While tamale lovers await the opening of the Tamale Lady’s brick-and-mortar restaurant, few know that the Mission’s beloved Virginia Ramos is grappling with the responsibility of managing a four-plex she has owned at 3175 24th Street since 2008.
To her tenants, Ramos is simply “la señora Virginia,” their industrious but struggling and somewhat distant landlady who has had a difficult time maintaining her building. Mission Local spoke with tenants in each of the units and most complained about a lack of maintenance, but said they simply fix things themselves. One called it fair since the rents for the two-bedroom apartments are well below market value. Others are unhappy and would like to see the building repaired.
So would Ramos, but for now she is focusing on her finances. “When I get the loan, all of this is going to be solved,” Ramos said in reference to the business loan she is seeking to open her tamale restaurant on 16th Street.
The Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), which is helping Ramos with her business plan, issued a press release Thursday calling Ramos a “victim of predatory lending” and saying that Ramos “tried to fix her loan issue on her own starting in 2010 when a balloon payment came due. No luck.”
Christopher Gil, who wrote the release, added that an October 1 opening for the tamale place is “in the offing. Except for one other thing: Virginia’s personal finances still need to be addressed.” He called her an example of the predatory lending still victimizing many of their clients.
The 61-year-old entrepreneur has paid out some $5,000 a month for more than five years—an amount equal to more than half of her initial mortgage of $500,000, according to Samer Danfoura, a pro bono lawyer helping Ramos.
“It’s an interest-only loan and she still owes the exact amount that she owed,” Danfoura said. When Ramos purchased the building in August, 2008—just weeks before the economy collapsed—she paid $875,000 and took out a loan for $500,000, according to public records, and an additional $100,000 in revolving credit.
Danfoura said the Saratoga Bancorp forced her to accept the $100,000 loan and that his client has documentation showing that she returned the full amount and never used it. Nevertheless, the bank has put a lien on her property, he said.
The bank’s numbers in Los Gatos have been disconnected. Gil from MEDA wrote in an email that “the CA mortgage broker, who never paid the out-of-state lender the $100K he owed, has disappeared.”
Ramos said she bought the small apartment building in 2008 to have a home to offer her seven children. But for now, she said, the Ramos children live elsewhere. Ramos herself lives in an apartment on Woodward and is struggling to make her mortgage payments on 24th Street.
Without her tamale business, she added, that’s even more difficult. She declined to say how she has managed to make the payments or if she is behind. She also declined to talk about the details of her purchase and her efforts to resolve the mortgage.
Ramos, known to most as the matronly dispenser of home-cooked tamales and good advice, was banned from selling tamales at Zeitgeist and other bars in June 2013. Since then District Supervisor David Campos has taken the lead in helping her establish a brick-and-mortar tamale cafe. He rallied support from food writers at a June 2013 press conference at the Latin American Club, translating for Ramos as she announced her Indiegogo campaign to raise $150,000.
That campaign—reported as an effort to raise $50,000 on the Indiegogo site—failed, raising only $19,200. But Ramos has had some success. So far she’s managed to lease a space at 2943 16th St. near Capp Street and she has been putting together a business plan with the Mission Economic Development Agency.
Her mortgage troubles have complicated that effort. Rents in her four-unit building range from $750 to $1,800 a month—not enough, Ramos said, to keep up with the mortgage payment, let alone with repairs.
Ramos was able to buy the building at a time when lenders were giving mortgages to just about anyone who could sign on the dotted line. She must have looked fairly solvent to any lender as she had been able to save up a substantial down payment. Ramos declined to talk about details of the purchase. Like others who bought right before the 2008 crash, the property lost value immediately, but she has still managed to hold onto it.
One tenant said that the building is dilapidated and that Ramos is slow to respond to maintenance requests. Another tenant, Rosalba Bolaño, said she had escalated a dispute about a camera on the front of the building to the Rent Board and has to do all her own maintenance work, on her own dime. “If something breaks, the landlord doesn’t fix anything,” Bolaño said. Nonetheless, she described Ramos as “a good woman” and said she had “never had a problem with her.”
Another resident also said she performed repairs and maintenance herself. “We try to take care of the building, because this is where we live,” she said. Jorge Bermúdez, who has lived in the building for 18 years with his family, had to negotiate his way out of an eviction from Ramos when she first bought the building in 2008. Bermúdez also said he does most of his own repairs but hasn’t lodged any complaints. In all his time and throughout the eviction, he said, he has never met Ramos face to face.“I do whatever I can do,” Bermúdez said. “I’m not paying that much rent, so I think it’s fair.”
Antonio Sabas, a 70-year-old man from El Salvador who has lived in the building with his family since 1989, said he cooperates when Ramos makes repairs and that they have a good relationship, despite the fact that repairs take a while to get done and are not perfect. He pointed out a vent in his kitchen that has been missing a fan for years. Nevertheless, he added, “She treats me well.”
A more frustrated resident, who has complained often about plumbing in the building and requested she remain anonymous, called Ramos “a slumlord.”
Complaint records filed for the building with the Department of Building Inspections number six in 2014. One complaint describes a toilet out of order for months, while children in the apartment had to use the facilities at restaurants nearby. Another complains of the construction of an illegal unit in the basement, which residents said Ramos was planning to offer to a relative, but now remains in half-finished condition and uninhabited despite the installation of a bathroom and a forgotten mattress in the corner.
Meanwhile, Ramos said she has had problems with tenants who fail to pay their rent on time. She also struggles with a tenant allowing her husband, father and dogs to live on the property while their contract dictates only the tenant and her children should be living there.
Ramos said residents continue to complain even while problems are already being addressed. “Everything is okay…but the tenants don’t take into account that there’s a lot of things to be taken care of and that takes time,” she said.
“Everyone has complained, but what happens is that the tenants are just inconsiderate.”
For the time being, Ramos hopes that any new loan will allow her to open her business and that the money may also help her manage the costs of her property. Laura Lane, a legislative aide to Campos, said Ramos is aiming for an early fall opening. Just this week, Lane said, she was checking into construction bids that were coming in.