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Jeff Greene's desert tenants seek relief

RIDGECREST, Calif. — As you stand in 101-degree heat, a 20-mile-an-hour wind turning the bleak landscape into a convection oven, the name of Jeff Greene's rental complex here hits you like a cruel joke: "The Oasis."

Blades of grass are as rare as a drop of humidity. Trees on the 26-acre parcel are simply stumps hacked off at odd angles. One bears a spray-painted peace sign.

In Greene's vast real estate portfolio, mostly modest apartment buildings in Los Angeles, this project on the edge of Death Valley stands out like a shabby relation. In the city, his apartments are kept to reasonable standards, neither the best nor worst in their neighborhoods. Oasis, 150 miles away, looks abandoned.

The project was built in the mid 1940s for military members serving at nearby China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, still the major employer in town. It is adjacent to La Mirage, a bigger complex built as military housing in the mid 1950s and acquired by Greene's company in 2003.

Greene's company bought Oasis the following year for $2.48 million, or about $13,000 a unit. That's less than two years' rent on a three-bedroom duplex.

Kern County records show Greene's company owes $106,384.75 in taxes on the Oasis units, with some bills dating back to 2006. Greene denies any taxes are due. He says he paid them in full.

Greene's brother, Gary, is in charge of the property, but his maintenance supervisor said there's not enough profit to fix the place up.

"The money coming in doesn't equal the money going out," said John Houston, who was fixing roofs on a recent Saturday afternoon.

Of 189 units at Oasis, 40 are vacant, boarded up. Some are burned out, others now squatters' party houses. Greene said he'd love to rent the units but can't attract tenants.

"There's no tenants in this area at all," he said, dismissing official statistics that show Ridgecrest only having a 5 percent rental vacancy rate. "It's a tough area."

Joseph Parry and his family were driven out of the neighboring La Mirage by the foreclosures last year. They now pay $600 a month for three bedrooms in a flat-roofed former barrack. They say that's the going rate for low-end housing in a town with limited rental options.

"The landlord don't care what this place looks like as long as he gets his money," Parry said.

Just across Nadeau Street from Greene's property is a cluster of apartments of the same age, similar rents and same low-income tenant population. But the Ridge has different owners and unlike Oasis, the grass is green, the trees are leafy and the duplexes are freshly painted.

Greene said the Ridge has a long-term, stable tenant base, something he has been unable to secure at the Oasis.

Just after sunset recently, Afton Pressley pushed her neighbor's toddler in his stroller down Cisco Avenue in Oasis. The 65-year-old disabled woman has lived here since 1986 and remembers when it was as pretty as the Ridge. Not long ago she had to wait a month for repairs when paint started falling off her bathroom ceiling and the same amount of time to get her smoke detector fixed. "The maintenance guy said to stop bugging him," she said.

Pressley said the property manager sent notices that "desert landscaping" was going to be installed. "But it's up to Greene to spend the money," she said.

Walking past boarded-up duplexes and an apartment with a ripped curtain over the front window, Pressley hustled to get home before dark.

She knows Greene is a billionaire and that he wants to be U.S. senator. Here's what she wants: "He needs to treat us better."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at khundley@sptimes.com or (727)892-2996.

Jeff Greene's desert tenants seek relief 08/07/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 7, 2010 11:19pm]
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