Richard Russell makes no bones about it. He feels like an old man these days, though he won't say quite how old. The same goes for a lot of what Russell says about himself and his life and times. In his elliptical style, he'll give you a general outline, then leave you wondering about the rest. He says he's had his share of heart troubles. He'll tell you about a big farm somewhere in the Ozarks, where he's spending more and more of his time these days. He'll talk a little about his son, who he says is in the military's Special Forces, serving somewhere in the world, though he doesn't know where. "He doesn't tell me, and I don't ask. He's okay. He's still alive after 28 years. I talked to him yesterday at 11:00 at night. Doing fine. He was on the cover of Soldier of Fortune a couple of months back."
Russell can go on for hours about his opinion of the city's deal with John Moores for the downtown ballpark (a "downright scandal") and what he thinks about the city's housing-code inspectors ("not much") but hesitates when asked about why he sold off a big chunk of his holdings, mostly rundown residential units in Barrio Logan, to none other than Nicholas Inzunza, the new mayor of National City and brother of San Diego city councilman Ralph Inzunza. The brothers are confidantes and close political allies of state assemblyman Juan Vargas.
"I met him and I liked him. That's the end of the discussion" is how Russell put it a couple of months back, when a question about his ties to Inzunza was first posed over the phone. Russell says he doesn't list his properties for sale, just sells them to buyers who have somehow become part of his informal network, people who stop by and express an interest in buying or know somebody itching to buy some fixer-uppers at a reasonable price. If he takes a shine to them, they've got a chance, Russell says. "I own a lot of real estate down there, and the city is very vindictive, so I'm not saying anything more about any of that stuff."
He would much rather talk about what he says is his history in the neighborhood. He lives in La Jolla now but got his start in the barrio. "It's almost 50 years of history. I was raised in Logan Heights. I went to school there," he says, calling the sprawling district of mostly ramshackle old houses and apartments by its long-ago, original Anglo name. "I was the largest private owner of property down there at one time. I pretty much knew everybody in the neighborhood. When I started buying, the white man wouldn't even go down there. I couldn't get brokers to go down. They kept saying, 'I don't want to get killed, don't want to get shot to death,' things like that."
Warming to the topic, he remembers his battles in the early 1980s with a young Mexican-American female firebrand and an Anglo city councilwoman, both of whom he continues to hold in low regard. "Yeah, I'm plenty familiar with that neighborhood, all right. See? I'm familiar with the rezonings that went on, which I think fucked all the people who own property there. That's what I'm familiar with. The property owners listened to Rachel Ortiz and Lucy Killea, and they screwed themselves. I'll never understand those people as long as I live."
He says he knows who has influence and power in what he describes as the once-untouchable ghetto, now increasingly coveted by shadowy speculators who are betting that next year's opening of the nearby Padres ballpark and accompanying office and condo towers will shoot prices into the stratosphere. These days, the dirt of Logan Heights can be gold, Russell says, if one knows the right people. "The Ayyads are the biggest owners. Live up in Rancho Santa Fe somewhere. The mother is the power behind that family. I met them about ten years ago. They are very big, very powerful. They have a lot of crews out working. They have made a lot of money. Millions of dollars, as a matter of fact.
"I wouldn't sell to them. I didn't like their approach. They charge premium rents." Asked to elaborate, he changes the subject. "Owning rental property in California is not very pleasant. There are so goddamn many laws and rules and regulations, it's downright impossible. There are no laws controlling the tenant. The tenant can rape you ten times over, and you can't do a goddamn thing.
"If you were an old property owner, you would know the city is forcing the old property owners out. They are harassing the shit out of you because they want the tax base increased. So if you are forced to sell, you aren't going to give it away; rents are going to go up."
That's why, Russell says once more, he's getting out, pulling the plug, spending a lot more time in the Ozarks and out in Borrego Springs, where he owns a bunch of small lots he's been picking up at county tax auctions. "I was going to give this all to my kids. All this stuff I had put together over the years. Let them run it. Get their hands dirty. Be landlords. I thought we'd be one big happy property-owning family, like the Ayyads, only smaller.
"But they didn't want anything to do with it. Not interested. They're scattered all over now. Can't blame 'em. This is a lot of hard work. A lot of lifting and bending, screwing around with the city. They are all over your back, believe me, the city is. I had a couple of tough months. Had a heart operation. So I'm getting rid of my units. Slowly but surely. I physically can't do the work. When you are pushing 70, you can't do the same things you are doing when you are 50 or 55."