The upstairs toilet had been leaking through the tiles, dripping from the ceiling to the downstairs apartment for at least a year before Steve Hebel put his foot through it one day in February.

The tiles have since been repaired, but still have a spongey feel and a give when you walk across them.

The bathroom wasn’t an exception, said Hebel and two former tenants of the apartment below his, Gregory Morris and Tracy Shoots.

Problems in Morris’ apartment eventually got him evicted. He said he stopped paying rent because of the conditions and was ultimately kicked out.

Morris, his wife and two kids spent a few weeks living in motels and their car before they found a new apartment in Oceanside.

They said their old apartment had been filled with mold and mildew. He complained to the property manager. He complained to the city’s code compliance division and to the city attorney.

The property management’s “fix” was just painting over it, Morris said. In June, before Morris left the apartment, he could still see mold spores peeking through layers of paint.

Shoots, who lived in Morris’ apartment before him, said she had two electrical fires. Both Shoots and Hebel said they went through periods without electricity in parts of their apartment.

“Nobody should live in that environment,” Shoots said.

Another former tenant, Shoots’ former neighbor Barbara Duran, who lived there for five years, said she had a continuously backed up bathtub and kitchen sink. Once it overflowed so much that the water seeped into the living room floorboards under the carpet and they popped up, she said.

“He doesn’t care,” said Duran of the property’s owner, Donald Swanson. “He doesn’t fix things. He just puts a Band-Aid over it and no one has an idea what’s going on inside.”

Assaults. Robberies. Vandalism. Drugs. Electrical outages and fires. Sewer back-ups that result in human waste flowing onto the lawn. Mold. Rats and roaches.

That’s how current and former tenants, code enforcement documents, the Oceanside Police Department and the city attorney’s office describe life at 415 Grant St.

The 84-unit apartment complex in the gentrifying neighborhood of Crown Heights – a historically low-income, high-crime neighborhood only a few blocks from the ocean – has a long history of problems, said Oceanside Deputy City Attorney Annie Perrigo.

Swanson, the owner, dismisses the tenants’ and city’s claims on all fronts. This is the only property he owns in Oceanside.

“I’m not concerned about any of these allegations,” Swanson said. “We run a very good business.”

The Same Problems Creep Back

Three years ago, the city of Oceanside filed a lawsuit against Swanson over the property.

Within a few months, the city attorney settled – but conditions in the complex haven’t improved.

Annie Perrigo, a deputy city attorney who has been monitoring the property, said the owner made some improvements after the settlement but the same issues crept back.

The property is still the subject of code complaints, failed Section 8 inspections and police calls.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

“At one point, we were having a code inspection every single week,” Perrigo said. “So everything at that time was good. When the city was really focused on it, for that first year, they were doing what they were supposed to. But then those same problems that we thought had been addressed were re-occurring. It’s still a problem for the city. There is too much crime activity.”

The city stopped the regular inspections for several reasons. Perrigo said the property seemed to be improving and, in general, code enforcement in Oceanside is a reactive department because it doesn’t have the staff or funding for continued visits.

The California Health and Safety Code identifies a long list of hazards that can potentially endanger tenants’ health, safety or welfare and make a building or rental unit “substandard.” They range from lacking electricity, insect infestations and mold in units to the accumulation of weeds and trash in the common areas of a property. State law gives local code enforcement the power to do many things to fix the situation, from issuing fines to taking legal action against the property owner.

Perrigo said she is gathering evidence for a nuisance case, to try to pressure the owner of 415 Grant St. into changing the way the property is operated.

“It’s my hope that we can avoid legal action and avoid spending taxpayer dollars and reach some agreement,” she said.

The property has been the subject of many code enforcement complaints compared with the rest of Oceanside since the 1980s, according to the city’s 2013 complaint. These include plumbing problems, residents living in garbage, rotting stairs, broken windows, flooded apartments, cockroach and mice infestations, overcrowded units, overflowing dumpsters, gas leaks and lack of smoke alarms.

Swanson purchased the property in early 2012.

Shortly after, in April 2012, city employees inspected the building exterior and common areas, and were approached by numerous tenants requesting inspections of the substandard conditions in their apartments. As staff tried to inspect the units, according to the lawsuit documents, they received a call from Swanson saying they were trespassing and must leave the property.

Since code enforcement workers had no warrant nor the permission of the property owner, they had to leave.

Many residents in the complex rely on Section 8 vouchers, a federal housing program that subsidizes rent for low-income residents. In the last two years, the property has also failed several Section 8 inspections, including in Hebel’s apartment. Once it failed because of electricity issues in the living room and because the windows were broken.

“They only do things when they have to,” Hebel said. “For months we went without electricity. We only got action when the Section 8 lady came out.”

Substandard living conditions aren’t the only complaints with the property. Between 2014 and this July, Oceanside police received 594 calls from the property, for everything ranging from robberies, assaults and rapes to calls identifying suspects for other crimes on the property or requesting response to overdoses. Oceanside police say the area has been a hotspot for gang activity.

In comparison, Oceanside Shores, a neighboring complex with 71 units, had only 94 calls during the same period.

In 2012 alone, there were 350 police calls to 415 Grant St.

‘I’m Going Above and Beyond’

Swanson maintains the city’s 2013 lawsuit against him was unjust. He said he inherited the property in 2012 with a lot of bad conditions in place. Since then, he said he’s put in $250,000 worth of improvements, including better lighting on the property and installing security cameras.

“I’m doing my job, I’m going above and beyond what any property manager should be required to do,” he said. “You’re not required to put up video cameras, you’re not required to take Section 8 tenants.”

Swanson said code compliance complaints aren’t always valid.

“Just because they come doesn’t mean there’s a real problem,” he said.

He said he fixes issues tenants bring to his attention, and does biannual inspections for problems no one tells him about.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Swanson said he can’t be blamed for any heightened criminal activity.

“We don’t have any active gang members as tenants, we haven’t for several years,” Swanson said. “We have security cameras, which most of the neighbors don’t. We have excellent outdoor lighting, even better than the city street. We are not the policer of criminal activity in the city of Oceanside.”

He also took issue with the city using calls to the police department as a metric for the quality of his property. The high volume of calls could mean his tenants are engaged, or that a few tenants frequently call.

The city attorney’s office said it agreed to settle with Swanson in 2012 because he had recently bought the property and seemed willing to voluntarily agree to clean it up.

Some of the conditions of the settlement included installing better lighting and getting rid of the former on-site property manager.

But the city failed to enforce its settlement.

A Settlement Without Teeth

In 2014, a year after the settlement, Swanson sent the city a letter, laying out how he had fulfilled its requirements.

Perrigo, who was brought on after the initial settlement, sent a letter in response disagreeing.

“The City and, in particular, the Oceanside Police Department have gone above and beyond in an effort to help remediate the gang and crime problems at this property – to the degree that they have even provided their cell phone numbers so that direct, timely contact can be made,” read Perrigo’s letter. “However, without even a minimal level of cooperation from your on-site property manager, this property will continue to remain a nuisance. While we do recognize that great strides have been made with regard to the other items in the Agreement, unfortunately serious issues remain.”

Despite the city’s stance that Swanson hadn’t held up his side of the settlement, Perrigo struck a new deal with him, which replaced the previous settlement. The amended agreement dropped most of the requirements to clean up the property – like improved lighting, replacing windows and keeping trash off the common spaces of the property – and instead focused on getting rid of the on-site manager at the time, who they blamed for many of the property’s problems.

The employee continues to work for Swanson, but no longer lives on that particular property and has a different position.

Perrigo said it wasn’t until a couple of months ago the city realized the employee still worked for Swanson. She acknowledges the previous settlement doesn’t have any teeth. She can’t expect a judge to fire someone from their job.

Although Swanson is no longer legally bound by the city under the second settlement agreement to keep up with things like cameras and lighting, Perrigo said these things continue to be an issue.

A code enforcement report from June 2016 said that several lights in the property still weren’t working and that the security cameras were “inoperable.”

After a shooting and stabbing incident in June, the city had to seize the entire computer system for the security cameras just to view the footage, Perrigo said.

Perrigo said it wasn’t the first time an employee at the property hadn’t cooperated after a crime.

Often, she said, when police are trying to file reports on break-ins and other crimes, employees on the property would refuse to cooperate.

Swanson disputes this. He says his employees cooperated fully after the June event, and acknowledged only a couple of instances lacking cooperation that happened years ago. He even said that there were instances where he wanted the city to prosecute crimes on the property and they never did.

Despite Swanson’s defense of his property, the city continues to say it’s a problem property with serious public safety issues. But even though it continues to say this, the city has yet to be successful in actually doing anything.

“They did the bare minimum to comply with the agreement for a while and then they started backsliding,” Perrigo said. “There wasn’t much as far as enforcement in court that we could do. So now we’re evaluating other enforcement options, because obviously the settlements didn’t work.”

The other settlement agreements really depended on Swanson’s cooperation, she said.

“You know you have this bad property, but the difficulty is compiling enough evidence against them to convince a court to give you the relief that you’re seeking.”

Perrigo said it’s difficult for the city to take certain steps to address its issues with the property. The city risks the housing of a lot of mainly low-income tenants, many of whom use housing vouchers and will struggle to find a new place to rent with them.

“That burden is extremely high on a property where there are hundreds of people who could potentially lose their home,” she said. “If you’re going to go after the property, you would have to address head-on with the court how you would handle the potential displacement of hundreds of innocent tenants.”

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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