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Ceres family has 'hard feelings' toward city
A small waste can fire at 2004 Walnut Avenue last October thrust an elderly Ceres couple into a strained war of wills with City Hall.

The fire was no big deal but officials had a look at the home and determined that it wasn't safe for occupancy. Alfonso and Maria Lomeli were forbidden from entering their home of 36 years, prompting a tearful and emotional response. City officials insist they were only trying to protect the elderly couple from their dilapidated home and eventually offered financial help to build a new and better one. They say the assistance hasn't always been appreciated.

The Lomelis, however, have accused city officials of being heartless and heavy-handed bureaucrats who've trapped them in a bureaucratic maze and endless waits.

"I don't want to go through this nightmare ever again," said Martin Lomeli, the couple's son. "There's a lot of hard feelings here."

Within hours of the fire, the city had red-tagged the house and gave the couple two hours to get all their clothing and possessions out. It was drastic and unnecessary action, said Martin Lomeli, a San Jose firefighter who claims Ceres officials went overboard to condemn the 1920 house. He claims the house could have been repaired easily instead of going by way of bulldozer.

"I wasn't afraid to go there and visit," said Lomeli. "I wasn't afraid to take my kids in there. I've never ever seen such disregard for citizens."

Jaime Lomeli, another son, said the house had a deficiency when a gopher dug a hole under the house which offset a pillars supporting the floor. He said the city wouldn't allow a simple repair that would have involved jacking up the floor and placing the pillar.

"The roof looked sway back and the floor had a high spot," recalled Fire Chief Brian Nicholes.

City code enforcement officer Frank Alvarez was called in with the building inspector. The house was condemned unsafe and the Lomelis had to leave.

"A number of roof beams had actually cracked under the strain of trying to hold up the kitchen floor," said Brian Briggs, who is in charge of redevelopment in Ceres. "I personally inspected the inside of the house and you had to walk uphill in the kitchen."

The septic tank was also failing, the county health inspector determined.

Jaime Lomeli said his parents' roof never leaked and was only damaged when a building inspector bounced on the roof.

"If it was so unsafe, why did they let an inspector go up there and jump around on it?" he asks. "It wasn't unsafe."

"It would have been better if the city had told my parents, 'Your house is a piece of junk and you have six months to fix it or you're evicted,'" said Martin Lomeli. "They said, 'You, you, out in a couple of hours.'"

Alfonso Lomeli, 77, said he and his wife were devastated on the day of the fire and have been depressed and sick through the ordeal. "I couldn't understand why they were doing it," he said.

Briggs said the city wanted to help the Lomelis and agreed to let them set up residency in a small 8-foot-wide mobilehome on the property.

"Typically this is not allowed," said Briggs. "If your property is uninhabitable, usually we just ask you to leave and say you can't live on the site."

But the children don't see why their parents must be in a trailer in the first place. Life in the trailer has not been easy, said Martin. His mother cooks on a porch that was hastily made of flimsy plywood. On hot days she comes home from her job at the cannery only to have to wait for the air conditioning to make the interior tolerable again.

Briggs said the city took many steps to accommodate the Lomelis that isn't ordinarily taken. He said two employees even offered use of their mobilehomes to the couple.

Martin said the city dragged its feet in extending a 3.5 percent interest loan of $100,000 to the Lomelis through the Ceres Redevelopment Agency to help rebuild the house. The loan was finally approved June 28. Permits didn't come about quickly, he said, adding that "every time we turned a corner there was a delay." Since permits were issued, the new house has gone up fairly quickly.

Briggs said that the Lomelis were "uninformed" about how long and how much scrutiny was required to get the loan. Martin Lomeli suggested that the city only decided to give the couple a loan to rebuild their house "after constant badgering." He said the city began adding ornerous requirements, such as adding curbs, gutters and sidewalks and matching paving in front of the parcel, that added thousands of dollars.

Negotiations over the loan were snagged with each side asking for things the other side didn't want to give.

"The Lomeli family were looking out for themselves and the city's looking out to insure that it uses its resources prudently," said Briggs.

Jaime Lomeli resents the attitude of some officials that the Lomelis should be grateful for all the help extended to them.

"How much is a year back from their lives? They're having health problems and high blood pressure because they're afraid of the city."

His brother chimed in: "The city's thinking they're doing them a favor ....but my parents didn't owe a red cent on this property," said Martin Lomeli. "We never wanted anything. They added $100,000 to my father's debt.

"When they lost their house they lost that self worth," added Martin. "In a nutshell, this property belongs to the city."

Briggs said the city was as compassionate as the system allowed. Typically the CRA only gives rehab loans to non-profit organizations and corporations, not private individuals. The city also gave leeway on repayment on the loan.

"As long as the mother and father have their present economic condition, and they're alive and that's their primary residence, that loan is not due and payable," said Briggs. "However if both parents pass, and if the property is subdivided ... then we'd like to be repaid."

The loan would not be due if the property passed to a family member who qualifies as low income. However, if the Lomelis decide to split and sell off a portion of their acre parcel, the city expects the loan to be paid back.

Not such a deal, said Martin, who noted that interest costs alone will amount to $3,000 annually.

Martin Lomeli said a parcel split would cost $20,000 and the lot could fetch about $50,000, leaving a net gain of $20,000 - about $80,000 shy to pay back the loan.

Briggs said other people in similar situations may apply for similar loans but most don't have the expertise nor patience to wade through the bureaucratic process.

"Unfortunately bureaucracies just have their own pace," said Briggs. "If I was able to make decisions on my own, I'm sure things would be a lot quicker."