In an effort to clean up a notorious section of Fresno and to create more affordable housing, a housing nonprofit has a deal to purchase four “Motel Drive” properties.
Using millions in state funds, the deal is in place, soon to be completed.
But, several long-term residents of one Fresno motel say the current owners have tried to evict them.
“We have nowhere to go,” resident Marilyn Martin said. “We can’t afford anywhere else.”
A local advocacy organization is challenging the eviction moves.
The motel’s owner says there is no wrongdoing. It is just a misunderstanding.
Even though it is a motel, the tenants have the same rights as other types of renters, officials with Central California Legal Services say.
The renters are staying put for now, after inquiries by GV Wire℠ and CCLS.
Part of Project Homekey
Parkside Inn and three other properties will soon be under Fresno Housing Authority ownership, part of the state Project Homekey program. The goal is to house the homeless and other low-income individuals and families.
Residents tell GV Wire℠ that the owner of the Parkside Inn at Olive Avenue near Highway 99, attempted to remove the long-term tenants in the name of renovations that will be required because of the purchase.
A Fresno city councilman and FHA say what the tenants have been told is not true.
Motel Drive has long had a reputation for crime, prostitution, human trafficking and worse.
“We’ve got to deal with some of the sketchy owners and landlords and managers that have a long history in this drive,” Councilman Miguel Arias said. The city will administer the properties once ownership is acquired.
“A Place of Last Resort”
Parkside Inn is already operating as a residence for the low income, say those who live there.
“This is a place of last resort,” resident Deanna Bowen said, who has lived there seven months.
She lives at Parkside Inn with her disabled 10 year-old grandson. She said she was given one-day verbal notice last month to vacate.
She refused to leave.
“I don’t think it’s fair. I’m not the only one here. They threw people out on the streets who had no place to go,” Bowen said.
Bowen criticized her living conditions.
“The place is tore up … I don’t know how they’re even renting it out anymore,” Bowen said.
She also accused the motel of threatening to blacklist her if she didn’t leave the motel when told to.
Bowen said she has a friend who is willing to sublease an apartment in another part of town. Otherwise, Bowen said she would be homeless.
Nowhere Else to Go
Martin says she’s lived at the Parkside Inn for three years with her disabled husband.
She was paying $250 a week. In September, Martin said the owners increased the rent by $50 a week with no notice.
When Martin attempted to pay her rent on Nov. 1, the owners would not accept payment.
“No, you have to be out today,” Martin recalled being told.
She says the owners forced her to sign a paper saying she would be out by Nov. 9.
“Under duress I had to. I had no choice or we wouldn’t be in the room,” Martin said.
Martin also alleges the owners threatened to blacklist them.
“(They said) if you do not comply with what we say, then we know the managers all over here. You’ll be put on a list and they will not rent to you,” Martin said.
Martin says the Parkside Inn owners offered to move her to the nearby Plaza Motel because of pending renovation from the FHA purchase. Martin balked because she said it is a lower quality residence.
“Just out of the blue and not even give no notice whatsoever. And then we’re still paying rent. How are we supposed to even even think about trying to find a place,” Martin asked.
As of Monday, Martin is still living in her room after speaking with CCLS.
$24 Million Purchase
The Housing Authority — a regional nonprofit whose board of directors is appointed by both the city and Fresno County — is in the process of purchasing the 48-room motel from Akshar Inc. for $3 million. Business records indicate the principal behind the company is a man by the name of Mitesh Gajjar.
The company also owns the Welcome Inn, also part of FHA’s four motel purchase. The other properties include the Days Inn and Motel 99. The total price is $24 million.
Last month, the City Council approved an agreement to operate the Parkside Inn and three other motels in the area. The city will commit nearly $7 million over the next five years to renovate and house the homeless and other low income tenants.
Arias said the city requested a list of tenants from the owners “so that we can make direct contact with those tenants and make sure that they are housed and that they remain in the facilities or that they are relocated and housed appropriately so that nobody loses their housing.”
He anticipates spending $100,000 per room, which he says is less expensive than building affordable housing from the ground up. Recent projects in both Fresno and Madera have cost more than $400,000 per unit to build.
Owners threatening eviction “are not following the wishes of the city or the Housing Authority,” Arias said.
“It’s only a reaffirmation of why the city needs to acquire these facilities, because some of these owners, landlords and managers that they’ve hired have not been following the rules for years and are only putting their tenants at further risk,” Arias said.
Motel Owner: Tenants Misunderstood
Gajjar sent GV Wire℠ the following statement:
“Parkside Inn proudly provides low-cost safe and clean temporary housing options for both transient and non-transient tenants that may not have other housing options in the City of Fresno. As has been reported, Parkside Inn is in the process of being acquired by the Fresno Housing Authority. This news has generated a lot of concern by our tenants. The Fresno Housing Authority has assured us that our tenants will continue to be taken care of and looked after, and was a consideration in deciding in favor of the transition.
“Recently, we were contacted by Central California Legal Services on behalf of some of our tenants who do not understand the transition and the key card protocol. Our policy and practice has always been that when a guest pays for a week’s stay, they will receive a key card that is programmed for a week and when that week runs, that guest will need to return to the office to arrange for additional days which will trigger a re-programmed key card. Last Friday, when pre-programmed key cards “stopped working,” some tenants believed, incorrectly, that they had been locked out and evicted. They had not been, and room cards were re-programmed and re-issued.
“We at Parkside Inn take a lot of pride in our property and our guests and have worked with our guests to get through these difficult times.”
Attorneys Send Letter to Owners
“They said you got to leave. They didn’t give us a reason. They didn’t give us notification.” — Parkside Inn resident Lawrence Alberti
Lawrence Alberti has lived at the Parkside Inn since June. He said he received one week notice verbally to leave.
“Most people were just like told they had to leave. They weren’t given any notification, period. They said you got to leave. They didn’t give us a reason. They didn’t give us notification,” Alberti said.
On Sunday, CCLS delivered a letter to the motel stating that their method of eviction is illegal.
“The law is clear — Mr. Alberti’s tenancy remains in effect until a written 60-Day Notice to Vacate is issued by Parkside Inn,” the letter from CCLS attorney Brandi Snow says.
Alberti expressed frustration at Arias for not doing enough.
“He’s been all over this as far as promoting and getting these properties for homeless people,” Alberti said. “You’re pushing other people who probably will end up in similar circumstances out on the street without notification.”
FHA Working with the Owner
Tenants say the owners verbally told them they were being evicted under the guise that renovations would take place. FHA says the purchase is not complete yet.
The Housing Authority says they are aware that Parkside Inn’s owner communicated with tenants about vacating the property.
“We have been in touch with the owner over the weekend, and continue to express that Fresno Housing has no intention of causing displacement or creating potential homelessness given that the very purpose of HomeKey is to serve those most at risk,” FHA CEO Preston Prince said in an email. “Although we have little authority at this time, our team has encouraged the current owner to relax efforts around vacating the property to allow for sufficient time and process to ensure that applicable state motel and tenant right laws are followed.”
Prince said they are working with the owner, the city and CCLS.
“Future plans include staff getting in touch with long-term motel occupants on an individual basis to better understand their needs and preferences for remaining or relocating, and working to provide appropriate housing opportunities. Efforts to begin gathering this information have been under way since early November,” Prince said.
Allegations of Manager Borrowing Money from Tenants
Several tenants made a startling allegation — that the onsite manager would often borrow money from the tenants.
Renters said the man’s name was Vartko or Bargo. They weren’t quite sure how he spelled it.
“He’s been borrowing money of the people and not paying the rent and pocketing the money,” Martin said. Another resident said the manager was known to pay the tenants back through a rent credit.
A manager working at the front desk on Monday morning would not confirm his name, but did admit to borrowing money from tenants.
The manager said he would also lend money to the tenants. While he repaid with extra, he did not charge any extra when lending out money.
“He borrowed $300 from me one day that I paid the rent,” Bowen said. She said he was slow to repay the money.
“My daughter flipped out and she went to the office and another manager was there. She threw a fit about him even borrowing money from me because we’re struggling here already,” Bowen said.
The man insisted that such lending transactions were made as a result of personal relationships with the tenants, and had nothing to do with Parkside Inn’s business operations.
The manager did not want to be recorded when discussing the matter, and threatened GV Wire℠ with legal action if the information was published.
Lawyer: Parkside Inn Tenants Have Rights
Patience Milrod, executive director of CCLS, says the Parkside Inn tenants have rights if they have resided there for at least four weeks. Her group is representing Alberti and others.
“Anyone who’s resided in their unit over 28 days is considered a tenant for purposes of California law — entitled to a 60-day notice to quit, and due process via unlawful detainer court proceedings before they can be evicted,” Milrod said via email.
Bowen is glad to know what she is entitled to.
“I wasn’t (aware of my rights) at the time, no. I’m a little bit aware of some of my rights, (now),” Bowen said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fresno City Council passed an emergency ordinance preventing landlords from evicting tenants because of nonpayment for the duration of the emergency order. That order remains in effect.
Milrod said that even moving a tenant to a different room does not diminish renter rights.
“I think it likely CCLS will be getting involved in a pre-emptive way with an additional six properties that are slated for conversion to transitional housing, ensuring residents know their rights and owners know their obligations in advance,” Milrod said.
Arias can’t wait for the owners to sell the property.
“I’m personally disgusted by the behavior of some of these owners, and that’s why it’s been a top priority for us to clean up this area and to get rid of some of these owners and landlords,” Arias said.[Update 11/09/2020, 6:05 p.m.: Mitesh Gajjar sent a statement in response to eviction allegations made by the tenants.]