LONG BEACH — For years, Anna Berardinelli, 59, and her husband, Ted Berardinelli, 66, lived inside the shabby yellow apartments at Sixth and Washington.
Now, they live in front of them.
After police discovered a toxic gold-stripping operation in the building three weeks ago, seven adults and six minors suddenly found themselves homeless. Several of them are in desperate straits — a troubled mother is sleeping rough while her kids stay with friends, and a wheelchair-bound woman is running short on accessible places to couch-surf.
These displaced residents don’t know where to turn. The landlord says it isn’t his problem, and there is little relief available for people in their situation.
A surprise in store
On July 23, a Long Beach police officer accompanied property manager Autumn Reynolds as she went door to door informing most of the tenants that within 48 hours, they would be getting notices that they had 20 days to move out. A few tenants who were late on rent also got notices to pay up or vacate with 72 hours.
In an Aug. 13 phone interview, Reynolds said the owner, Joseph Winter, 74, of Oregon City, Oregon, had been putting up with druggies, squatters, missing rent checks and even threats from some tenants for years. After taking over management a few months ago, Reynolds and her husband decided these problems could only be solved by starting fresh with better tenants and higher rents.
“We sat down with Mr. Winter and said, ‘Listen Joe. We are not going to be the sore thumb on the Peninsula. Our tenants are making us those people,’” Reynolds recalled.
While delivering the news to residents Reynolds and the officer found what looked like a meth-lab in a storage unit on the ground floor. The following day, a multi-agency team discovered that the “lab” was actually was a small-scale gold-stripping operation. They also found a small amount of meth. A former tenant who had just gotten out of jail had allegedly been living in the storage unit and stripping gold plating from outdated electronic parts.
Gold-stripping isn’t illegal, but it can be dangerous. It involves muriatic acid, a potentially volatile corrosive pool-cleaning chemical that is beloved by meth cooks, despite its tendency to cause severe eye and lung problems. The process can involve other nasty chemicals too.
Up all night
County and state health officials declared the building uninhabitable and told residents they couldn’t stay. For several days, residents were briefly allowed to retrieve belongings. But that wasn’t much help to people like Angela Aguilar, who lives on about $1,000 a month.
“We didn’t take very much out of the apartment to begin with because we don’t have a place to put it,” Aguilar, 41, said.
Aguilar sent her teens to stay with friends, and spent the money she had on a motel the first couple of nights. Now, with nowhere to go, she spends her days lurking around her former building.
“A couple nights I’ve just gone without sleep,” she said.
Resident Amy Headdress, 42, spent a couple more nights in the apartment, even though police told her it wasn’t safe to do so. A single mother, Headdress lives on a disability pension. Her local relatives are trying to help her and her 15-year-old son. However, she uses a wheelchair, which makes it harder to find places to stay.
“The last few nights I’ve been sleeping in a recliner. It is hurting me really bad,” Headdress said on Aug. 8. After a few days, authorities got fed up with the residents entering the potentially dangerous building and boarded up entries.
Winter did offer the Berardinellis a discounted rate at a rental property in Ocean Park, but Anna currently has broken collarbone, and Ted has several serious medical problems. They fear it would be too hard to get to doctor’s appointments without access to a working vehicle.
For now, Anna is living in the couple’s broken pea-green VW bus with her three cats. Ted Berardinelli recently went to stay with friends in another town because he can’t handle the stress of being homeless.
Misinformation and the various parties’ limited understandings of the state’s landlord-tenant law further complicated matters. Long Beach Police and Pacific County Administrator Kathy Spoor were under the impression that each resident received a $2,500 assistance check from Red Cross. However, Red Cross Spokesperson Amelia Holmes said last week the organization did not issue any checks.
“Because an eviction was posted and people were notified that they needed to be moving, we were not able to respond,” Holmes said.
None of the tenants were evicted. In fact, they had not even been legally ordered to leave the building. A verbal notice “does nothing,” Northwest Justice Project attorney Matt Brady said on Aug. 13. Even if Reynolds had served written notices to the tenants in late July as planned, they wouldn’t have been valid, because landlords must terminate rental agreements at least 20 days before the next rent is due.
“[Winter] had not legally terminated their tenancies by the next day when the raid happened,” Brady said.
Some of Winter’s tenants are felons who have a hard time getting more vigilant landlords to rent to them. Some are addicts. Some are both. Others just happen to be very poor.
Winter and Reynolds both said the Berardinellis were good tenants, but many of the others were not.
“They fight amongst themselves and they are difficult to get money out of,” Winter said. “The neighbors are upset, the police department is fed up. The mayor is upset.”
Winter was charging rents of roughly $500 to $700 for his one and two-bedroom apartments — less than most other area landlords are currently charging. Even so, he said, some tenants regularly paid late, didn’t pay in full, or didn’t pay at all.
The residents generally didn’t have lease contracts, paving the way for more problems. Several renters let friends and relatives crash at their places. A woman overdosed. A teenager “sucker-punched” Ted Berardinelli and knocked him over.
One month, Winter got stuck with a huge water bill for the uninvited guests’ apparently lavish bathing habits.
Between Jan. 1, 2016 and July 31, 2018, police visited the property at least 25 times, for everything from a syringe in the parking lot to minor domestic squabbles to complaints about Headdress’ loud Christian music.
“The only one that’s a victim in this entire thing is Mr. Winter,” Reynolds said.
Winter showed his tenants kindness at times, letting them pay late or work off debts.
“Joe gave us place when we had nowhere to go,” Anna Berardinelli said. “He has a very generous heart.”
But he was not an attentive landlord. Tenants say requests for repairs were ignored, and Winter, who lives about three hours away, wasn’t around much. Neighbors complained about overflowing garbage attracting wildlife, dead cars parked on the street and foot traffic at odd hours. Anna Berardinelli said people urinated in the hallways, and the plumbing had problems. Someone kept vomiting near the laundry room. No one cleaned it up. After she slipped in a puddle of vomit, Anna Berardinelli bought a rubber doormat to place on the slippery spot.
“The city has talked to the owner on a couple of different occasions,” Long Beach building inspector Matt Bonney said. “Usually it has to do with the vehicles that are parked out front. We have asked him to finish the outside to make it look like it’s not being worked on. To trim the windows and fix the doors. To keep the property clean.”
No cleanup, no tenants
State law requires every landlord to ensure their property is safe to inhabit. If a property becomes too dangerous to occupy, the city or county health officer can order the tenants to leave without notice. In an email, Spoor, the county administrator, said she had to scramble to coordinate with other authorities with very little information or time.
“Based on the information we had, and have gathered since, the county took the action necessary, and required by law, to assure the health and safety of the residents living there,” Spoor said. She said Winter has been cooperative, and plans to hire private contractors to assess the damage and clean up. But Winter said he has no immediate plans to deal with the contamination.
“I haven’t even been down there. I don’t even know if I can go into the building,” Winter said. “I’m so damned frustrated with that place. I’ve been wanting to get a contractor and see if I can just tear it down.”
In most cases, the landlord only has to clean up a contaminated building if he or she wants tenants to come back again. Winter and Reynolds do not want the current tenants to come back and said they may not deal with the building for a couple of months.
“The attorney called [the hazardous waste] a ‘silver lining’,” Reynolds said. “She said, ‘You don’t have to continue the eviction process if they’re no longer tenants after that.’”
There are no current plans to help tenants get their belongings.
Question of negligence
Joe Winter thinks he’s done all he can — or should — for his tenants.
“They’re probably having a hard time,” he said. “I’m sure the county can do something to help them.” He doesn’t think he has an obligation to help residents relocate.
“That’s not my issue. That’s a police issue,” he said.
It’s not a police issue. A 2005 “slumlord accountability law” requires landlords to provide relocation assistance if a property is shut down due to the landlord’s negligence. The amount is the greater of $2,000 or three times the rent.
Reynolds said their attorney has assured them they do not owe anyone money because they didn’t know the storage unit was being illegally sublet to an ex-tenant who was running a potentially explosive enterprise. She said Winter always responded quickly to problems in his building.
“Was he negligent? God no,” Reynolds said. “He was taken advantage of. The only negligence he has on his part is not standing up for himself.”
Matt Brady, the Northwest Justice Project attorney, sees the situation differently.
“The landlord is always ultimately responsible. Any tenant who is displaced by this order is entitled to relocation assistance,” he said. However, he noted that getting the money can be very difficult.
“It’s amazing how people will fight this. Even when the facts are clearly on the tenants’ side, they’ll fight it,” Brady said.
‘I just want our things’
Anna Berardinelli is 85 pounds of lean muscle and grit, with a sharp sense of humor, a biker aesthetic and a rope of neatly twisted hair cascading down her back. Despite her tiny, gaunt frame, and the brace she wears for her broken clavicle, she looks tough. But as she hustled down the sidewalk on her way to an appointment last week, she stopped suddenly and burst into tears.
“Our [Ford’s] steering pump’s gone, the van’s broken, they took my rent money. I had just bought food,” she said.
When her husband went to the city for surgery a couple of days after the “raid,” all of his clothes were still barricaded inside the apartment. A Long Beach officer bought him a shirt and some socks.
Berardinelli has to walk to a friend’s house to use the bathroom. She has nowhere to store food and badly needs dental work, so she isn’t eating much. Her “disgruntled” cats escaped from her bus on Aug. 14. So far, she’s only been able coax two of them to come back.
With nowhere else to go, Angela Aguilar has stayed near the building, repeatedly trying to find a way in. The police keep coming around to cite her for criminal trespass.
The police have also asked the Berardinellis to move their broken vehicles. Anna Berardinelli said she’d do the repairs herself if she could afford the parts — and if she could get into the building to get her repair guides.
“I just want our things,” she said on Aug. 14. “That’s all Ted and I have.”