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Gold Coin residents, from left clockwise, Gloria Martinez, Aileen Castillo, Valentina Castillo, 4, and Marisella Nunez visit a neighbor just before sunset. The Gold Coin was purchased by St. Vincent DePaul and former Santa Rosa City Council member Jack Tibbetts in 2019, on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. Surrounding the old hotel are newer condos and apartments to the north, background, and a Safeway shopping center to the south. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

A Santa Rosa charity bought a rundown motel to help homeless people. Two years later, tenants say they’re living in squalor

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.

“They’re always saying they’re going to fix something and no one ever comes.” - resident Aileen Castillo

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.

Emily Castillo, 3, front, and Valentina Nunez, 4, pass the time playing, as Gloria Martinez, right, and Marisella Nunez supervise, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022 at the old Gold Coin Motel in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Emily Castillo, 3, front, and Valentina Nunez, 4, pass the time playing, as Gloria Martinez, right, and Marisella Nunez supervise, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022 at the old Gold Coin Motel in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

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.

Jack Tibbetts (The Press Democrat file)
Jack Tibbetts (The Press Democrat file)

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.

How we reported this story

Press Democrat reporters Ethan Varian and Andrew Graham began looking into operations at the former Gold Coin Motel at 2400 Mendocino Ave. in early December after hearing complaints from tenants who said they were living in substandard conditions.

They visited the site three times to interview tenants and observe conditions. Within days of their last visit to the motel, work crews began arriving on site to fix broken windows and address other issues tenants had identified to The Press Democrat.

The motel was purchased two years ago by the St. Vincent de Paul charity with the intent of turning it into a full-service residential facility where the unhoused could also receive social services.

In the course of their reporting, Varian and Graham also filed public records requests with the city of Santa Rosa for code enforcement violations and police calls to the address.

Varian and Graham also reviewed city documents leading up to the 2019 purchase of the motel as well as the charity’s IRS Form 990 tax returns, which are public records.

They also interviewed city code enforcement officials, an expert in homelessness and social services, and St. Vincent de Paul executive director Jack Tibbetts, who is a former Santa Rosa City Council member.

“It’s gotten so bad and they’re not doing anything,” said Angelica Farias, a 19-year-old who lives in a studio apartment with her mother and younger sister.

The old Gold Coin Motel purchased by St. Vincent DePaul and former Santa Rosa City Council member Jack Tibbetts in 2019, on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
The old Gold Coin Motel purchased by St. Vincent DePaul and former Santa Rosa City Council member Jack Tibbetts in 2019, on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

St. Vincent officials, including Tibbetts, don’t respond to maintenance requests and ignore their phone calls, she said. The family will go as long as a month without receiving mail because no one is available to distribute it from a locked office, she said. It’s a claim echoed by other residents.

Farias and her family haven’t paid rent in recent months, she said, because of St. Vincent’s lack of involvement with the property. The nonprofit hasn’t reacted to the lack of payment because “they know they’re in the wrong,” she said.

Tibbetts countered that the nonprofit has made every effort not to evict anyone, even those who are in arrears.

“That’s not who we are,” he said. He denied the other allegations and said mail was delivered at least weekly.

Disputes between residents and management are not uncommon even at well-established sites for marginalized and formerly homeless people, like many of those living at Gold Coin, Tibbetts said.

“To say it is substandard compared to the alternative (homelessness), would be an inane statement.” - Jack Tibbetts

He emphasized that the former motel is not yet permanent supportive housing, only an attempt to keep roofs over peoples’ heads.

“To say it is substandard compared to the alternative (homelessness), would be an inane statement,” Tibbetts said. “This has been our unspoken motivation to keep people there when we bought the place.”

“We’re not asking for brand new appliances, we’re just asking for working appliances with no mold.” - attorney Alicia Roman

Alicia Roman, an advocate and attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, said St. Vincent’s current responsibility to its vulnerable tenants is to provide the “bare minimum” living standards but to keep them up to par.

“We’re not asking for brand new appliances, we’re just asking for working appliances with no mold,” she said.

Insulating spray foam is used to keep out moisture on a disintegrating door at a residence at the old Gold Coin Motel in Santa Rosa, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Insulating spray foam is used to keep out moisture on a disintegrating door at a residence at the old Gold Coin Motel in Santa Rosa, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

In the long term, Tibbetts argued, revamping Gold Coin into a facility with case management services will help identify issues at the property and ease strained relationships with current and former tenants.

“(Issues) will continue, but how we hope to address it in the future is clearly going to be through the provision of more resources.” - Jack Tibbetts

St. Vincent also runs the county’s Los Guilicos Village in west Santa Rosa, a 60-unit tiny home shelter offering support services to homeless residents.

“(Issues) will continue, but how we hope to address it in the future is clearly going to be through the provision of more resources,” Tibbetts said.

Project Homekey

Tibbetts was still on the City Council last November when it agreed to pursue $13 million in public funds to renovate Gold Coin through California’s Project Homekey program. Tibbetts recused himself from that vote.

Homekey has already helped create 6,000 units of housing for homeless people throughout the state.

Across Sonoma County, officials are touting Homekey as a game-changing effort to address the region’s deepening homelessness crisis. Since 2020, at least five Homekey projects have either opened or secured state funding.

Around a half-dozen more sites, including Gold Coin, are in the application process.

When St. Vincent de Paul purchased the property in 2019, city leaders rejoiced that the charity would resolve a blighted property and crime magnet along a busy business corridor while also staving off evictions. But the old motel and its few inhabitants have fallen out of public view since, even as elected officials backed grants and loans to transform Gold Coin into supportive housing.

Renovations stalled as the COVID-19 pandemic slowed city permitting and caused sudden spikes in construction costs, Tibbetts said.

Over the past two years, residents, and in at least one case, neighbors, have filed complaints with city officials, according to emails, code enforcement records and interviews with residents and St. Vincent officials.

“Are we obligated to follow up on any complaint? Yes. Is there always a code enforcement case generated? Not necessarily.” - Santa Rosa Chief Building Official Jesse Oswald

None of those complaints have risen to the level of opening a code enforcement case, Santa Rosa Chief Building Official Jesse Oswald said.

“Are we obligated to follow up on any complaint? Yes,” Oswald said. “Is there always a code enforcement case generated? Not necessarily.”

The efforts the nonprofit has made at the property “are not the actions taken (or, rather, not taken) by absentee, neglectful, or predatory landlords,” Tibbetts wrote in response to questions from The Press Democrat.

Still, he said, the situation has not been what St. Vincent had hoped for when they acquired the property with visions of a quick renovation benefiting those among Santa Rosa’s roughly 1,500 homeless residents, who make up over half of Sonoma County’s unhoused population.

The conditions for current residents are not indicative of “the standard we hold ourselves to,” Tibbetts said. Even so, he maintained his tenants bear some responsibility for the serious habitability issues at Gold Coin since St. Vincent took over.

In Nunez and Castillo’s unit, for instance, Tibbetts said “belongings and debris” piled up in their bedroom broke windows and may have led to mold. When management made multiple attempts to fix those problems, the two refused to let maintenance workers inside the apartment, he said. Tibbetts’ records show there were six notices posted to “inspect and abate” the unit. He also provided a manager’s log documenting some confrontations.

Aileen Castillo, a resident of the old Gold Coin Motel in Santa Rosa, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Aileen Castillo, a resident of the old Gold Coin Motel in Santa Rosa, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

‘It’s not garbage, it’s belongings’

But again, the two parties differ.

Nunez and Castillo say they alert Uriel Brena, a property manager, who responds he will send a maintenance man who never arrives.

“We’ve always opened the door for them whenever they come,” Castillo said. “It’s that they don’t show up.”

Items the managers have called trash are not, she said, and disputes have arisen when employees tried to remove items without their permission.

“It’s our clothes,” she said. “It’s in bags because we don’t have money for containers or anything like that, but it’s not garbage. It’s belongings.”

Since The Press Democrat began making inquiries with city officials and St. Vincent in December 2021, there has been a flurry of activity at the property.

On Tuesday, Castillo said the charity had again put her family up in a hotel while they conducted mold abatement at the property.

That same day, Tibbetts emailed photographs of work at two units, Castillo’s and Farias’s. On Wednesday, he sent test results indicating mold was at a “normal spore count” for an indoor environment in Castillo’s unit.

City officials, meanwhile, scheduled an inspection for Friday, which a spokesperson for the planning division said was in response to The Press Democrat’s questions. The results of that inspection were not immediately available.

The city has inspected renovated units four times since St. Vincent took over, according to the charity’s accounting. The most recent inspection was in August 2021.

The city, however, was unable to produce records of those inspections, though officials insisted they would have conducted such visits.

Valentina Nunez, 4, peers out a bathroom window of the mold-covered walls at the old Gold Coin Motel, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022 in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Valentina Nunez, 4, peers out a bathroom window of the mold-covered walls at the old Gold Coin Motel, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022 in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Public and private dollars

Tibbetts and his organization have sought both taxpayer dollars and private donations to renovate the property.

By Tibbetts’ accounting, the organization has raised nearly $5.4 million in a mix of county and state funds and $3.4 million in private donations to acquire and revamp the property. St. Vincent paid $5.65 million for the property, Tibbetts said.

In late 2020, in an application for county founding, the charity said it aimed to have the project completed in March 2021. In February 2021, after being awarded $500,000 by the county supervisors, Tibbetts told the newspaper the nonprofit hoped to complete renovations by that summer.

The major renovations still have not begun. With the anticipated Homekey funds, Tibbetts said he now hopes construction will begin in May.

Tibbetts attributed the delay to backups in city permitting offices and a dramatic spike in construction cost estimates that have forced him to seek more and more funding before beginning the renovation.

Just before St. Vincent acquired the property in fall 2019, the previous owners began evicting people without due process, according to communications between city and charity officials reviewed by The Press Democrat.

The previous owners denied those accusations at the time, and reporters were unable to reach them for this story.

To stop people from becoming homeless, the nonprofit worked out an arrangement with the city where they would conduct minimal health and safety repairs to make some units habitable. Tibbetts called it “yellow tagging.”

He sent The Press Democrat photographs of some newly restored units taken in June and January 2020 before tenants moved in. They showed fresh paint and new furnishings, improvements from the motel conditions.

A photograph of a restored unit at the former Gold Coin motel provided by St. Vincent De Paul. The photograph is time stamped January 2020. This is an example of how some units looked before occupation, Tibbetts said.
A photograph of a restored unit at the former Gold Coin motel provided by St. Vincent De Paul. The photograph is time stamped January 2020. This is an example of how some units looked before occupation, Tibbetts said.

From the start, charity officials decided not to make significant upgrades to occupied units one by one. Doing so would have dramatically increased costs and added years to the project timeline, while major ongoing construction would have created a safety hazard for residents, Tibbetts said.

St. Vincent officials made those plans clear to residents, he said.

“This is not permanent supportive housing,” Tibbetts said he told them.

Since taking over Gold Coin in late 2019, the nonprofit has put at least $125,000 toward construction work at the property, according to a list of payments provided by Tibbetts. But over St. Vincent’s ownership, it spent only around $9,000 on “building maintenance and repair,” according to the documents.

Tibbetts said that when including salaries of maintenance workers and a contractor, the total amount spent on construction, repairs and maintenance came to over $400,000.

The charity has collected $85,424 in rent from its tenants, according to Tibbetts.

Security concerns

Some residents, while grateful for the roof over their head, say the upkeep isn’t enough for their well-being.

Charlotte Packard, 62, was close to losing her housing when she contacted St. Vincent, she said. The nonprofit gave her a studio room at the former motel two years ago, she said. She recruited a friend to repair a shower that was flooding the bathroom. The friend also helped bolt a screen over the bathroom window and paint some walls a pleasing blue color, she said.

“Look at this place, I’m embarrassed to live here.” - resident Charlotte Packard

She has set up an array of plants in the garage space next door, all in an attempt to make her streetside unit a home.

Charlotte Packard lives in a small studio at the old Gold Coin Motel on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Charlotte Packard lives in a small studio at the old Gold Coin Motel on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

But while Packard is still thankful she has a place to stay, criminal activity around the mostly vacant buildings has shattered any sense of peace she’s attained.

“I must have aged 10 years each year here,” she said. She is up at night worrying about intruders on the property and has had prowlers knock on her door, she said.

“I’m overwhelmed.”

She’s purchased a stun gun and a bat and installed a security camera that runs to a small screen in her room. One day she woke up to a pile of human feces along the side of her building. It stayed there a week, she said, until eventually she and her friend cleaned it themselves.

“Look at this place,” she said. “I’m embarrassed to live here.”

Security has been an ongoing concern for the nonprofit. “This property has a dark past that has been difficult to mitigate,” Tibbetts said.

Homeless people occasionally try to break into empty units, he said. In some cases, the nonprofit has tried to find housing for the offenders but been rebuffed.

Steel rebar on the window of a kitchen at the old Gold Coin Motel in Santa Rosa, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022 in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Steel rebar on the window of a kitchen at the old Gold Coin Motel in Santa Rosa, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022 in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Property managers are aware some people stay overnight in empty carports, he said, and will tell them to move along in the morning.

Given the charity’s mission, however, they are reluctant to run people seeking shelter off each night, Tibbetts said.

The nonprofit has paid more than $34,000 to two security companies, according to expenditures the nonprofit provided. St. Vincent did not pay for security since July 2021, according to the records Tibbetts provided.

They reinitiated some patrols this week, he said.

The Santa Rosa Police Department has responded to the property 63 times since it changed hands, Sgt. Chris Mahurin said.

“We will get this project done and it will get better.” - Jack Tibbetts

The nonprofit filed its application to Homekey this week, Tibbetts said. The organization should learn whether they’ll receive the funds in 45 days.

St. Vincent de Paul has hired a firm to assist with relocating residents during the big remodel. They will have to reapply for entry if the motel becomes a Homekey site. If not, the charity will pay for their relocation, Tibbetts said.

“Under no circumstance would we evict them without a plan and a transition into a better environment,” he said.

St. Vincent predicts full completion of the renovation and complete occupancy by September. Tibbetts described raised ceilings that will let light flood into future units, putting a final end to the low-lying, flat-roofed structures seen today.

“We will get this project done, and it will get better,” he said.

This story has been updated to reflect additional comments from St. Vincent de Paul director Jack Tibbetts.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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