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A change in ownership at two large Rohnert Park apartment complexes, about half of whose tenants depend on federal housing subsidies, has sparked fear and anxiety amid the promise of rising rents and notices giving some folks 90 days to vacate their units.

A representative for the new owners said they plan to invest generously in rehabilitation of the apartments and landscaping, and need to clear the buildings temporarily one or two at a time to accommodate the work.

Matt Heslin, chief executive for Laguna Hills-based Oak Coast Properties, said proposed rents for what will be vastly improved accommodations will remain lower than current rates at comparable rentals just down the street. And he said he hopes those with federal Section 8 subsidies can stay.

But pointed letters to 38 of the 202 households in the apartments terminating their month-to-month tenancies and threatening legal action for anyone who isn't out by the end of 90 days are keeping plenty of people awake at night.

"We are poor people," said Mac Pham, 75, a retired Vietnamese immigrant who lives at The Commons on Enterprise Drive with his wife and 12-year-old son on just more than $23,000 a year.

"I thought we would have more time, and if everyone is moving at once, where will we all go?" said 50-year-old Denise Gallo, who is disabled and has lived almost eight years in Holly Manor on Santa Alicia Drive.

"I think I'm going to be in my car, almost, and I don't want to let go of my baby," she added, stroking her yellow-orange cat, Sunshine.

Holly Manor, with 100 units, and The Commons, with 102, had been valuable sources of housing for low-income households in the Section 8 subsidy program run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Sonoma County Housing Authority Manager James Hackett said.

Out of 2,820 Sonoma County households that participate, 99 of them - many with elderly or disabled members — live at one or the other of the two complexes now in new ownership, Hackett said.

There's nothing surprising or illegal about investors wanting to renovate privately held properties and pass costs onto renters, Hackett said.

They are also within their rights if they are hoping to capitalize, as rumored, on an influx of people joining the work force at the Graton Resort & Casino, set to open later this year just outside town.

But future plans for the properties are worrisome, Hackett conceded. Even with their stock of 202 apartments in play, the inventory of rentals priced low enough to be practical for Section 8 households is very limited, and there's only a 1 percent vacancy rate, he said. There's also a waiting list of 15,000 households seeking consideration for housing subsidies, he said.

"Many of the people on our programs are seniors and people with disabilities and (the) more vulnerable of our citizens, and they're anxious. And it's often difficult for them to move quickly," he said.

<NO1><NO>Lee Roy Wallace, 60, said he already planned to move from his second-floor Holly Manor apartment because of upcoming hip replacement surgery. He has applied for housing in Windsor.

But he said he was worried about a friend and neighbor who is disabled and worried about finding a new place to move to in the time given him in the July 2, 90-day notice.

"There's no way he can move in 90 days," Wallace said. "It's really stressing him out."

If the apartment he himself hopes for doesn't work out, he said he wasn't sure what he would do because of the scarcity of housing available to Section 8 participants.

"I'm going to have to put my stuff in storage and tent-city it or something," he said.

"I feel sorry for the other people," Wallace added. "They had families and stuff. It's just me and my mate."

Heslin said investors "take our responsibility to the community seriously" and have plans that should permit everyone to come out a winner — including neighbors and tenants of the somewhat dilapidated complexes.

He said the 90-day notices are legally necessary but don't reflect a desire to actually boot out anyone who can afford to pay a small increase in rent.

But he said the unit rates right now are so low — $950 for a one-bedroom unit, for instance — that it would be impossible to invest necessary capital, let alone up to $1.5 million or so, as the new owners plan.

The new rates effective in September will be about $1,150 for a one-bedroom place and $1,300 for two bedrooms, which he says is still lower than comparable apartments, some just down the street.

Heslin also said he understood many renters already had made individual arrangements through his property management firm to stay in their current apartments, weathering the construction and paying the new rental rates.

Heslin said new leases have been signed with at least 10 of the first 38 households to receive the 90 day notices.

Tenants contacted Wednesday, however, said they weren't even aware of the option to stay and said they took the 90-day notice to vacate at face value.

A few said they could swing another $100 a month or so, but most said it would be a significant hardship to pay that or anything more.

"I wouldn't be able to eat," said Gallo.

Hackett said the Section 8 program is designed to provide subsidies only for modestly priced housing at or below the 40th percentile of the market rate for rentals. "We tell folks to look for units at around $950 so there's room for them to pay utilities," he said.

Participants also are generally capped at spending 40 percent of their income on rent, while the government has formula-based subsidy limits, Hackett said.

"There's going to be a line where our program's not going to be able to help folks," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)