[Kern County] Grand jury finds unacceptable conditions at Bakersfield senior housing facility

A Kern County grand jury report released Thursday highlighted alarming conditions at a low-income senior housing facility on Wilson Road, ranging from homeless people coming and going at will to inoperable smoke alarms and security cameras to prostitution and drug deals on the premises.

The 13-page account recommended a list of urgent changes to be made next year, such as restoring the facility's food pantry, locking down access and scheduling more on-site activities, while also giving the facility's owner and operator, the Housing Authority of the County of Kern, 90 days to respond to the report.

The housing authority's assistant executive director, Heather Kimmel, took issue Thursday with some of the report's conclusions, saying improvements have been made that were not reflected in the report. But she acknowledged the semi-independent public agency has been frustrated by the impact crime has had on the 199-unit Plaza Towers/Plaza Towers Annex at 3015 Wilson Road.

Several senior county officials declined to address the report ahead of the authority's 90-day deadline to respond to the grand jury. But a commissioner of the agency, Keith Wolaridge, who said he had been unaware of the concerns detailed in the report, spoke up to say they will be addressed.

"My initial thought, you know, (is that) I do have a concern," he said. "It's our responsibility to look after all of our tenants and their safety, and we will take right actions going forward."

Several people living at the facility vouched for many of the report's allegations in interviews Thursday, saying that although some conditions have improved in recent months, security remains a big concern, along with problems like bed bugs, rooms reeking of drugs and cigarettes and a front gate that never closes.

"We don't feel safe," partly because the facility's doors don't lock at night, said five-year resident Irma Cetto. "We have problems with parking. We have problems with everything. They say they don't have money."

Another five-year resident, Lucy Portillo, said the water at the towers "tastes and smells bad." When it rains, the lobby floods, and non-residents have unimpeded access, she said, adding, "It's bad."

Ross Walters, who has lived there for about a year, noted someone recently defecated in the laundry room and that, while people do enter at will, "they have locked it down a lot … in the last month."

The report compares three of the housing authority's facilities, the other two being the Pinewood Glen Retirement property at 2221 Real Road, which serves "low-income" residents, and the Park Place Senior Apartments, serving "very low-income" residents. The towers serve "extremely low-income" residents making 30 percent or less of the area's adjusted median income, which was $59,700 in April of last year.

After interviewing housing authority officials, reviewing budgets, reading crime summaries and speaking with residents, the grand jury concluded security and access are big problems at the towers — but not its only challenges.

The housing authority only has two full-time investigators, which the report characterized as insufficient and in need of addressing on a schedule laid out in the document.

It found a senior food pantry launched there in May 2010 no longer exists and should be restored by March 1. It said a single hour per week of organized activity, a bingo game, is inadequate to keep residents busy.

The report pointed to non-working smoke alarms and disabled security cameras, prostitution and drug sales on the property.

The grand jury witnessed people they said they assumed were homeless entering and leaving the facility during their visit.

Kimmel noted the housing authority recently spent more than $725,000 on security measures, not all of it at the towers property. She added that other deficiencies are being addressed, such as the property's access gates.

She denied the property has been neglected simply because residents there pay less money in rent than do others at facilities that charge more. One problem, she said, is that the towers property has a higher concentration of residents and is surrounded by a neighborhood with greater crime problems.

In one example, it noted someone has been living unauthorized on one of the towers' roofs, and that the person has caused more than $35,000 in damage so far this year.

"Trespassers are occupying the laundry rooms, stairwells, bathrooms and sleeping within the facility often locking stairwells, preventing residents' access," the report noted.

Another concern raised in the document was that the property's crime log does not match that of the Bakersfield Police Department, whose records showed incidents not noted by the property's management.

John Cox
December 15, 2022