Tioga apartment residents told to pay up or get out

Many of them say notices were wrongly issued

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comApril 9, 2013 

— Residents of the historic Tioga apartment building in Merced say management has threatened to evict them, falsely accusing tenants of owing security deposits and back rent.

The claims by residents come amid accusations by the apartment building's management company that an employee embezzled money from the company.

Residents such as George LaFrance II, 25, said the notices were unexpected. He was one of about a dozen residents who say they've unfairly received what's known as a "three-day, pay-or-quit" notice. "I felt like I was getting punched in the gut," said LaFrance, a four-year resident. "I'm a good tenant. How can I live somewhere so long, and now they're trying to kick us out?"

La France's notice, dated March 26, demanded payment of $1,440.50 in back rent and late fees. He denies owing the money.

The notice -- issued by Fresno-based Manco Abbott Real Estate Management -- says the tenant has three days to pay the amount or face eviction and potential legal action. It doesn't appear that any of the tenants who received the recently posted notices have been evicted from the Tioga.

The company declined to be interviewed, but submitted this statement:

"Manco Abbott acknowledges an ongoing investigation in regards to the Tioga Apartments. In line with the company's policies and procedures, if any resident has concerns with their rental agreement and status they are able and encouraged to reach out direct to Manco Abbott at (559) 256-4026 to work towards a resolve."

It's important for tenants to know their rights when they receive notices such as these, said Juancarlos Jauregui, staff attorney with Central California Legal Services in Merced.

"Tenants often think that they have to be out in three days, but it's not like there's a process that has to happen after that," he said. "That's something landlords do to scare tenants."

Resident Jennifer Baker, 57, was among the frustrated and nervous. Baker received the same notice, hers demanding $5,822.50 in back rent and late fees. "I'm not going to give up my apartment, and I'm not in the wrong here," said Baker. "I've paid my rent every month and on time."

Baker said she talked to management on the phone about a week ago, and was asked if she was willing to give up her apartment. She declined. "If I owe that much money, why, just four months ago, would I be doing another year's lease?" the three-year resident said. "It doesn't make any sense."

New resident Martin Haro, 37, received a notice, his demanding payment of $300 for a safety deposit. "They were saying we didn't pay our full deposit," he said. "We were like, 'Wait a minute, we've already given you guys receipts.' "

Haro said that the rental agreement the company has on record shows that his rent is higher than the original contract he agreed to. "She brought up our ledger and it didn't even match the one I had signed," he said. "I was shaking; I was so mad. I felt like I was being harassed."

La France claims there's a discrepancy with the contract he signed and the one management has on file. "I can't trust this place," he said. "I'm sitting here waiting to find out if I'm getting evicted."

A recent scandal involving a former Tioga employee and the notices could be linked, according to tenants. The same day the notices were posted, Manco Abbott filed an online report with the Merced Police Department, claiming that a former employee had embezzled $39,000 from the company.

There's been no answer from the Tioga's management about whether the allegedly embezzled funds are directly tied to the notices residents received. Merced police said they're investigating the case, although no suspects have been arrested and no charges have been filed by the Merced County District Attorney's Office.

The residents, however, said the connection seems obvious. Tenant John Flores, 29, spoke directly to Tioga management after he received a notice saying he owed $200 for an unpaid security deposit.

"They pretty much said, 'Well, you owe us this money; we're going to find out exactly where it came from,'" he said. "And I said, 'Well, you know where it came from. Your (employee) just got fired for embezzlement. Of course that's were the money went."

Haro said he confronted Tioga management. "I said, 'You need to start going after the person who's responsible for this loss of money. Not these tenants.' We are doing what we're supposed to be doing, paying our rent on time," he said.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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