City’s seizure threat gets landlords’ attention
Joseph Gongeles, 51, lives at the Palm Terrace Apartments, 3066 N. Balboa Ave., where he often takes care of his niece's children, including Christian Sanchez, 2."It's changed a lot. It's pretty nice and quiet," Gongeles said, since the landlord joined a city crime prevention program.
About one-quarter of crimes reported in Tucson in the past two months took place within about 150 feet of one of the city’s many apartment complexes, if traffic and health-related calls are excluded.
So it’s understandable that the Tucson Police Department would advertise on its Web site that a potential benefit to landlords participating in the department’s Crime-Free Multi-Housing Program is less property damage from police raids.
The Web site also highlights other prospective gains linked to the voluntary landlord training and certification program: less resentment from neighbors, reduced fear of dangerous tenants and higher property values. Added from police accounts could be: less gunfire, less in-and-out drug traffic and fewer fugitives with untraceable assault rifles.
The incentives for landlords to enroll in the program have never been stronger.
Tucson is considering seizing properties that fail to meet minimum management standards as the next step in its effort to improve housing conditions.
It’s something the city has never done, but officials say they’re ready, although no legal papers have been filed yet.
“These properties have become huge drains on city services and resources,” said Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, whose office has worked closely with police and the City Attorney’s Office on the project. “The city has really not been as aggressive as I think (we) need to be.”
That’s been changing. Tucson launched the Landlord Accountability Initiative last year, sending letters to the management firms of six apartment complexes. Each property also had code violations, said Linus Kafka, a city attorney.
In his letters, Kafka told property owners that to seize a property, the city needs only to prove that illegal activity occurs at the complex and the owner “knows or has reason to know that the conduct is occurring or is likely to occur, or takes no action to ensure that property is not used for such purposes.”
In most cases, the threat prompted action, Kafka said, resulting in at least a meeting between landlords and city officials. In at least four of the six cases, owners or their representatives flew in from California.
“We try to do this cooperatively,” Kafka said. “Many times they didn’t know what the situation really was. . . . If they show progress, we hold off on taking legal steps.”
The range of reactions to the letters is visible on a drive down North Balboa Avenue.
Palm Terrace Apartments, 3066 N. Balboa Ave., roughly one block east of Oracle Road and Miracle Mile, was, in the eyes of police, one of the worst offenders, averaging a call nearly every other day last year.
From Jan. 1, 2008, to March 31, police went to the complex 184 times: 15 times for reported assaults, 23 times for drug calls and 54 times for reports of suspicious activity or disturbances, according to call logs.
But if the data for 2009 hold steady for the rest of the year, Capt. Brett Klein expects sending an officer to the complex only 60 times, or about once per apartment.
Klein attributes the dramatic change to a shift in apartment management. “I have to credit the landlord for taking the right steps,” he said.
Since March, the complex has been enrolled in the Crime-Free Multi-Housing Program and has added an addendum to its leases that makes it easier to immediately evict tenants who commit crimes, Klein said.
Jennifer Connell the project manager for Heritage West Group, the company that owns the complex, said the addendum has helped turn things around by getting criminals out.
“I didn’t feel safe at all,” she said of her strolls around the complex, which she oversaw in addition to several others in California. “We had a few tenants who just tainted the whole complex.”
Connell said that in the two months that she’s been in Tucson to supervise the makeover, lights have been fixed, apartments have been remodeled and shrubs have been pruned, making the area safer.
The quality of applicants also improved. “At the beginning, I was denying about half,” she said. “Now it’s about 1 in 4 . . . What I think is changing is the reputation of the complex.”
Connell hired an on-site manager just before the company received the city’s letter, she said. “The whole atmosphere has changed,” she said.
Tenants agree. Joseph Gongeles said, “It’s changed a lot. It’s pretty nice and quiet.” He often takes care of his niece’s children and finds it a good place for kids.
Genevieve Tatro also likes the quiet. “I haven’t seen anything (suspicious), and I spend a lot of time outside my place just watching people,” she said.
On the other side of the spectrum, police and officials say, is a small five-unit complex at 2614 N. Balboa Ave. Police records show cops have spent hours there on calls and watching drug users stream in and out during surveillance.
Over the course of four months last year, police arrested one tenant, Victor Aros Jr., twice, both times also seizing drugs including Oxycodone and crack cocaine.
When the SWAT team raided Aros’ apartment in October, according to police reports, three women seen leaving were identified as prostitutes and police called Child Protective Services about several juveniles.
Victor Aros Sr. was arrested, and Victor Aros Jr. and Cecelia Aros were cited and released. The charges against Aros were dismissed with the caveat that they could be brought again later, according to court records.
In 2008, police went to the complex 15 times for calls ranging from drug sales and assaults to runaway kids, Klein said. He expects a similar number in 2009, saying the property owner, though contacted by city officials, had been “uncooperative.”
The owner, Paul Gualtieri, contests the characterization, saying he has worked closely with police since he took over management of the building about five months ago. He said that before that, his partner, whom he declined to name, was in charge of daily oversight.
Gualtieri did his first eviction, for drug possession, on March 27, according to court records, and he said police and the crime-free lease addendum helped.
But Gualtieri chafes at the idea that he is ultimately responsible for other people’s behavior. “They want landlords to be responsible for what happens on a property, but I can’t run people’s lives,” he said.
As part of the police program, Gualtieri installed new outdoor lights and fenced the property. The reaction, he said, exemplifies his dilemma. Tenants prop the gate open, Gualtieri said, and the bolts holding on the lights were unscrewed. “What can I do?” he asked. “It’s a Catch-22.”
A Web search shows the property is for sale, advertised as remodeled, updated and completely leased. “This property is a cash cow!!” the ad reads. Gualtieri said Tuesday, however, that he was selling the property because he was tired of paying his tenants’ rent. He said he was losing money on the property each month.
He said if he’d known about the crime in the neighborhood, he never would have bought the property as an investment three years ago.
No tenants at 2614 N. Balboa Ave. were available for comment.
Neighborhood activist Jane Baker fears that the property’s sale could mean a continuing pattern. She’s lived in the neighborhood for years and watched owners come and go with no improvements.
Baker hopes stepped-up enforcement can make a difference and end the negative cycle that has transformed the neighborhood. Once middle class, she said, it’s now an area commonly associated with cheap rent, drugs, gangs and prostitution.
“This has been going on for 20 years,” she said. “These properties affect the whole neighborhood. There’s just no responsibility.”
The Crime-Free Multi-Housing Program run by police, though voluntary, has a track record of transformation.
Through teaching landlords how to do background checks and verify IDs, evaluating properties for safety hazards and handing out a lease addendum that makes evictions easier, crime rates dropped as much as 70 percent at some complexes, city police records show.
Charity King, property manager for The Springs, 4900 E. Fifth St., and Bob Lebsack, area supervisor for HSL Asset Management, testify to the program’s powers, attributing an uptick in community involvement and a drop in car thefts at The Springs to aspects of the program.
“If you work the plan, the plan works,” King said.
Becky Noel, a police community service officer who runs the midtown program, stresses that anyone may participate, from the owners of a single-family home who want to lease their house for the summer to the operator of a 100-unit complex.
“Everyone deserves a safe place to live,” she said.
The Landlord Accountability Initiative could formalize that notion.
Sign at The Springs, 4900 E. Fifth St., and other apartments that join the program.
Charity King, manager of The Springs, 4900 E. Fifth St., attributes an uptick in community involvement and a drop in car thefts there to aspects of the landlords program.
The owners of the following apartment complexes with high levels of reported crime received letters from the city advising them that the city would seize their properties if conditions didn’t improve:
• Verde Meadows Apartments, 1514 E. Irvington Road, owned by Citrus Square LLC, Bonsall, Calif.
• Desert Palms Apartments, 5550 E. 26th St., owned by Casa De Rosa LLC, Santa Ana, Calif.
• Royal El Con Apartments, 3660 E. Third St., owned by Desert Ventures Development and Management, Tucson.
• Rio Nuevo Apartments, 410 N. Grande Ave., owned by EMCO/Rio Nuevo LLC, Tucson.
• Retro City Apartments, 2475 N. Haskell Drive, owned by Retro City LLC, Los Angeles, Calif.
• Palm Terrace Apartments, 3066 N. Balboa Ave., owned by Heritage West Group, Yorba Linda, Calif.