Troubles on The Esplanade

Disabled woman faces possible eviction after fighting for cleanliness, safety

Paris Barnes and her service dog, Bonzai, stand outside her apartment complex on The Esplanade. Barnes, who has epilepsy, says the property owner, Francis Properties, responded too late to complaints about rodents, insects and unsafe conditions.

Paris Barnes and her service dog, Bonzai, stand outside her apartment complex on The Esplanade. Barnes, who has epilepsy, says the property owner, Francis Properties, responded too late to complaints about rodents, insects and unsafe conditions.

Photo By Meredith J. Graham

Contact the target team:
If you have a chronic problem in your complex or neighborhood, contact the Code Enforcement target team at 897-4945.

This past year has been difficult for Paris Barnes. A victim of domestic violence, she moved into a women’s shelter in Chico, far away from where her abuser could find her. In February, Barnes was able to settle down in a permanent apartment. She found a place on The Esplanade and quickly signed the lease.

She had an understanding, she said, with the property-management company that because of her epilepsy she needed a downstairs apartment. As soon as one came open, she said, she was told she could move into it. That never happened. But upstairs or down, she says, her complex is just not fit to be lived in.

“I complained immediately about the roaches,” she said.

Additionally, her neighbor had a long row of plants lining the walkway that Barnes felt was unsafe—and, in fact, during a seizure on that walkway, Barnes said she fell on a cactus plant, and she has the scars to prove it. Other neighbors blocked the walkways with chairs and boxes, making it difficult for emergency crews to get to her. Keeping anything in the common walkways was forbidden in the “house rules,” Barnes pointed out. Nobody listened.

By April, she said, the problems were so bad—in addition to previous complaints, she worried about the safety of her balcony railing, some of her neighbors were on drugs or shouted racial slurs at her, and there were rats, too—that she threatened to call city Code Enforcement. Shortly after she finally did that, in late June, she received a phone call from the apartment manager’s office saying she needed to leave.

The reason she was given was that she had an unapproved dog in her apartment. She got Bonzai, a service dog, in May and, per the “house rules,” she talked with her on-site manager about the dog three weeks prior to his arrival. She now regrets not getting any approval in writing, because she feels she’s being retaliated against for calling the authorities.

“I tried to do everything they asked,” Barnes said during a recent interview outside her apartment, at 1027 The Esplanade. The complex is owned by Francis Properties, which owns dozens of residential and storage buildings around town. “They could have evicted me over my dog when he first got here. They just don’t want somebody like me living here. They’d rather kick me out than fix the real problems.”

The city’s Code Enforcement division is run out of the Chico Police Department and supervised by Sgt. David Britt, who also oversees the TARGET team, whose job is to tackle widespread and chronic problems.

“We look at places where there is a high crime rate, or substandard housing conditions, and we go in and try to find long-term solutions, working with residents or holding the property owners and managers accountable—that’s our bread and butter,” Britt said.

When it comes to Francis Properties, Britt said, “They have a number of properties we have concerns about.

“Columbus Avenue is a big concern for us,” he explained, referring to 1000 Columbus Ave., which he characterized as key to solving problems on that street. “We did a walkthrough yesterday, and they are currently working on roofs and dry rot. We sort of forced that hand.”

Barnes’ apartment complex also has a red flag on it due to a high rate of police calls, “higher than the average complex.”

When Code Enforcement officer Raul Gonzalez responded to Barnes’ complaint about the state of her apartment, he said he noted the railing, which is in disrepair—but did not seem in danger of failing—as well as dry rot that needed to be fixed. As for Barnes’ fear for her safety due to her epilepsy and living in an upstairs apartment with access issues, Gonzalez said he spoke to the manager, who said he was unaware of her epilepsy.

Francis Properties seemed willing to work on the problems and had already received appropriate permits for fixing the railings, Gonzalez said.

“We’re working on the railing. We’ve got the permits,” said Abdu Alawi, Francis Properties manager. As for tenants, “We run their applications and make reference calls. The majority of the problems are usually with friends and guests and people who come in with them.”

Britt sees it as a larger issue.

“To a degree, it’s about [tenant] screening and maintenance. We’re trying to get with them [Francis Properties] and change that business model, so they can maintain higher-quality properties. If you look at 1000 Columbus, it’s not the prettiest place in the world. It’s rundown. Places like that tend to not attract good, regular-paying tenants. By lowering the standards, it becomes a perpetual problem.”

Barnes is surprisingly positive for a woman who’s gone through what she’s gone through. The 29-year-old has been the victim of domestic violence that left her epileptic after two bones in her forehead fractured and splintered into her frontal lobe. She’s been stabbed and shot. She had to surrender three of her children due to her epilepsy, but she’s working to get her seizures under control—she’s got surgery planned—and a stable home will go a long way in helping prove she’s able to care for them. Before her epilepsy, she worked for 10 years as an in-home supportive-services nurse.

While this reporter was at Barnes’ apartment last week, Alawi stopped by to speak with her. She’d been told by phone she had a few days to be out—she wanted it in writing.

Alawi scolded her, saying she had offered to leave her apartment in lieu of receiving an eviction. He said he’d given her plenty of chances—why couldn’t she just keep to herself? He mentioned getting phone calls from Code Enforcement and that he’d heard she’d called a reporter. He spoke briskly and chidingly.

Barnes retorted that she’d never offered to leave her apartment. She’d received two written warnings in the past—first after an altercation with a neighbor and second after she was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon, an act she swears was in self-defense and will be heard in court later this month. So why no written notice now?

If she wanted a written notice, she would be evicted, he responded. And that would not look good on her rental history.

In a phone interview, Alawi said his problems with Barnes were purely based on her breaking the rules—fighting with neighbors and getting a dog without his knowledge or signing a pet agreement.

“She found things to complain about” after she’d received previous notices, he said. “I told her it wouldn’t make it easier if she had an eviction on her record.”

Instead of an eviction, Alawi offered Barnes a downstairs apartment in another complex owned by Francis Properties. She agreed.

“What do you do, throw all your kids’ stuff away?” she said, explaining that her only other option was to do just that and move in with her brother near Sacramento.

This past week, Barnes moved from her Esplanade apartment to a downstairs unit on West First Avenue. This time she’s on a month-to-month lease. Though she says the carpet was dirty when she moved into the new place, Barnes is thankful, at least, that it’s on the ground floor, and that her neighbors seem quiet. In the end, though, she’s still upset that it came to this, that she’s felt intimidated, retaliated against and at times feared for her safety and wellbeing.

“My higher power wants something better than this for me,” she said. “It’s sad that it comes down to ‘This is your income, so you have to live like this.’ I’m standing up for what I believe in. I have to.”