Some of Alfonso Bustamante’s Tenants Say His Historic Santa Ana Apartments Leave Them Cold

Reaching historic lows
Russ Roca

The Cold Shoulder
Some of Alfonso Bustamante's tenants say life in his historic Santa Ana apartments gives them the shivers

In a charming historic building in Santa Ana lives a woman we'll call Jackie—which is not her real name because she's afraid she'll be evicted for talking to the press. She keeps her chips, crackers and cereal in the refrigerator, which is set to the coldest temperature. "The cockroaches have come into the fridge, but they freeze," she says, with a note of triumph. Jackie sleeps with the lights on because the cockroach infestation in her snug one-bedroom unit has become unbearable.

When she moved in last September, she was told by Investors' Property Services, the Foothill Ranch-based company that manages the 14 units, that the heating and the exposed electrical wires in her apartment would be fixed. So far, all of the problems have been ignored, she says.

Two of the owners of this cluster of bright crimson, green and orange buildings at Buffalo Street and North Broadway are Santa Ana child psychologist Alfonso Bustamante and his wife, Patricia. Alfonso's brother, Carlos, is a Santa Ana City Council member, assistant director for Planning & Development Services for the county, and a member of the state's Fair Employment and Housing Commission. Alfonso sits on the Historical Resources Commission; last year, he had both his rambling bright-yellow Victorian Santa Ana home and the buildings on Broadway, named the Patricia Apartments, added to the Santa Ana Register of Historical Properties.

"I care about the preservation of the city, and that's why I invest in it," he says. But some of his tenants say life in the historic buildings is a bit too old-fashioned. "We've all been using our stoves for heating," says Andrea, one of Jackie's neighbors, who is also afraid to use her real name. It's a brisk morning in late January, and her apartment is only a little warmer than the temperature outside. She's been waiting for heat for more than a year and a half. Their neighbor Milo Mariani also uses his stove for heating. The closest tenants ever got to real heat was last summer, when the management company drilled fist-sized holes into the walls of the units and installed air conditioning and heating units. But the installation was never completed, and the holes are still there.

The units will eventually be fully installed, says Bustamante, and are part of an improvement plan that has included a complete gas-line overhaul and the repainting of the buildings. He says he and his partners have spent approximately $200,000 on the improvements since they bought the building for $1.6 million in 2005. "I haven't made a single cent off of this building," he says.

Bustamante hired the management company soon after purchasing the building and stays completely out of the daily operations regarding tenants and complaints. "I'm a child psychologist; I don't know anything about this stuff—that's why I hired them," he says. Yet Bustamante has kept himself busy outside his psychology work: He owns two other rental properties, one in Santa Ana and one in Long Beach; has a condo in San Diego; and is a co-founder and co-director of the recently opened Santa Ana Business Bank (which, coincidentally, is located in the same building as the Weekly office). He gauges whether the management company is doing a good job or not by looking at turnover, which he says has been low during the past three years. "I'm very confident about my management company," he says.

Former tenant Jonathan Garcia says he moved his family out in late December after more than two years without heat, a persistent cockroach problem and unaddressed complaints.

"I couldn't take it anymore," Garcia says. "I have a baby son. One day, my kid was sick, my wife was cold, and I packed my stuff up and left." Garcia, who works for the Santa Ana Public Works Agency, submitted written and verbal requests to the management company over a two-year period. Garcia says he confronted Bustamante about six months into his occupancy when Bustamante was visiting the property. "He was fully aware of the problem," Garcia says.

Bustamante says he doesn't recall a conversation with Garcia. Property supervisor Rita Aguila says the company provides portable heaters at no cost if the older ones don't work. "It's up to tenants to make the requests," she says. She says she has no record of Garcia's complaints and that he was evicted in January for not paying his rent. Every unit in the apartment has heat, she says—which is contrary to what the Weekly found during visits to several units.

Garcia was eventually told to buy a space heater by a former building supervisor. "I had already bought four space heaters for the apartment, but they weren't warm enough in the winter," he says. He tried to report Bustamante to the city, but he was ushered from department to department without luck. "Just because his brother is a city council member doesn't mean he should get special privileges," says Garcia of Bustamante's ties. He finally went to the code-enforcement division in December 2007. After Garcia's unit was inspected, Bustamante was issued a citation and given 30 days to fix the heat. "This is the first I've ever heard of any heating complaints," Bustamante says of the letter he received from code enforcement.

Garcia gave notice and left before the problem was fixed and is now seeking assistance from legal aid to try to recover his deposit, which he says the management company is withholding.

Other tenants in the building say they were aware of Garcia's requests and had also sent e-mails and letters, like he did, which rarely, if ever, elicited a response.

Lisa Russell recently moved out because the patches of mold creeping down her wet, bulging bathroom walls, plainly visible during a visit to her unit in late January, were never dealt with, despite her repeated complaints. When she arrived in late 2006, she was told her heating system would be repaired before winter, but it never was. Russell says the requests she included with her rent check were never heeded. "They certainly received the checks and cashed them," she says.

Aguila again denies any record of requests for maintenance. "There's no mold in that unit," she declares. Some of Bustamante's tenants say they aren't satisfied with his absence, given his prominence in the city.

"It's his property, his business," says Andrea. "You're not going to tell me he doesn't know how things get done."

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