonwood Road just north of Casa Loma Road include a community center and after-school programs.
And things were OK, according to residents, until a little more than a year ago.
That’s when Corporation for Better Housing dissolved its management company, CBH Property Management LLC, and hired outside company Domus Property Management, said Lori Koester, executive director of Corporation for Better Housing.
Corporation for Better Housing’s mission is to develop affordable housing, Koester said.
Managing the properties “diluted” that mission.
Domus took over the Camellia complexes this past January.
And that’s when, residents say, things went from not so great to really, really bad.
It’s certainly no secret that the neighborhood around the Camellia complexes is tough.
Crime rates in the Cottonwood area have been high for decades.
So, leaving gates unfixed is a screaming invitation to criminals that says, “Hey! Sitting ducks right here!”
And that’s exactly what happened, said Camellia Gardens residents James Raney and Alfred Williams.
Williams was robbed at gunpoint coming home one night.
“I put my key in the door and I felt the tip of a gun in my back,” said Williams, who’s 59 and disabled. Section 8 assistance helps pay his rent.
The robbers took everything he had, including his cell phone, wallet and keys.
But since it happened on a weekend, he wasn’t able to get hold of anyone in the office to get new keys until Monday.
“I was terrified to be here alone in case they came back.”
Raney, who lived there for six years, moved this month in fear for his life.
He said it was pretty good in the early years, the gates worked, there were surveillance cameras and there was even a security person who regularly patrolled the complex.
Things started to go sideways a little more than a year ago, he said.
No more security patrol, cameras went away and the gates worked only sporadically. After a car rammed into one, maintenance workers took it off its rollers and chained it up to the fence, leaving the parking lot permanently open.
Sometime after that, a gangbanger war left Raney’s car shot up just outside his window.
“I was on the couch watching TV when I heard the shots,” he recalled. “It was so close, I rolled off and hit the floor.”
He brought it to the manager’s attention and was told, “You have car insurance, don’t you?”
The last straw was when Raney’s apartment was broken into last month and thieves made off with his spare keys, among other things.
He took his brand new Hyundai SUV back to the dealer to have his key reprogrammed, but the thieves came back a few days later and were able to get in and steal it anyway.
“When I told the office they got my spare keys, they wanted to charge me $25 for a replacement gate key! I said, ‘Man, them gates haven’t worked in year! How you gonna charge me $25 for a key to a gate that don’t work?!’”
If the gates had worked, he said, perhaps that would have deterred the thieves and he wouldn't need a replacement key.
Twelve days later, Raney came home from the store and found his car back in his parking spot.
He had it towed to a repair shop, where they found nine bullet casings in the back seat.
“I said, ‘Uh- uh, I’m not spending one more night here,’” the retired oilfield worker said. “These people, they know who I am. They know where I live. They know what car I drive. And now I know they got guns.”
I spoke with Williams, Raney and half a dozen other residents, including Bennisha West, a 25-year-old mother of five.
The central theme was a lack of concern by property managers.
- Managers told one woman to clean black mold with bleach. (That’s not how to properly clean black mold and puts residents at risk.)
- Thieves steal the coin-operated washers and dryers.
- Trash chutes on the upper floors are regularly closed because of vandalism.
- Mailboxes are broken into and management tells anyone who complains to call the cops.
- Reports of broken appliances or plumbing problems go weeks without any action from management. One woman had to take food to her mother’s house for several months when her fridge went out.
- Roaches are so bad, they’ve destroyed microwaves and other appliances.
- Unattended leaks in one laundry room caused a hole to open between the third and second floors and a man actually fell through.
- When residents ask office staff for contact information for someone higher up, they're told they can't give out the number for "corporate."
“It’s a hellhole,” West summed up.
Where's the oversight?
Trying to figure out who has jurisdiction over publicly financed affordable housing isn't a simple task. It should be, but it's not.
For immediate health and safety issues, there's Kern County Code Compliance, which West said she called when her toilet quit working for an entire weekend and the after-hours number for Domus maintenance was disconnected.
But she was told by Code Compliance she needed to send a certified letter and give the landlord 10 days to fix the problem before Code Compliance would get involved.
I get that Code Compliance doesn't want to get in the middle of petty landlord/tenant squabbles, but a non-functioning toilet and no access to maintenance seems like it should have gotten immediate attention.
Oh, and no one bothered to explain to West how to send a certified letter.
"So I gave up," she said.
She and her five children scrambled to find other accommodations until Domus could be bothered to fix the toilet on its schedule.
Lighting a fire
There are two agencies that have direct and ongoing oversight of the Camellia complexes, the Kern County Community and Economic Development and the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee under the Treasury Office.
Combined, they have chipped in millions to help build those complexes and they both require inspections.
But inspections are somewhat limited and residents don't have unsupervised access to the inspectors to give them the real story.
West said she got a notice on her door about an upcoming state inspection and waited all day for an inspector but never saw one.
After I relayed residents’ concerns to the Tax Credit Allocation Committee, I was told inspectors would be down next week to check things out.
"We're not in the business of financing slums," one official told me.
The county likewise was spurred to action after my phone calls. Particularly after I met Supervisor Leticia Perez at one of the Camellia complexes and introduced her to a resident.
“I’m heartbroken,” Perez said. “This was a gem in the community.”
She vowed to work with owners to find a solution.
The reaction from Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt was swift and definitive.
“We’re going to be sending our staff out there immediately,” Oviatt said. “These people were promised a decent, safe place to live. And they were excited to move in there. I was at the opening. We were all excited.
“We are not interested in allowing these places to slide into slums.”
She said the buildings were actually built to higher code levels because low-income housing can take more of a beating than regular apartments and condos.
“So this deterioration is clearly a management issue,” she said.
The county’s scrutiny would be applied to all of Corporation for Better Housing projects in Bakersfield, she said.
When I explained how residents felt they had nowhere to turn, Oviatt suggested making sure all residents had an up-to-date contact list if management refused to address issues.
“We do audit and inspect once a year,” she said. “Obviously that’s not enough.”
Owner reaching out
For her part, Koester, executive director of Corporation for Better Housing, was similarly dismayed when I called to ask about all this.
In fact, she drove up from Los Angeles the day after we spoke last week to examine the property herself.
She agreed that office hours needed to change, office staff need to be available and visible to tenants and that the gates must be fixed. One gate was fixed as of Saturday morning, residents reported.
Surveillance cameras and security patrols would also be “considered,” Koester said.
“What I’m hearing is that people are afraid. And that they don’t feel like they have access to management and they aren’t being heard.”
She said she understood residents are frustrated and so is she, but property owners and managers can only do so much to keep the criminal element out.
“I feel like we’re victims as well,” she said of Corporation for Better Housing. “We do a good job and we’re proud of what we do to provide affordable housing. The truth is the community around these properties is deteriorating. The Sheriff’s Office outright told our managers they don’t have the resources to patrol regularly. We’re doing our best, but we aren't the police.”
Except, as I said, high crime in this area isn’t a new phenomenon.
Neither is the expectation that Corporation for Better Housing do more to fend off the outside criminal element.
In a 2014 report, state inspectors noted Camellia Gardens had gang graffiti on one building and demanded Corporation for Better Housing clean it up as well as provide a letter “outlining security measures in-place or in-process designed for the protection of the tenants.”
Photos of the cleaned up graffiti were sent but Corporation for Better Housing never responded to the larger security issues.
Meanwhile, the safety measures that had been in place — functioning gates, security patrols and cameras — were long gone.
Now gang graffiti festoons laundry rooms and stairwells and hoodlums often hang out in the hallways, said West, who’s desperate to get out.
“We hear fights and breaking glass. My 6-year-old started peeing herself in the bed and she never did that before. My children are scared to walk out the halls to go to school. Sometimes I’m scared too,” she said.
Koester reached out to Perez and Bakersfield City Councilman Willie Rivera to come up with ideas on how best to combat crime in the area.
Both politicians told me they were ready and willing to have those discussions.
“I’m confident we can fix this,” Perez said.
I hope so, too.
I would note that Corporation for Better Housing should be highly motivated as it has another project coming before the Kern County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 15 in which it’s asking to restructure a $3 million deal to build several more single family rentals.
Any agreement must come with proof that the nonprofit has cleaned up its act a the Camellia complexes.