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Developer Weighs Risks of Taking Over ‘Casa del Mexicano’

A local developer, with the help of California’s top law enforcement official, as early as today could inspect the site of a storied Boyle Heights non-profit institution prior to determining if they would be willing to take it over.

La Casa del Mexicano, located on the site of a mosque built in 1904, at one time served as a center where English was taught to new immigrants, as well as other civic, social and Mexican cultural activities in Boyle Heights; more recently, however, it’s been used as a venue for concerts and other events, and  flea markets.

Lea esta nota EN ESPAÑOL: Desarrollador Pesa Riesgos de Hacerse Cargo de ‘La Casa del Mexicano’ [1]

Representatives from the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, ELACC, have been working with the Los Angeles office of Attorney General Kamala Harris to get authorization to inspect the facility, which in 1931 with the help of the Mexican Consul General of Los Angeles, became home to the non-profit institution.

ELACC is on a list of non-profits being considered by the Attorney General to take over the building, and “based on the vetting process, they thought we were probably the best organization to be the steward of La Casa del Mexicano,” said ELACC President and Co-Founder Maria Cabildo.

If the ELACC Board of Directors accepts the role of stewards for the building, they would have to take over the $400,000 loan on the property, which currently has a 17 percent interest rate , she said. “Whoever takes it on, will have to pay off the loan or assume it,” Cabildo told EGP.

La Casa del Mexicano, located at 2900 Pedro Infante St. in Boyle Heights. (Facebook)

ELACC was not previously involved with La Casa del Mexicano and the phone call from the Attorney General’s local office came as a surprise, Cabildo said; but the board will not make a decision until they inspect the building. ELACC needs to know the current condition of the building, Cabildo said.

State officials are working to get a court order to give ELACC permission to inspect the site, because, according to court documents filed on July 18, the current “owner” of the building, Mexican Benefit Corp. (MBC), run by husband and wife Ruben and Martha Soriano, has refused to cooperate during ELACC’s several attempts to access the property.

In 2006, the Sorianos, who first directed La Casa del Mexicano under thenon-profit  Comité de Beneficencia Mexicana and later under the Mexican Benefit Corp., took out a $175,000 loan against the property, reportedly to finance repairs, but later failed to make payments on the loan and also failed to pay property taxes, according to court documents. Another director of the organization, Martha Velasquez, is also named in the court documents.

A judge will have the final say on which charity will receive the building and other assets of the now defunct non-profit, but the Attorney General’s office has recommended ELACC take possession of the building, the Attorney General’s spokesperson Becca MacLaren told EGP in an email on Monday.

The Attorney General’s office filed a civil complaint on March 27 against the Sorianos and Velasquez in which they seek to resolve the property title of La Casa del Mexicano, dissolve both Comité de Beneficencia Mexicana and MB Corp, obtain accountability records from the non-profit directors, damages, punitive damages, and penalties against the three defendants.

The lawsuit also alleges that the Sorianos and Velasquez operated MB Corp illegally, transferring La Casa del Mexicano to MB Corp and then operating MB Corp for their own personal benefit.

The Franchise Tax Board has already suspended the Comité de Beneficencia Mexicana’s non-profit status, said MacLaren.

Activists who sought to save La Casa del Mexicano when it went into foreclosure and was listed for auction in 2011, say the Attorney General’s efforts to dissolve the entities and to award the property to a reputable non-profit do not go far enough. Javier Rodriguez of the Committee to Save La Casa del Mexicano says the Attorney General “needs to formally indict and arrest the Sorianos and Velasquez.”

He says the Sorianos “illegally disbanded” the Comité’s 17 member committee, obtained the $175,000 loan illegally, and, perhaps not coincidentally, two months later received a “four-bedroom home in upscale  of El Sereno as a gift from the treasurer [Velasquez],” Rodriguez claims.

The Attorney General’s office could not confirm or deny the existence of any criminal investigations against the Sorianos or Velasquez, MacLaren told EGP.

Martha and Ruben Soriano could not be reached for comment; Velasquez declined to comment. In February 2011, Ruben Soriano told the LA Times they were victims of the bad economy, and they hoped bankruptcy would help them reorganize and save the building.

La Casa del Mexicano is considered an “important historical asset that should be preserved for the community,” according to MacLaren. Cabildo echoed the sentiment, saying their “vision would be to restore it and bring it back to what it once was… it is a very special place for a lot of people, and we want it to continue to have a use for the community,” Cabildo told EGP.

Cabildo said ELACC would probably manage the building differently from how it is currently being used. For example, they would probably no longer hold flea markets. “We are an economic and social justice organization, we have different strategies to preserve Boyle Heights,” Cabildo said.

While ELACC currently offers workshops and other services at their headquarters, La Casa del Mexicano could be the first time the agency runs a services-only building, she said.

Founded in 1995, ELACC purchases, rehabilitates and builds affordable housing complexes. They currently own and manage 15 different buildings in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. They are currently restoring the 1889 Boyle Hotel, located across the street from Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights.

Last year, the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation, MAOF, was considering becoming the possible new operator of La Casa del Mexicano. “We thought MAOF was the first choice of the State Attorney General to receive the property. However, in a letter from the Attorney General I received last week, their recommended choice is the East Los Angeles Community Corporation and we are the second choice in the event East Los Angeles Community Corporation declines the property. The Bankruptcy Court is still in the process of making its decision,” MAOF President & CEO Martin Castro told EGP in an email on Monday.