On a hot Friday evening in late August, Jennifer Bernal and Jamila DeCarli sit at the kitchen table in their 998-square-foot home on the rim of Fox Canyon in City Heights. Their two small dogs rest on the floor nearby, as does the 70-pound husky they’re dog-sitting. A red-eared slider turtle named Sushi floats in a murky tank near the window.
Bernal, the more streetwise of the two, admonishes her girlfriend DeCarli for having purchased this house, for which she paid $345,000 in 2006. Had they known each other then, Bernal says she would have talked DeCarli out of buying on this street.
“To tell the truth, I was just excited that I owned a house. I didn’t care where it was,” DeCarli admits. “I was excited about living in a diverse neighborhood. I was excited to get out from under the thumb of my snotty HOA in my condo-setting in Hillcrest.”
When I ask if she’d make the same decision today, DeCarli says, “Move here? Hell, no.”
“But do we convince nice people to move in here?” Bernal says of the house for sale next door. “Heck, yes. I tell them, ‘It’s not that bad.’ I lie. I totally lie. Because we want more nice people to move in here.”
The two women are hopeful that the neighborhood is changing for the better — especially since DeCarli is upside-down on her mortgage and has decided to stick it out.
“I’ve been living in San Diego since 1998,” Bernal says. “I’ve seen this transition moving east on University Avenue, from Hillcrest to North Park to Normal Heights, and I’m, like, ‘Keep moving this way! Keep moving toward City Heights!’”
Most of the houses on Lantana Drive are set close to the road, their yards not much bigger than the sidewalk squares they butt up against. The setting is intimate. Before the neighbors next door moved out, it was not uncommon for Bernal and DeCarli to hear them copulating — exuberantly. Today, in their tiny living room, the women have two fans and a standing air conditioner — all on high settings. “Our coping mechanism,” DeCarli explains. “To drown out the noise [of the neighbors].”
The loud copulating couple no longer lives next door, but neither were they the worst of what DeCarli, Bernal, and other neighbors have endured. Nearby, at 4790 and 4802 Lantana Drive, stand two apartment buildings, four and six units, respectively. Both were bought six years ago by JB Trust, the living trust of an elderly couple. The buildings were declared a “public nuisance property” by the Fox Canyon Neighborhood Association, which filed a suit in small claims court against the trust last January. The suit was one of many steps the association took toward addressing the issues the properties posed to the neighborhood. In July 2010, after three years of collecting evidence, documenting “nuisance effects,” and attempting to negotiate with the buildings’ owners, association president Jose Lopez sent the owners a demand letter.
The letter rebuked the property owners for “poor or non-existent property management skills” as evidenced by “blight and dilapidation” and “nuisance tenants.”
“Loud and profanity-ridden angry expressions and commands given to adults and children directly or at a distance from the balconies are the norm in your property. . . ,” the letter read.
According to Lopez, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1993 and who founded the association in 1997, the properties’ previous owners kept the apartments in good shape before they sold them in 2005.
“Within three months after the new owners took possession,” Lopez says, “the good tenants that were still there moved out. Because what moved into the rest of the units was just yucky.”
Much of what Lopez knows about issues with the properties is secondhand. His house is located toward the quieter end of the street. But for four years, DeCarli and Bernal, like other neighbors closer to the buildings, have experienced the problems firsthand.
“You have things that happen, like a girlfriend stabbed her boyfriend in the gut and then ran down the street.”
That was about eight months ago.
“A week and a half ago, somebody tried to throw his girlfriend out the window,” DeCarli tells me in late August.
Then, there’s the litter, the children in the street, and the time a child’s fifth birthday party ended with “adults fighting, throwing bottles at each other” and people getting arrested, she adds.
According to the San Diego Police Department, officers have been dispatched to the two buildings a total of 134 times over the past two years — 42 times to 4790 Lantana and 92 times to 4802 Lantana. The ten units in the two buildings account for approximately 10 percent of the residences on Lantana Drive and 47 percent of the police visits.
Lopez says his purpose in documenting the problems and sending the letter was to get the owners to manage the buildings properly. When the demand letter yielded no response, Lopez filed the lawsuit.
Jake May, a real estate agent, is a friend of the elderly couple. He tells me that the wife died in June and the husband is in poor health. In early February, May says, the wife met with the Fox Canyon Association to resolve the issues in the lawsuit. Jose Lopez says that in early February he was told that the couple would sell the properties.
On August 17, the building at 4802 Lantana Drive was sold to the Muhe Family Trust. The other property is currently in escrow, according to May.
Lopez says he will show the new owners of 4802 Lantana the property’s documented history.
“The ideal situation would be a property that is well-managed according to code and the legality of rental law. And a landlord that is reactive,” Lopez says. “I’ve told the neighbors to continue to watch this property like a hawk. Over the next six months, we need to be very vigilant. If there is a leaf that moves in that apartment, we need to call the police.”
I speak to Dan Muhe in late October. He says he has not heard from the Fox Canyon Neighborhood Association thus far. He says, “We’re busy with inside and outside renovation. We’re trying to upgrade the building and have better tenants.”