skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

Solutions Waning For Tenants Of Substandard Housing

Aired 10/4/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.


Megan Burks, web editor for Speak City Heights, a media collaborative

Mary Scott Knoll, executive director of the non-profit Fair Housing Council of San Diego


Residents say substandard housing conditions are common in City Heights. This...
Enlarge this image

Above: Residents say substandard housing conditions are common in City Heights. This resident has endured cockroaches, rats and leaky plumbing for about a decade. Her apartment also lacks heating and a smoke detector. She finally came forward this year, but it wasn't easy.

The autumn breeze drifts through a broken window in this City Heights apartment. It lightly flicks the curtain above the mattress where a mother of one sleeps, as if threatening another chilly winter.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Winters are particularly cold for “Graciela Ramirez,” who asked that I not use her real name because she fears her landlord will evict her. The heater hasn’t worked in years, leaving only the oven to warm the apartment.

The broken window, which was left by a burglar in January, made last winter her worst. Ramirez became so sick with the flu she was bedridden for a month. Her teenage son missed many days of school.

Now, as temperatures cool again, the broken window remains. She says her landlord won’t fix it and finding help has been tough as the city cuts funding for housing services and code enforcement—cuts some say are illegal and harm low-income residents who have few options.

Ramirez spent 12 years in silence, occasionally pleading with her landlord for fumigation. Cockroaches skitter out from cabinets softened by water leaks. Rats chewed through her wooden bed frame, so she props her mattress against the wall during the day.

Ramirez said she didn’t want to risk losing the cheap rent by speaking up. She’s undocumented and unemployed, and said she doesn’t think she can afford to move. Section 8 rental assistance isn’t an option because of her citizenship status. Even if she could apply, she would be number 50,001 on the list and face a wait of up to 10 years, according to the San Diego Housing Commission.

She’s now working with a nonprofit legal aid group funded by the State Bar to get the repairs made. But she’s one of the lucky ones.

City Withholds Funds for Fair Housing Advocates

Jose Cervantes, the fair housing director for the Center for Social Advocacy, said he meets about 60 City Heights residents a month with problems similar to Ramirez’s. Since last year, however, he hasn’t been able to take their cases.

That’s when his and two other organizations’ contracts with the city ended. It’s now been without a public fair housing resource for about a year.

City officials said they wanted a single provider to handle cases citywide, and asked the Center for Social Advocacy, the Bayside Community Center, the Fair Housing Council of San Diego and other organizations to compete for the contract. That was in February, months after the services had already stopped.

According to a Sept. 13 memo from the city’s Purchasing and Contracting Department, the city has since cancelled the request for proposal. The city did not return calls for comment on whether it would secure fair housing services another way.

According to Cervantes, going without the services means the city is breaching its contract with Housing and Urban Development, the federal program that gives money to cities for everything from streetscaping to ensuring buildings are wheelchair accessible.

To be eligible for the funds, cities must “take actions to affirmatively further fair housing choice,” meaning that they must work to alleviate known impediments to healthy, affordable homes.

HUD spokesman Lemar Wooley said municipalities don’t necessarily need fair housing counselors to show they are complying with the terms of their grant.

“The question is how this action might impact their ability to meet the requirement, and we can’t make any sort of judgment based on limited information,” Wooley said.

Cervantes said the lapse in services isn’t right.

“The city is taking a big risk,” he said. “Instead of spending money on those who need it, it could end up spending the money on attorney’s fees.”

City Residents Receive No Help for Infestations, Mold

With no housing advocates, the final safety net for city residents living in substandard conditions is Neighborhood Code Compliance, the agency that investigates building code violations and has the jurisdiction to fine noncompliant property owners.

But the department can’t help with insect and rodent infestations—the respiratory irritants that likely amplify Ramirez’s winter colds.

That’s because the California Health and Safety Code specifies that a health inspector—not a code inspector—must determine whether the presence of rats or insects qualifies as an infestation. According to Tony Khalil of NCC, San Diego’s health inspector is at the county level. Any queries about infestations are referred to the County Department of Environmental Health.

But the county currently doesn’t take complaints from resident living within city limits. Callers are typically looped back to NCC and reach a dead end.

Residents calling about mold and mildew find a similar roadblock. Neither the city nor county enforce mold, because there are no state or federal regulation guidelines for doing so. While it’s generally accepted that some molds pose health risks, authorities have not set a threshold for how much mold is too much.

Under the 2001 Toxic Mold Protection Act, the California Department of Public Health has been working to determine the level at which mold becomes dangerous. But varying sensitivities to mold and the vast array of mold types has made setting uniform regulations tough.

In September, the department released a statement advising against such measures. Instead, it said any visible dampness, water damage or mold should be addressed immediately. The statement is not a regulatory document and has not been reflected in the California Health and Safety Code, which governs local enforcement.

Currently, the only recourse for city households dealing with infestations or mold are voluntary programs that lack enforcement power and have limited scopes.

The county’s Vector Control Program sends inspectors to homes with rat problems. The program is aimed at helping residents identify and remedy the source of rat infestations. It does not address cockroaches.

The San Diego Healthy Homes Collaborative helps families with asthmatic children rid their homes of asthma triggers. Since 2007, it’s helped more than 375 homes replace old carpets, fumigate and clean up mold.

Khalil said the city is fulfilling its obligations under current housing regulations. He said he’s committed to making sure people can live in healthy homes.

“I don’t like anyone living in substandard conditions, regardless of who they are, where they live, or where they’re from,” he said.

Ramirez continues to work with her attorney, who sent a letter asking her landlord to make repairs by the end of September. No repairs were made as of Sept. 30 and Ramirez was ordered by her landlord to vacate the unit.

Ramirez plans to keep fighting—even with limited resources. Grabbing the photo of her son that peeks out from behind the bare mattress on the wall, she said wants to stay in her family’s home.

“Tenants in the area, where the landlords have neglected them, should speak up and not stay quiet,” Ramirez said.

Evening Edition

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.


Avatar for user 'jacquelinesd'

jacquelinesd | October 4, 2011 at 1:38 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

I was disappointed to hear Maureen resist the idea that there is a chronic substandard housing problem in San Diego. My mother encountered 3-4 different "slumlord" situations over the last five years when trying to find a home for herself and her service animal.

I think the fear of eviction or retaliation is real on the part of tenants, especially among persons who are struggling to get by, and for whom moving expenses are untenable for their financial situation. The flipside is that unethical landlords do not fear lawsuits from poor tenants, in particular, from blighted neighborhoods, and least of all, from undocumented persons. The landlords she encountered knowingly rented substandard units knowing that tenants fear them or do not have the resources to fight them in court.

I hope Midday Edition revisits the issue with more stories from citizens who, for whatever reason, need affordable housing.

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'Daniel Beeman'

Daniel Beeman | October 4, 2011 at 3 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

KPBS & Midday Edition. Why should businesses (Residential rental companies), be able to make a profit off doing illegal behavior? Landlords have legal obligations and our City, County & State should hold them accountable as long as they are paying rent, and/or if they have paid rent.
While I was in Milwaukee the community organization I was volunteering with (Riverwest Organizing Project=ROP) was asked by the City Attorney to be a "receivership" as a conservator for some properties that were not code compliant and also had back taxes. As we got the properties for free (forfeitures due to non payment of property taxes). We moved some of the tenants into other affordable housing while we used rents from other units, which we'd done maintenance on, to fix up more units. We fixed up over 4 multi-unit dwellings. We helped to give tenants better housing at near or lower rents, and we got to pool funds to move the project ahead to help more problem housing.
The big thing here is that the City was willing, as well as the County; property tax collector, to work together to lessen the dangers of slumlord housing. It helped to empower the neighborhood and communities to make their own communities better, this empowerment, help, and hope moved the neighbors to come together to making their communities much much better with stronger cohesiveness.
Please contact me if I can help in anyway. 858-571-6058

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'KathiL'

KathiL | October 4, 2011 at 7:48 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

You should have published the name of this woman's slumlord as a community service, so others would be wary of renting property from this person or company.

The caption under Graciela's picture says that her apartment lacks a smoke detector. At the very least, her lawyer should report this to the City's Neighborhood Code Compliance department.

If her attorney is at all interested in social justice, maybe he/she could organize a public protest outside the office of her slumlord.

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'Eurobelle'

Eurobelle | October 4, 2011 at 9:10 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

Even if Graciela wins her lawsuit, the landlord can't evict her for something like 6 months afterwards so she still will have to move. And IF the landlord is fined by the court, will she have that money immediately at her disposal as a new deposit? Or is it like small claims court where even if you win, it does not mean you collect immediately, if at all?
There should be a law that requires landlords to arrange for similar temporary housing for t heir tenants, if they need to fix their place in order to make it habitable. There is just NO recourse for the average poor tenant, especially where it comes to retaliatory evictions. The Legal Aid Society thinks that is just too complex and they won't take the case. I also believe that the Fair Housing Council does not represent tenants in court. So as usual the poor are left out in the cold! What's new? Even Section 8 does NOT advocate for their tenants. They just tell the tenant to look for a new place without providing a deposit that can be paid back once the old place is vacated. It is a crying shame.

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'Eurobelle'

Eurobelle | October 4, 2011 at 9:13 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

Even if Graciela wins her lawsuit, the landlord can't evict her for something like 6 months afterwards so she still will have to move. And IF the landlord is fined by the court, will she have that money immediately at her disposal as a new deposit? Or is it like small claims court where even if you win, it does not mean you collect immediately, if at all?
There should be a law that requires landlords to arrange for similar temporary housing for t heir tenants, if they need to fix their place in order to make it habitable. There is just NO recourse for the average poor tenant, especially where it comes to retaliatory evictions. The Legal Aid Society thinks that is just too complex and they won't take the case. I also believe that the Fair Housing Council does not represent tenants in court. So as usual the poor are left out in the cold! What's new? Even Section 8 does NOT advocate for their tenants. They just tell the tenant to look for a new place without providing a deposit that can be paid back once the old place is vacated. It is a crying shame and nobody seems to care.

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'TruthAboutMold'

TruthAboutMold | October 4, 2011 at 9:52 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

Mold can cause serious health problems. For accurate information about the health effects of mold, go to and

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'sandiegopio'

sandiegopio | October 5, 2011 at 3:30 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

KPBS missed an opportunity to inform listeners about the city of San Diego’s Environmental Services Department’s Lead Safety and Healthy Homes Program (LSHHP), which serves as a clearinghouse to connect San Diego residents with resources to help with substandard housing conditions. This program has strong partnerships with the San Diego Housing Commission, the City’s Neighborhood Code Compliance Department, and several Community Development Block Grant funded organizations.

A key resource is a Department of Housing and Urban Development funded program called the “San Diego Healthy Homes Collaborative” (SDHHC), managed by LSHHP. The SDHHC provides free assistance to City of S.D. residents to rid their homes of cockroaches, mold, and to control lead based paint problems and asthma triggers that threaten the health of children. The Collaborative is available to residents who have either a child less than six years of age or at least one child less than 18 years of age diagnosed with asthma or other respiratory symptoms, and have a household income that is less than 80% of the area median income (family of 4, income level must be $65,500 or less). For information about San Diego Healthy Homes Collaborative, including how to enroll in the program, or information about the Lead Safety and Healthy Homes Program, visit, telephone 858-694-7000, or e-mail

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'fz10bee'

fz10bee | October 5, 2011 at 4:12 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

There are several groups working on substandard housing issues in SD. A program in Mid-City presented in 2007-2008 to the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee (PS&NS) about all these problems with roach infestations, lead, mold, secondhand smoke etc. But the problem continues and the talk continues and still no one is responsible to make a change or take charge on this public health problem.

We met with Code Enforcement in 2007 and they stated they just focus on structural issues and if they see a real bad infestation they might write a letter to the landlord to let him/her know. The City’s Neighborhood Code Compliance is supposed to enforce the California Health Safety Code but as Ms. Burks reported in April 2010 in an article the City enforcement leaves several components of that code including insect infestations, mold, mildew, rats and other rodents.

There is a real need for agencies as the Center of Social Advocacy that really helps people and mean what they do for business. Based on my experience with The Fair Housing Council of San Diego and its Director is that when we met we were not treated with respect, Director bragged about her knowledge of the law and belittles people because she is a lawyer (both things stated to me).
I realized two things that really called my attention: 1) she really does not care about tenants (did not even look or respond to my disable tenants) and 2) What really surprised me was that she was not even aware of the Fair Housing Laws although she is supposed to protect both the disable and the Fair Housing Act. It seems to be another agency protecting the Industry and It makes me very up set to think that my taxes pays for them to be bullying people around and of course, not work on what they are supposed to do. Sadly, many more have gone through the same.

We have to remember that sick kids with health conditions/issues living in substandard conditions attend schools throughout San Diego so they mixed with other healthy kids. This is a public health issue and has to be address as is to protect all children and the community.

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'CommunityActivist'

CommunityActivist | October 5, 2011 at 8:30 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

The City doesn't do housing inspections like in other major cities and doesn't enforce health regulations. Add to that the County Health Department refers all housing issues back to the City and the large immigrant population afraid to complain to authorities. So what do you think the end result is? It's not that difficult to fix!

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'sdtenant'

sdtenant | October 6, 2011 at 9:12 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

I personally have dealt with a very similar issue (mold, roaches and ) a few years ago. I had the most difficult time finding assistance. I was referred to Legal Aid by a friend of mine and was not able to get any help from them- I then looked on the HUD website (after calling the City of San Diego and getting shuffled through extensions) and found The Fair Housing Council's information....Although it took them 4 days to get back to me (even though a recording said they would return calls within 24 hours) I was finally able to speak with someone who explained the difference between my issue and what she called a "fair housing issue/discrimination" the young lady who helped me explained my rights and gave me a website where she suggested I go and find what the law stated my landlord was required to do- Luckily I was able to get my "slum" landlord's attention and soon had the problems fixed- If it would have not been for the Fair Housing agency I would have been lost like this women is. Now, not only do I understand my rights as a tenant but I also have an understanding of housing discrimination- I know who to call and who WILL help!! It is VERY important that we have agencies like this helping us and pointing us in the right direction- Also- thank you Sandiegopio for the information!

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'sara_h'

sara_h | October 7, 2011 at 1:06 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

I lived in a little six-unit apartment building in Ocean Beach about a decade ago. My daughters were approximately 2 years old and 6 months old when we moved in. We lived there about two years.

Within the first year, my eldest developed asthma. I didn't realize it at the time, but every time she caught a small cold (as kids in preschool often do), she would wheeze, lie quietly on the couch, her neck visibly sucking in with every shallow breath.

I shared a bedroom with them at the time, and my mattress was against one wall, a dresser against another. The room only really worked with one configuration, so that's how I kept it. When I finally moved the dresser, the back of it was covered in mold. I then checked the bed: it, too, was covered in mold wherever it was in contact with the wall.

My landlord loaned me a dehumidifier. He was a nice old Portuguese man, but he didn't know what to do. I figured all old housing in my budget would have similar problems given the damp San Diego air, and the connection to my daughter's worsening health problem only slowly began to make sense to me.

I eventually moved, and we were enrolled in a childhood asthma study. The workers who visited every few months indicated we were one of the only English speaking families in the study. As much as I'd tried to advocate for my daughter once in the emergency rooms over the years, I still felt I didn't understand the problem or what our home solutions could be. The program was educational and helped, and as my daughter has aged and I've reduced her exposure to environmental contaminates, she's strengthened.

The problem is only worsening as our buildings age, and it's a tremendous environmental justice issue in San Diego. Thank you, KPBS, for raising some awareness of the issue.

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'TenantsRightsProject'

TenantsRightsProject | October 7, 2011 at 6:37 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

Tenants With Substandard Housing Have An Ally

Megan Burks’ recent article in Speak City Heights doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, the City is in violation of HUD requirements to fund fair housing counselors. But these counselors help fight against housing discrimination based on race, marital status, and the like. Nevertheless, tenants have a strong ally in their fight for decent housing in Affordable Housing Advocates’ Tenants Rights Project (TRP).

The TRP is based in City Heights and serves tenants in need throughout the City of San Diego. Although the TRP helps individual tenants, their main focus is working with groups of tenants to fight for better code enforcement. The problems identified in Burks’ article- the City’s failure to abate infestations and mold, are true. But the reasons the Neighborhood Code Compliance Department (NCCD) gave for this failure are not. The City has a duty to enforce all minimum health and safety standards, including the abatement of infestations and every plumbing leak that causes mold. The problem is they don’t.

Frustrated by the lack of action on the part of NCCD, the TRP did a recent Public Records Act request and reviewed all NCCD housing case files, from the last fiscal year, for City Heights. The results confirmed that NCCD rarely enforces any housing codes, and substandard living conditions remain prevalent. See the breakdown of these finding below.

Because they receive no federal funding, AHA is the only legal services organization engaged in advocacy work to fight for better code enforcement. Free legal services are available to low income tenants, regardless of documentation.

Type of Building Inspected: Total: 85
36 Multi-Family
42 Single Family
4 Commercial
3 Other/unknown
Complainant: Total: 85
45 Tenant
19 Neighbor
12 Unknown/ Not reflected in file
8 Other City Agencies
1 Landlord

Complaint Classification: Total: 85
32 Structural Deficiencies (leaks, heat, habitability, garage conversion)
24 Occupied Unpermitted Structures
(garage conversions, lived-in trailers/motor homes)
14 Plumbing Deficiencies
9 Mechanical Deficiencies
3 Electrical Deficiencies
2 Fire Prevention
1 Pool Barrier

Citations by Type: Total: 26
19 Administrative Warnings
1 Administrative Citation of $500 (illegally converted garage)
1 Civil Penalty Notice and Order (AHA client)
5 Voluntary Compliance Letter

Percentage of Cases with:
Tenant Complaints: 53%
Written Citations: 30%
Abatement of Substandard Conditions: 5 % (four cases)

Citation Fees Collected: $528.83

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'egvilleda'

egvilleda | June 24, 2012 at 5:36 p.m. ― 4 years, 8 months ago

Fast forward to 2012 when unfortunately budgets have run thinner. I personally have been going through this situation. I am currently residing in a home that has a collapsing ceiling, floors, periodic sewage and water leaks, all utilities for multiple units on one meter- (which I have been forced to pay out of pocket or risk shut off from the landlord again) faulty electricity, gas leaks, and mice. I filed a complaint with code enforcement. They investigated and issued a citation. The landlord began repairs. However as soon as they saw compliance the case was closed. All repairs stopped and instead he collected rent from me and then filed an unlawful detainer. He even began sending people over to the premises to try and "scare" me into moving. I responded with in a timely manner to the unlawful detainer and obtained legal counsel from the legal aid society. They recommended I settle for a dismissal because he was going to continue filing unlawful detainer suits even after I won regardless of how much it cost because he was angry I complained. They also recommended I move as soon as possible after further investigation of the property because of the deplorable conditions and constant harrasment. Unable to afford the constant harassment and legal proceedings I settled. I ended up losing my job as a direct result of court proceedings involving this individual. He continues to prey on lower income and illegal tenants knowing they can not afford to move and can not afford to fight him in court. As unfortunate as it is, it is still a reality.

( | suggest removal )