Zaya Aziz is frustrated.
For more than two years he’s been paying a hefty price for the city’s inability to deal with the biggest health and safety issue downtown — the fire damaged Sycamore Arms efficiency apartments at Yosemite and Sycamore avenues.
The homeless and druggies attracted to the two-story complex that burned in November 2014 is hurting his tenants, discouraged him from investing more in the property by adding a second story, and chased away a potential buyer for his building next door to the two-story fire damaged structure.
“I don’t understand how the police don’t see the problems,” Aziz said.
He said during the Pumpkin Fair weekend a fairly large number of vagrants were seen entering and exiting the building.
His tenants have been targeted numerous times.
The cigarette store one month saw their power bill soar from $400 to $700. When they looked to find the cause, they discovered the homeless living in the boarded up Sycamore Arms building had illegally tapped into power sources.
“They were running heaters to keep warm,” Aziz said.
It’s a problem that’s been echoed by building owners throughout downtown. American Legion Post 249 Commander Bob Gonzales reported the Legion Post’s power bill more than doubled as well. The culprits were the homeless plugging in all sorts of electronic items from smartphones to space heaters in an outside outlet when they bedded down for the night.
His other tenant — a baby nutrition shop — has had their skylight broken into twice and items stolen.
Aziz — who also owns other property including in Modesto and San Jose — said that when there are problems in other cities the police response is more effective.
“In San Jose there was a homeless woman screaming in front and we called the police,” Aziz said.
He noted the police responded, took her away, and the woman never returned.
In Manteca that has not been his experience.
“Nothing happens in Manteca,” Aziz said after police respond.
Manteca Police Chief Jodie Estarziau said officers have been instructed to do additional patrolling in the area and to pay particular attention to the Sycamore Arms structure whose owner has a no trespass letter on file with the department.
“The officers will walk around the building to see if a door is open or if some forcible entry was made,” the chief said.
If they find no evidence of entry, police can’t legally enter the building even with the no trespass letter. That doesn’t mean someone didn’t hop the cinder block wall along the alley or gain access the second floor via a neighboring roof top.
Estarziau said officers are not going to scale a cinder block wall to check for vagrants that may have breached the premises.
The dynamics change somewhat if responding officers talk to a reporting party that actually saw someone enter the structure.
Aziz did say the city was efficient at trying to ding him for fines. At one point last year he was told he owed almost $800 in fines for false alarms charges that a previous tenant incurred that he was unaware of. After the tenant moved out, he got a bill for the city fines. Aziz enlisted the help of Manteca merchant and downtown advocate Brenda Franklin to help him fight city hall. He ended up prevailing.
Aziz said he wished the city was as efficient at dealing with the quality of life crimes that are plaguing downtown as they are at trying to generate revenue.
Aziz bought the building a decade ago.
While the city likes to point to absentee landlords, Aziz lives out of town but he maintains his property. He said, however, it is getting harder and harder given what he believes is the lack of willpower on the city to employ tools it can legally access to address public health and safety concerns.
He noted if he knew this was how the city would be enforcing its property upkeep rules and city ordinances regarding illegal behavior he wouldn’t have invested in Manteca 10 years ago.
Aziz noted the problems proceeded the fire. Gangs had chased off the apartment complex manager making it impossible to keep staff. Then a seedy element took over squeezing out law abiding tenants. The previous owner closed the apartment operation and boarded the building. It was then that homeless and/or druggies started breaking in and trashing the interior. After it became an illegal flophouse is when the fire broke out.
On Thursday afternoon a quick inspection of the exterior of Sycamore Arms revealed new boards — actually planks — hammered across door windows plywood covered windows where the homeless had been prying them off and entering the building on a routine basis according to Franklin and two other nearby merchants that declined to be identified.
Franklin noted the manner in which the door is boarded over flies in the face of city rules that were adopted during the housing crisis on the legal way to secure and board long-term vacant or abandoned buildings so as not to plant the seeds for blight.
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