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Mean Streets

streets
Janet Orsi

A rock and a hard place: Kathy Ferrell and her husband, Stan, manage two buildings in the Apple Valley neighborhood. She complains that life is growing more dangerous there.

They don't deliver pizza to Apple Valley Lane after dark. But that's the least of the worries for residents of Santa Rosa's most crime-ridden neighborhood

By Dylan Bennett

Bam-bam. Bam-bam-bam-bam. Two bursts. Six shots. The piercing snap of gunfire in the night is routine for Santa Rosa resident Kathy Ferrell, and so is fear. "Of course I'm scared," she says. "What goes through your head is: I just hope a bullet doesn't come up here and hit my daughter. I pray every night that it doesn't hit one of the children.

"How doesn't somebody do something about it?" she asks. "I mean, the police are down here all the time, but always after the fact. I guess that's the way it is with crime. I, myself, as a person, am fed up."

Living with crime is just part of Ferrell's frustration. Inside her apartment the kitchen stove doesn't work. For a year only the small left-rear heating element on the electric range has functioned. Her bathroom sink leaks into the subfloor; the cabinet is swollen, water-logged, and moldy. Linoleum buckles and tears. From the bathroom leak upstairs, the living room ceiling decays.

Out on the streets, bursts of gunfire sporadically ventilate the night, teenagers peddle bags of cheap dope, suspicious figures drink booze in the shadows. And stabbings, beatings, and dirty needles in the gutter are a common part of life.

Santa Rosa police say Ferrell's low-income neighborhood--just a mile or so west of Coddingtown--has the worst crime in the city. It's a place where bad living conditions and crime feed off each other. It's not Southpark, Roseland, or West Ninth Street. Rather, it's the neighborhood surrounding the idyllically named Apple Valley Lane, a small rental city on a dead-end street with hundreds of residents, yet without a park, playground, or community center. Apple Valley Lane butts up against Papago Court, another dead-end street with crime-ridden apartments.

A roll of concertina wire with razor-sharp barbs adorns the top of a cyclone fence separating the two complexes.

Here in the heart of upscale Sonoma County live poverty, ugliness, crime. The people who call this home are poor. They are field workers, cooks, dishwashers. They are the disabled, the under- educated, single mothers on welfare, parolees, and immigrants. They landscape or work in local nurseries, chicken-processing plants, and wineries. For most, English is a second language at best.

Apple Valley Lane and Papago Court form a civic Rubik's Cube with a hard-to-solve formula. At the end of a long, indirect transit bus ride, the residents live in drab, shabby, rundown, and badly designed two-bedroom apartments. Tenants pay from $550 to $700 per month, many for units with serious maintenance problems. The basic ability to rent with no questions asked makes the neighborhood a magnet for dope dealers, violent gangs, parolees, and troublesome outsiders, who all contribute to a high-profile crime zone.

"They don't do credit checks here. Show 'em money and move in," says one resident, who asks not to be named. "And then they wonder why the neighborhood is so bad."

The city of Santa Rosa insists the property owners cooperatively manage rentals with higher standards and also maintain the properties up to code. Owners generally say the real estate market, high taxes, and utility rates leave no money for improvements. Some also say the city should provide rental subsidies to residents and that it has failed to deliver adequate police and human services to the people of Apple Valley. That debate carries on in a low-intensity battle of red tape and paperwork far removed from the lives of most residents.

On the street, people talk mostly about crime, cops, and the bad deal on the rent: cheap but crummy.

Kathy Ferrell is a straight-talking partisan for the poor, well-intended people who live around her. She points her verbal finger at a notorious property management executive: "sleaze bag." Kathy and her husband, Stan, manage two buildings on Apple Valley. They moved in with their young daughter when times were tight and Stan was in job training. Today he has a good job as an electronics technician. Kathy works as a home-health nurse. They can afford to leave now, and often they want to. But for their sense of mission to make a difference, they'd be long gone.

"We're trying to help the community because we understand the economic situation these people are in," says Stan. "There's a lot of kids who won't make it in the present situation. Someone has go to help them see a different light than what they are seeing, so they know they can make a difference. That's why I am still here. If I could be here one day or one year to help one kid, then it's worth it."

On the pavement, big gray garbage cans lie toppled like giant bowling pins bulging with stinking garbage just a few feet from somebody's front door. Beer cans, broken glass, stray grocery carts, and a deep ecology of litter dirty the grounds. Carports rot. Rough parking spaces become muddy ponds in the rain. Drainage is atrocious. Skeletons of dead fences gaze up at haphazard tree forts built from stolen fence boards. Lawn space is scarred by human and vehicular traffic.

Inside the apartments, problems are commonplace. Literally everyone speaks of serious cockroach infestation. "Not just small ones either," says a young black man. "As big as this," and he holds up his thumb and index finger to indicate about two inches. "Big fat beetle cockroaches."

Overcrowding with up to eight people in a two-bedroom apartment is normal and wears hard on appliances and plumbing. Out on the sidewalk, members of a cast list of formal gangs fight turf wars, deal drugs, and play an ongoing game of "tagging" their initials on fences and walls.

Enter City Hall. Two years ago the city went looking for trouble. Housing officials sought out "characteristics of distressed neighborhoods" in an effort to pre-empt growing social problems. They found Apple Valley Lane, where 178 units stand on 43 different properties and have 27 separate owners, a high-population density, and mostly absentee landlords who rely on rental management companies. Not a single owner of Apple Valley property actually lives there. A virtual absence of pre-screening guidelines creates a revolving door for bad tenants who hold the neighborhood hostage to public disturbance.

The city's prescription: Create a housing owners' association to enforce strict screening procedures and property maintenance. These measures--plus the redesign of entrances, yards, and windows to give more privacy--have been successful in turning around other at-risk, high-crime neighborhoods in California.

The carrot came last fall. The city offered low-interest, deferred-payment rehabilitation loans to owners. The stick: enhanced building and fire code enforcement, and the threat of nuisance suits. The catch: to get the easy money, property owners must enter into a mutual-benefit association with the city to guarantee screening and up-to-code living standards.

As of today, no loans have been issued. Those pending have "stalled out." Few fire safety citations and no extra building inspections have occurred, although an inspection blitz is scheduled to begin this month.

A dwindling number of tenants attend periodic crime-elimination meetings located downtown and predominantly composed of cops, city bureaucrats, and defensive property owners. While some owners do, in fact, form a loose association, the kind of cooperation City Hall desires remains a fantasy. At last month's crime-elimination committee meeting only one property owner attended.

"I don't see any real evidence of owners establishing a system to manage the buildings that is substantially better than the past," says housing official Steve Burke. "The city has a standing offer to the owners. In the meantime, the residents are the real owners."

Burke notes that while fully half of Santa Rosa's housing funds available for low-income housing have been earmarked for Apple Valley Lane, housing funds are limited.

"In 1976, we had 1.8 million federal dollars and a population of 65,000," he explains. "Today, we have from $800,000 to $1 million for a population of 130,000, and expectations are greater."

Meanwhile, policemen in Zone Three spend 70 percent of their efforts on Apple Valley Lane, a community that a-mounts to a mere 5 percent of their total area.

And now for the rest of the numbers. SRPD Sgt. David Hayes says the "three short streets" of Apple Valley Lane, Papago Court, and a strip of West Steele Lane generated 1,529 calls for police service in 1995. There were 336 crime reports from police officers written on 165 physical arrests, 93 traffic violations, 91 cite-and-release misdemeanors, and one murder.

Police officials say violations for alcohol and small non-dealer amounts of marijuana are handled with a misdemeanor, cite-and-release ticket. Physical arrests are for fighting, intoxication, outstanding warrants, weapons violations, and even small amounts of methamphetamine, crack, and heroin.

Crime in Apple Valley adds up to numerous small-time drug dealers selling marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, crack, and more recently heroin. Often, young kids act as couriers between dealers and buyers. Ironically, when you ask beat cop Mike Akin which street drugs stimulate the most disturbances, he says "alcohol," which is easily available to both adults and minors at a convenience store on West Steele Lane, thanks to a flourishing post-retail economy of adults who buy booze for kids.

With drugs and alcohol come fights, loud parties, gangs, and, most serious, gunfire.

"At first when I heard shots, I wanted to run away like a rabbit," says Connie Alaniz, who lives on Papago Court. "Now, the shooting is just normal. Just last night there were two bursts. Five shots, then six shots."

Tall, blonde, and gung-ho, patrolman Akin, 29, has a Captain Kirk-like passion to get the bad guys. His ability to speak Spanish makes him a rare breed on the force. From 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., Akin patrols the streets, carports, and backyard driveways that filtrate through a maze of close dwellings. The area is caged in by railroad tracks to the east, a creek to the north, and Papago Court to the west, and opens up to Steele Lane to the south. The layout makes surprise approaches impossible, es-cape easy, and pursuit perplexing.

Riding in a patrol car with Akin late at night, one sees clusters of teenage girls hanging out at the local 7-Eleven. Akin says one night he found a 3-year-old child unattended at 2 a.m. in the street. He describes his beat as "frustrating," but obviously enjoys the challenge.

"An officer sees known drug-dealing gang members hanging out at the pay phones, but these people have a 'reasonable expectation of privacy' by law, so the police can't just search them," Akin says.

Getting searched in Zone Three, however, is not difficult. A minor violation of law provides justification for "patting down" suspects, and these searches often reveal much. Three Hispanic men drinking beer as they walk on the sidewalk are apprehended for public drinking. A search reveals a small baggie of green marijuana buds, and Akin gets busy writing three tickets for possession--another cite-and-release misdemeanor arrest. The men wear large black-and-blue plaid shirts, harbor angry eyes, and offer insults and expletives at the arresting officer. The scarred and denuded surrounding lawn is filled with empty 40-ounce malt liquor bottles.

But it's not the pot that primarily concerns Akin. A friendly, humorous fellow to ride-along journalists, he dons a no-games fighting face with the enemy. In this case, gangsters. The tickets are less about pot and more about what Akin calls "preventative maintenance."

Akin is an officer of philosophy as well as action.

"I think society has lost its sense of simplicity," he says. "In commercial society you've got to have that Nike Starter jacket. Television pushes products on the middle-class, and the lower-class wants them too, so how do they fulfill their desires with no money? Crime."

Meet the PSC. "Purros Sureños Cholos"--Pure Southern Gang-sters. Blue is their color. Thirteen is their number. Papago Court is their turf, according to local police. And they all come from Mexico. Introducing VSL: "Varrio Sureños Locos"--Local Southern Crazies, the "redraggers." Four-teen is their number. And don't leave out VSRN. "Varrio Santa Rosa Norte"--Northern Santa Rosa Neighbor-hood, a racially mixed group. Of course, there's PL, "Pachucho Locos"--Crazy Home-Boys. Lately, gang-style graffiti are on the rise and a new gang has introduced itself to the local turf. This year already, two drive-by shootings occurred.

So what do gangs do? According to Akin: "shooting, stabbing, and beating the hell out each other, drug use, auto theft, and disruptive behavior." Wea-pons include plenty of firearms, yet most fighting occurs with clubs, baseball bats, and knives. "We have a lot of gunshots, but not a lot of shooting victims," says Akin. "We don't have a gang problem like they do in L.A., but we do have gang-related homicides."

Summer is the worst. "As the heat increases, alcohol consumption presents a major problem," says police Sgt. David Hayes. "As the night drags on, there are more fights and assaults with knives and bottles."

From kids on the street to cops on the beat, people say the PSC rule the roost at the Papago Court apartments. A large, blue spray-painted version of "PSC" adorns a brown wooden fence at the entrance. Unlike other graffiti, these three-foot letters don't get crossed out by rivals.

The apartments owned by Thomas Glenn are in bad shape. Deep potholes in the parking area act as inverted "speed bumps." Two-story brown plywood structures are arranged in a large rectangle around bruised, battered, leaky carports.

Glenn says the claims of PSC dominance here are false and reek of "McCarthyism." On the swing shift, Akin says "the owners don't have a good sense of what's going on."

To reach a second-floor apartment on a frigid rainy night, one treads up uncertain wooden stairs and beholds unsealed plywood decking: soggy, broken, and slippery. Beside the concrete walkways simmers a stew of cigarette butts, beer cans, and miscellaneous bits of garbage. "The good part is the rent is reasonable," says an old Mexican lady in Spanish. "Bad part is some people are bad."

The good part, numerous residents suggest, is a sense of community that perseveres. "The bad part," says a shy, underemployed man named Lee, is "the gangs, violence, the owners that don't care, the people who don't care. They fight, shoot guns--you name it. All that vandalism, graffiti, dirty needles still dripping blood. Up and down the street, heroin, cocaine, speed--you name it."

What most property owners have in common in Apple Valley is their absence. Those engaged with the rental community and city program range from civic princes to those with a bad reputation. A man named Duncan Soldner is widely acknowledged as a model landlord. His units are well-maintained, landscaped, and free of graffiti; police say that little to no trouble comes from these apartments.

Thomas Glenn owns the rundown units on Papago Court and several buildings on Apple Valley Lane where Stan and Kathy Ferrell are the on-site managers. No one has nominated him for coronation, but he is one of just a few in negotiation for rehabilitation loans.

When asked, Glenn says Kathy Ferrell, deserves a kitchen stove that actually works. "I am responsible. When you buy property, you're responsible for the upkeep. I agree the homeowner is totally responsible for decent housing."

At the same time, Glenn and others like Sherman Campbell of Apple Properties feel Apple Valley has been "redlined" by the city. Between a rock and hard place, Glenn says fire and building code inspections, which are required to get the rehabilitation loans, make it difficult to get refinancing from banks, create a problem with fire insurance, make it harder to evict bad tenants, and cause decent owners to lose property value.

The man who gets repeatedly criticized by the Apple Valley community for bad management is Sherman Campbell, who both owns properties on Apple Valley Lane and manages a number of buildings under the auspices of Apple Properties.

"Sleaze bag," exclaims Kathy Ferrell. "He doesn't properly screen tenants. He only collects rent. The units get rundown and tenants don't care about units because he doesn't do anything to fix them up. That kind of management attracts drug dealers who just need a spot. Campbell leads other owners against the city. He blames the police, but the police are around a lot with 4 a.m. walk-throughs. The cops do a good job."

Campbell contends that the lack of constant police presence is to blame for the high crime and declining rental revenues. He is not alone in his demand for a police substation on West Steele Lane, but, unlike others, he makes "continuous police patrol" his single hard-to-meet demand.

For his part, Campbell says his screening process is "more thorough than most." Not only Kathy Ferrell disagrees. Campbell once managed Glenn's Papago Court properties. But no longer. "Sherman Campbell didn't screen well. He charged too much for his services, his renting criteria were not strict, and he put questionable people in units," says Glenn.

Additionally, Campbell thinks the push to upgrade "cosmetics" is off the mark.

"The city is of the point of view that if the buildings look a little rundown, then crime will move in," says Campbell. "Addressing cosmetics is not solving the crime problem. It's like playing the fiddle while Rome burns. What will be accomplished with better cosmetics? I don't think it will have any effect at all.

"I'm of the opinion that our buildings are up to code. When things are not working, it becomes an acceptable premise not to pay rent. It's not an option not to maintain working refrigerators, plumbing, and stoves. Units must be inhabitable or the tenants could literally go on a rent strike."

Evidence suggests that in some cases on Apple Valley Lane, Campbell is incorrect and that "cosmetics" are actually substandard living conditions that attract substandard tenants. A rent strike is unlikely by a population unversed in rental justice, yet the locals know what they want.

Both owners and tenants point to Roseland as a community that did it right. That southwest area of Santa Rosa has a sheriff's substation, human services like Sonoma County People for Economic Opportunity, Head-start, and an immigration office. People want these things for Apple Valley also.

Stan Ferrell, for one, has an optimistic vision of the future for Apple Valley. He dreams of a community center, senior services, parenting classes, counseling for domestic and alcohol abuse, child care, youth programs, sporting activities, dances, food banks, clothing banks, and vocational training--and improved housing, landscaping, and practical transportation.

For today, Stan's vision is only a dream and his wife's patience is wearing thin.

"I don't want my kid to see this no more," Kathy fumes. "It's gotten worse in the last few months. It's not even summer yet and it's getting hot and crazy around here. I tried and I tried, and now all the good people are talking about moving. It's gonna be a whole neighborhood of crime."

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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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