By Raymond R. Beltran
Along Beyer Boulevard lies a small, tightly knit Catholic community of 400 individuals occupying the Villa Nueva Apartments. Growing up alongside one another, these residents share decades of history, and the compassion of living in one of Southern Cali-fornia’s U.S. Housing and Urban Development project. They can openly divulge the years that they’ve been each other’s confidants through indigent holidays and domestic disputes.
Up until the last five years, the Catholic Augustinian run Villa Nueva Apartments, or The Villa as it has become known, has had its accomplishments with the late Augustinian, Father John Blethen. They’ve been supplied 35 top of the line computers, with the help of former mayor Maureen O’Conner, three youth centers, a day care, a place to study Catholicism, and an on site preschool area where a number of the present adults/residents have attended while growing up in The Villa. With all of the progress this San Ysidro community has made along the years, the residents here attribute it to Fr. Blethen as well as one of his protégés, the long time resident and now former manager of The Villa, Felipe Muro.
Since last Thursday, October 2, Villa residents as well as San Ysidro community members have been camping outside in front of the complex on Beyer Boulevard to protest the ousting of the 33-year resident and property manager. Armed with tents, a propane barbecue, hands full of picket signs, and the determination to not re-enter their units, this once content, family oriented assemblage has united to demand the reinstatement of Muro, their former manager and long time neighbor and friend.
According to Muro, who happened to be an “at-will employee,” the controversy started in early May of this year when he added his two nieces to the household. His wife began to seek financial assistance through the state’s welfare program. During a standard procedure of operations, fraud investigators visited the Muro household to check the unit’s occupancy number and confirm their address. Everything seemed valid except when the investigators found that Muro had been receiving monies from his one time girlfriend, and present wife, for half of the rent. By contract, as far as welfare investigator Liz Vega was concerned, a manager cannot sublease a free occupancy unit entitled to the manager. As far as Felipe Muro’s paychecks were concerned, the unit that he was occupying was not free at all, leaving no one but the owners of the Villa Nueva in violation of Housing and Urban Development statutes.
Muro, as well as the owners, were immediately informed of the violation because under HUD contracted properties, the property manager, such as Muro, does not have to pay rent as common residents do. Nonetheless, he had been paying rent during his entire employment. Villa Nueva’s recorded budgets for the years between 1998 through 2000 show “Manager’s Rent Free Unit” costing them a total of $18,072, not including the expenses paid by Felipe Muro. Six months past the investigation, Villa Nueva owners ceased garnishing Muro’s wages for rent, and the questions whether or not The Villa was going to continue with his position as manager began to surface.
Muro claims that in mid-June, following the month Villa Nueva stopped charging him rent, Armando Hurtado, from the contracted management company RPM (Reyes Property Management), began asking Muro for his resignation papers. Up until last Thursday, the issue was nothing to worry Muro until he arrived at his office and found the doors locked. A letter was released to the Villa Nueva community saying that Felipe Muro had resigned from his position as the 33-year manager of the complex, which Muro claims was a decision made out of The Villas coercive proposal than out of his own personal necessity. Muro says that his choice was to either sign his severance papers, which he claims were insufficient for a family, or walk away with nothing.
“It’s bigger than simply me though,” says Muro. “The hope for a chance of getting respect [for the residents] is out the door.”
In recent months, 250 letters from residents have been ignored dealing with minor complaints such as refrigerator problems and closet repairs. Tino Solis Cuevas, an over-20-year resident of Villa Nueva, hasn’t stepped foot inside his apartment to sleep since the new managers RPM came to take over. He says the discord behind the protest is about the lack of respect displayed towards the tightly knit community.
“No manager is living here at all,” says Cuevas. “They’re running [our lives] as a business, and they’re here to serve us. We’re not here to serve them. They’re even threatening their own employees. If they talk to the media, they’re fired, and that’s against the law.”
Individuals seeking out those who’ve known Muro to take part in illegal activities, to defame his character, have allegedly approached the residents of the property. Since then, the protestors and community members have formed the Comité Organizador Comunitario de Villa Nueva, an organization to build solidarity among the residents and to help each other protect their rights. In a letter sent out from the nascent organization, they ask for their main points to be recognized. Their points are ranging from no Villa Nueva retaliation on protestors, the board of director’s responsibility to recognize resident’s complaints aside from the owners, and that the current management team leaves the office so that the property can return to the family oriented community it once was.
The doors to the manager’s office are closed to the public as well as the residents, and the sprinklers still rotate while protestors try to avoid getting wet throughout the night. Villa Nueva’s lawyer, Steve Estys, claims that precautions have been taken in order to ensure the safety of the property, but he hasn’t been made aware of the sprinklers or that the owners were deducting rent expenses from Muro’s paychecks. He claims that the decision to terminate Felipe Muro was a “joint agreement” which took the resignation of Muro himself.
“I’m concerned with why the residents want to dictate to the owners who manages the property,” says Estys.
Without having visited the property, Estys has advised the owners to shut off the electricity and to close the youth centers, where The Villa children have access to 35 computers, for fear of mob mentality. Estys claims that there have been complaints from the security guards that cars have been egged, windows have been broken, tents are constructed in an area that prohibits them, and protesters are blocking the entrance to the complex. The youth centers have been closed, and the children are losing their activity and learning centers by the hour in this once tightly knit community.
“The board didn’t want to work it out,” says Muro. “They’d rather throw it back to the manager. I’d rather walk away and say nothing because I don’t want to ruin the blessings, but in retrospect, my loyalty is to the ministry. [Villa Nueva management] is tearing down signs, sprinklers are being turned on protestors, they’re disconnecting the electricity in family’s homes, and they’re violating our rights. In Section 8 living situations, there is a right to protest without fear of retaliation.”