6 South Lake Tahoe families searching for homes after unsafe apartment building condemned
December 15, 2018
Six South Lake Tahoe families are in need of a place to live after a city inspection found squalid and unsafe conditions at an apartment building in the Bijou neighborhood.
The tenants at 3546 Spruce Ave., have until noon Monday to vacate the building, at which point it will be condemned. Though intended to prevent a disaster — such as a catastrophic fire — from happening, the decision on short notice has created a difficult situation for those being forced to leave.
"I don't know what to do," said Juan Ruiz, a father of three and one of the families who will be without a place to live come Monday. "I've got my hands tied."
At the heart of the issue, according to the city, is an absent owner who did not invest in his property, failed to address numerous complaints and attempted to skirt building codes intended to keep tenants safe.
“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.”
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And the owner had plenty of opportunities to address those concerns. City officials said they have been working with Bay Area-resident Leonard Lee since he purchased the building in 2016.
The first inspection under Lee's ownership came in October 2017, and it revealed multiple violations. Those included malfunctioning appliances and missing smoke detectors.
Lee was asked to address those issues, but failed to do so, according to the city. Instead he started un-permitted construction on the building. He then obtained a permit after being ordered to by the city, but continued with construction outside the scope of the permit.
The city sent notice to Lee for an annual inspection on Nov. 5. Lee did not show up and later told the city he never received the notice.
A new inspection date was set for Nov. 14. When officials arrived on site for the inspection they learned Lee failed to notice the tenants, postponing the inspection again.
Lee was asked to pay a re-inspection fee and cited for trash and unregistered cars in the parking lot. He was given 30 days to address the blight.
The annual inspection finally occurred on Dec. 12. Inspectors found unsafe apartments in disrepair. The building was infested with insects and rodents, according to the city.
The building failed a fire safety inspection. There were zero fire extinguishers, two working smoke detectors out of a total of 10 units, zero working carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide detectors, and improper electrical wiring, including the use of extension cords as permanent wiring in some cases. Holes were drilled in the fire separations, which are intended to stop a fire from spreading unit to unit.
The building is on “fire watch,” meaning Lee has to pay to have the building monitored every 15 minutes.
"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."
The Tribune was unable to contact Lee, who listed Foster City as his place of residence in business filings with the state. A representative at a San Francisco-based law firm representing Lee said on Friday he would notify their client of the Tribune's inquiry.
Ruiz is mad the eviction is happening now, about one week before Christmas, when the problems are not new. A tenant of 18 years, he said the building has been neglected for the last five years.
"They didn't pay much attention," Ruiz said of the building's owners. "They just wanted to get their rent."
The city said it is doing everything it can to help the tenants. That includes mandating Lee to pay five of the families two months fair-market rent, as defined by the state, and $90 for utilities. Those checks went out Friday morning, according to Fiore.
The sixth family was ineligible for the assistance due to a dispute with the landlord. The city is working with the South Lake Tahoe Family Resource Center and Tahoe Magic to help the family find housing.
"We care about the people of South Lake Tahoe, and we expect the people who provide housing here to do the same and prove it by making those places safe and comfortable to live in," Fiore said.
The city has provided the displaced families with lists of rental agencies and short-term housing options, Fiore said.
The tenants, however, are learning the harsh reality of Tahoe's housing market.
"The rents are super high right now," Ruiz said.
Anyone who would like to help any of the displaced families can contact the South Lake Tahoe Family Resource Center.
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