Tenants evicted from complex linked to Atwater politician

Elizabeth Rinehart, 51 (right) and Andy Miller, 53, pack up as they move out of their unit at the Olive Tree Apartments in Winton Friday. (4-25-14)
Elizabeth Rinehart, 51 (right) and Andy Miller, 53, pack up as they move out of their unit at the Olive Tree Apartments in Winton Friday. (4-25-14) bahbeck@mercedsunstar.com

Dozens of tenants were evicted from an apartment complex linked to an Atwater politician after the property owners failed to pay a water bill, which forced residents to live in unsanitary conditions after water to the property was disconnected.

The Olive Tree Apartments on California Street in Winton were the subject of a multi-agency effort to vacate residents last month, which included the Sheriff’s Department, Merced County Environmental Health Services, Children’s Protective Services and the county Fire Department.

People living inside 11 units were evicted, although it’s unclear how many individuals were affected. The apartment complex contains 42 units.

Officials estimate the owners owe the Winton Water & Sanitary District more than $10,000 for a delinquent water bill. The property is now in foreclosure. Atwater Mayor Pro Tem Craig Mooneyham was identified by a Bay Area real estate investor as a co-owner.

Mooneyham has denied any involvement, but residents at the Winton complex and a Merced County supervisor confirmed hearing about his connection to the property.

“I’ve been consistently told that he (Mooneyham) is one of the owners, though I’ve not personally verified it,” District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said. The matter was brought to her attention in April at a Winton Municipal Advisory Council meeting, Kelsey said.

Real estate records show the foreclosed building is scheduled for sale on May 27 for a little more than $1 million.

The property is being purchased by Rajinder Sharma, a Fremont real estate investor who identified Mooneyham as a co-owner. “I called him (Mooneyham) a few times, but he was reluctant to talk to me,” Sharma said, “and he never called me back.”

Public records show the property is owned by a limited liability company, Central Valley Multi-Family Winton 42. The LLC was formed in Delaware on Sept. 29, 2011, according to public records.

It’s unclear if Mooneyham is a member of the LLC. A representative from the Delaware Division of Corporations said the owners of the LLC, also called members, did not disclose their names on the company’s documents, which is not required by Delaware state law. In California, members of an LLC must disclose at least one person’s name.

Records also indicate the LLC is not in good standing after failing to pay its annual taxes on time.

The owners used a Delaware service provider, The Company Corporation, to receive and handle the LLC’s legal documents.

“Basically our address is where those legal documents are sent, and we forward them to the company on their behalf,” said Kent Priestley, public relations manager for the Delaware firm. Priestley declined to disclose the name or address of the owners, citing customer privacy policies.

Public records state the address of record as 101 Barnhart Circle in Sacramento, a home address belonging to Suneet Singal’s Living Trust. Singal is one of Mooneyham’s business partners.

Mooneyham’s name also came up two weeks ago when an apartment manager told the Sun-Star she gave keys to Mooneyham after residents moved out.

“I gave keys to him,” said Barbie Sansom, who helped manage the apartments. She is also the manager of Sunset Self Storage on Winton Way, which is owned by Singal. “I forwarded them to Mr. Mooneyham.”

Sansom said Mooneyham handles payroll for the self-storage center just a few blocks away from the apartment complex. She denied being the apartment’s manager, but several residents reported paying rent to her.

“All I did was take applications and forward them to the owner,” she said.

In a telephone interview with the Sun-Star, Mooneyham denied past or present ownership of the Olive Tree Apartments but could not explain why he was given keys to the units.

“I really don’t like where this is going,” Mooneyham said before hanging up. “I’m not the co-owner of this property.”

However, Sharma said Singal identified Mooneyham as a partner in conversations about the apartments. Sharma said the owners were not paying the mortgage, property taxes or utilities, such as water.

Mooneyham, who has been on the Atwater City Council for four years, is up for re-election in November.

Public officials are required by law to report owned property in the state of California, except their personal residence, on a Form 700 document. Mooneyham’s filings over the past four years show he did not report the Winton property.

Jay Wierenga, a spokesman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, declined comment on this specific case, but said public officials generally must report all income and economic interests.

Water district to blame?

Singal, a Sacramento-based real estate developer, said he is in talks with Mooneyham and other Atwater officials for development projects such as a hotel and gas stations. He called Mooneyham a friend.

Singal said one of his companies, which he declined to name, owned the Olive Tree Apartments for about nine months in 2012 and 2013. He said the complex was “mismanaged” and people living there, mostly squatters, refused to pay rent for years.

“Unfortunately, you had people that were not willing to cooperate,” he said.

Singal, who attended at least one Winton Water & Sanitary District meeting, blamed district officials for not lowering the property’s water bill.

“Winton Water would not reduce their rate on the property, even though there were numerous units that were vacant,” Singal said. “It was very frustrating. We were out there trying to help people out and no one wanted to help out.”

The apartment complex’s water bill has been delinquent for more than a year, prompting the water to be shut off several times, according to officials from the sanitary district.

“This was a continuing problem and there was a huge amount of money owed,” said officer supervisor Brenda Wey. “We couldn’t allow that to continue to go on and write it off. We have to treat all ratepayers the same.”

For the past six months, district officials would turn the water off only to have someone at the apartment complex tamper with the equipment and turn it back on.

“The reason we would shut the water off is because of nonpayment, but someone at the apartment complex was going back out there and turning it on,” Wey said. “Somebody knew how to get the right equipment to turn the water back on.”

The ongoing problems at the Olive Tree Apartments were the subject of resident complaints at Winton Municipal Advisory Council meetings, said committee member Carol Bonin.

“It became a health problem because there was no water,” said Bonin, a longtime Winton resident. “We knew there were children living there and we didn’t want them being taken away from their parents because of those conditions.”

Bonin said the committee coordinated with the Sheriff’s Department and other county agencies to serve notices to vacate to residents on April 16. Residents were told to move out no later than noon on April 21, according to a letter obtained by the Sun-Star.

The Merced County Sheriff’s Department assisted county officials when they served notices to vacate on April 16. The unpaid water bill was estimated at $15,000, according to a Sheriff’s Department report.

Merced County’s Department of Public Health declared the units “substandard and unfit for human habitation” on April 22 and posted “do not enter, unsafe to occupy” signs on doors.

Residents cannot move back into their homes until the violations have been corrected and the county conducts a reinspection, said Vicki Jones, supervising environmental health specialist.

Jones said the people living inside all 11 vacated units qualified for a relocation benefit, which averaged about $1,700. The property owners have 10 days after the order to vacate is mailed to pay the benefits to tenants.

‘Who do you turn to?’

Resident Elizabeth Rinehart said she is still waiting for her relocation benefit. The 51-year-old was moving her belongings into a truck two weeks ago.

Rinehart and her boyfriend were among the last tenants at the apartment complex, still struggling to pack up and leave.

“We were in shock. Where are we going to go?” Rinehart said. “I’ve been sleeping in the car. I don’t have any family here, so we’re stuck.”

Rinehart’s boyfriend, Andy Miller, said they might end up staying in a motel. “I don’t know what else to do,” said Miller, 53.

The couple said the property owners never introduced themselves and kept their identities private. The pair have lived in the apartments since October 2012 and said they usually paid their monthly $450 rent to Barbie Sansom.

Rinehart said she asked the sanitary district to switch the bill to the tenants’ names but was told that could not be done.

“It was helplessness,” she said. “Who do you turn to?”

Another resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had heard Mooneyham co-owned the apartments, but he never saw him on the site.

Susan Bouscaren, committee member of the local Tenants Together, a statewide tenants rights organization, said the situation at the Olive Tree Apartments was brought to her attention last month.

Bouscaren subsequently visited the apartments to speak with remaining residents.

“In these types of situations, we try to organize the tenants to get information and updates on the situation,” Bouscaren said. “We try to figure out what went wrong and what the tenants want out of it.”

Bouscaren said the organization, which also protested unsanitary conditions at the historic Tioga Apartments in Merced, will help ensure residents receive their relocation benefits.

While residents scramble to figure out their next move, the building’s next owner said he has plans to clean up the units and rehabilitate the complex.

“You’ll see under my ownership things will start changing,” Sharma said. “I will fix up the property, one apartment at a time. Now I’m waiting until I get my ownership, and I will fix the problems.”

Displaced residents of the Olive Tree Apartments who didn’t receive a relocation benefit can call Central California Legal Services in Merced at (209) 723-5466, county officials said.