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Another apartment building in South Lake Tahoe in danger of being condemned

Blue Balcita
Tribune Contributor

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Although abnormal, recent events at two apartment buildings have revealed the squalid conditions some residents are forced to deal with and shined a light on the difficult decisions faced by city officials when trying to ensure the safety of tenants.

Residents at 3546 Spruce Ave., were forced to vacate the building Monday, Dec. 17, due to the city’s efforts to prevent disaster because of structural non-compliance by the property owner. City officials said the eviction was a direct result of the owner Leonard Lee failing to invest in the property’s upkeep and unwillingness to address the complaints presented to him.

City officials said they gave Lee ample opportunities to fix the problems in the building but he failed to comply. The first inspection came in October 2017 which revealed multiple code violations. After many delays, the city was able to conduct an annual inspection on Wednesday, Dec. 12. Inspectors discovered the apartments were unsafe and infested with rodents and insects.

The building also failed to pass a fire safety inspection. It was put on fire watch, which meant Lee had to have the building monitored every 15 minutes until all the tenants vacated.

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Lee, who listed Foster City as his place of residence in business filings with the state, did not respond to several inquiries seeking comment.

“City staff has worked diligently for two years trying to get Mr. Lee to make these places safe to live in,” Chris Fiore, communications manager for the city, said in a press release. “We’re not going to sit around and let someone, children and families, be put in harm’s way because of a landlord that isn’t holding up their end of the bargain.”

Since then, the city says Lee sent checks for two months fair-market rent, as defined by the state, and $90 for utilities to five of the six displaced families. The sixth family was not eligible because of a dispute with Lee.

Lee also has hired an architect to address the concerns that led to the building being condemned.

Despite the intentions of the city, some tenants felt the short notice of their eviction put them in a difficult situation.

“I don’t know what to do,” resident Juan Ruiz said prior to the eviction being executed on Monday, “I’ve got my hands tied.”

Residents at 3546 Spruce Ave., are not the only ones that have had to face the prospect of eviction this holiday season.

Tenants at 1224 Ski Run Blvd., also known as Bart’s Tahoe, recently received copies of notices sent to the property owner telling her to fix a host of non-compliance issues within a specific number of days. According to the city, they have had multiple issues with the property owner, Vernice Zanco, over the years.

The property will be inspected on Friday, Dec. 21, to see if Zanco has started complying with repairs requested by the city. City officials say that their goal is not to condemn the property but to work with Zanco to fix issues. If the building is found to be in continual non-compliance the tenants could be forced to vacate the building and it will be condemned.

“On Friday, I will do the 10-day inspection and the corrections that are non-structural need to be addressed within that 10 days,” explained South Lake Tahoe Building/Housing Inspector Harry Lamphere. “At the 30-day inspection we are looking for structural compliance. Also, we will need planned submittals of what is going to be done at the property. Those are not necessarily imminent life and safety issues that have to be addressed. If we go at 30 days and those things are not addressed then we will go to the 90-day. At the 90-day inspection we will ask that all corrections be completed. If the corrections haven’t been completed, or if they haven’t been in compliance with the 10- or 30-day inspection, then we are at the point where we will have to act and condemn the building due to health and safety reasons.”

According to the Property Manager of Bart’s Tahoe, Javier Torrez, Zanco has made no efforts to address issues of non-compliance in the past. City officials said they have been unable to reach Zanco. The Tribune was unable to reach Zanco for comment.

The inspections and prospect of eviction have not been well received by the tenants.

“I have lived in these apartments for a little over a year now,” said Daniel Gonzalez, a Lake Tahoe Community College student and tenant at Bart’s Tahoe. “The standards of living have been arguably atrocious. My family and I don’t have anywhere else to go. For the city to dispose not just people, but families — mothers, fathers, children, and elderly — with the stance being that they need only provide evidence to the results of their inspections with no feasible options of relocating them is beyond absurd.”

The severity of the problems at both the Spruce and Ski Run properties are far from the norm in South Lake Tahoe, according to Program Coordinator Lydia Zuniga.

And decisions concerning possible evictions are not made lightly, according to city officials. In cases where residents are evicted, such as the situation on Spruce where barriers meant to slow the spread of fire had been drilled into and dismantled, there is imminent danger to the tenants.

According to South Lake Tahoe Fire Safety Inspector Kris Rowlett, at the end of the day they are trying to prevent a situation like that of the Ghost Ship Fire, a deadly blaze that claimed 36 lives in Oakland in 2016.

“We want them to make it through another Christmas,” Rowlett said.

Attempts have been made to aid the tenants with finding legal resources, understanding their notices, and finding resources for relocation.

“We care about these people,” Fiore said. “If an owner can afford to own a place, the owner can afford to fix the place.”


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