Aileen Castillo and Marisella Nunez live in a two-bedroom unit in a dilapidated U-shaped building in Santa Rosa that once was a low-rent motel plagued by drug dealing and unsafe conditions, a place where people lived because they could afford little else.
Nunez’s three children, ages 15, 4 and 3, and sister live with them.
Until this week, there were bars over some windows but no screens. Cardboard and duct tape filled broken panes. The shower leaked beneath a wall, and mold was a constant concern. The floor of one room was wavy underfoot, heaved up by tree roots that spread beneath it. The doors stuck and required force to open, worrying Nunez and Castillo that escape would be blocked during a fire.
“They’re always saying they’re going to fix something and no one ever comes,” Castillo said.
They pay $730 a month for their unit in the northwest corner of the complex, one of 54 units at the 2400 Mendocino Ave. address that once was known as the Gold Coin Motel.
The property is not run by some fly-by-night, out-of-town slumlord.
It is managed by St. Vincent de Paul Sonoma County, a charity that has received millions of dollars in public funds and private donations to serve local homeless people and those in poverty.
It is run by a former Santa Rosa City Council member.
At the time St. Vincent acquired the motel in November 2019, Santa Rosa code enforcement officials had “red-tagged” it, designating most units uninhabitable because of faulty electrical wiring, a lack of heating, unsanitary conditions and a “severe lack of maintenance.”
Officials cheered the charity’s intent to create a 54-unit transitional housing facility accompanied by wraparound services for unhoused people, as well as permanent residents at the motel. The nonprofit officially acquired it just 12 days before Thanksgiving 2019.
But those plans have been delayed. Two years into St. Vincent’s ownership of the property, a Press Democrat investigation found 18 residents living in a handful of inhabited units. They are surrounded by abandoned rooms with boarded-up windows, where homeless people occasionally break in and stay overnight.
Jack Tibbetts, the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, is one of Sonoma County’s most vocal advocates for solutions to its homelessness crisis.
Elected to the Santa Rosa City Council in 2016, he resigned in December, prompting Mayor Chris Rogers to say the council “never had a more dedicated advocate on housing and homelessness.”
Tibbets often recused himself from votes on homelessness to avoid conflicts of interest because of his work with St. Vincent, for which he earned an over $100,000 salary, according to a financial disclosure form filed in March.
In interviews and in a series of emails, Tibbetts disputed the characterizations painted by current residents of 2400 Mendocino, which has been renamed St. Vincent de Paul Commons.
“We have made every effort to elevate their situation from what it was and uphold our commitment to the existing residents,” Tibbetts wrote to The Press Democrat.
At the time of the purchase, the charity halted — and in some cases reversed — city code enforcement evictions as it worked to repair units to meet basic habitability requirements and lift the red tag designation.
Tibbetts said he personally tracked down tenants and invited them back to keep them off the streets. St. Vincent paid for their hotel rooms until units were repaired. Nunez and Castillo’s family were among them. Since then, the charity has spent considerably on renovations, he said.
Along with the substandard living conditions, tenants in five households complained of a lack of security, unresponsive staff members and even difficulty getting their mail delivered.
Meanwhile, the charity’s ambitious plans have been slow to materialize.
Tibbetts attributes those delays to construction issues during the pandemic, but also to St. Vincent’s desire to do a comprehensive renovation, rather than piecemeal work.
‘They’re not doing anything’
Residents of five of the 10 occupied units at the property told The Press Democrat that conditions have changed little from when it was condemned. They accused the nonprofit of making false promises and being unresponsive to maintenance requests even while charging them rent.