Solutions Waning For Tenants Of Substandard Housing
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
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
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.
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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.