Tenants get together and fight slumlord

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STOCKTON, Calif. - Doyle Gardens sounds like it might be a pleasant apartment complex, where residents stroll down walkways between flowerbeds surrounded by greenery. Its name is a lie.

In this large apartment complex in downtown Stockton the residents, mostly poor and working-class African American families, instead live with terrible conditions. Patricia Norman points to the trash outside her door. Yolanda Jackson's sink is on its last legs, and the insulation on the door of her refrigerator can't keep the cold locked inside. Tomoro Hooper sits disconsolately beneath the broken towel racks of his bathroom, while his grandmother, Patricia Perkins, stares at the cracks in the linoleum.

In Laronda Trishell's apartment the bathroom is also falling apart. One of the drawers in her kitchen has a bottom that doesn't slide. If she forgets when she pulls it out, all her utensils wind up on the floor.

Vicky Robinson used to live in the complex too. She still feels a commitment to the friends she made there, and today helps them get organized to force the landlord to fix the many problems. Some have even complained of bedbug and cockroach infestations. Robinson points to a hole in a window made by a bullet. Instead of replacing the glass, though, a plywood sheet sits in the frame behind to broken pane. Robinson meets with tenants around a table in the courtyard, to talk about these and other defects. 

Disabled resident Ricky Cobb reads a notice taped to his door by the landlord, so nervous now about the organizing that people from the manager's office keep track of the meetings and visitors. This fall the tension came to a head, when 20 current and former tenants filed a suit against George Garcia and Starr Property Management. The management firm says it no longer handles the Doyle Gardens property for Garcia, who operates a local bail bond company and owns the complex.

While conditions at Doyle Gardens seem extreme, they reflect the high level of poverty in the San Joaquin Valley, especially among African American families. According to a report by Sarah Bohn of the Public Policy Institute of California, Central Valley counties around Fresno (Merced, Tulare, Kings, Kern, and San Joaquin) were among the poorest, with poverty rates in excess of 20 percent. Stockton is the largest city in San Joaquin County, where 22 percent of the people live below the poverty line. In California as a whole, Bohn says, African Americans have a poverty rate of 22.1 percent.

The 35,000 African Americans living in Stockton make up 12 percent of its population. With a rental vacancy rate of 9.4 percent, you'd think people might find another place to live. But many tenants are trapped in Doyle Gardens by the restrictions on the Section 8 subsidies, for which they qualify because of their extremely low incomes. In effect, housing authorities are acting as Garcia's enablers by allowing him to continue to collect the subsidy while making few, if any repairs.

Even city code enforcers seem lackadaisical. Richard Dean, program manager for code enforcement, told the Stockton Record after the suit was filed that Garcia is "working pretty well with us," that he has a "management plan" and has made changes. "At this point, we're comfortable we're heading in the right direction," Dean told the Record. Garcia called the suit a "shakedown."

Many residents are clients of California Rural Legal Assistance, which is helping them to sue Garcia. "We believe the housing conditions to be substandard," explained Marcela Diaz, the directing attorney in CRLA's Stockton office.

Photo: David Bacon