Skip to main content

ALERT: KPBS Radio is undergoing scheduled upgrade work which may result in temporary signal outages.

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Justice

Visit the Midday Edition homepage

People In San Diego Are Living With Cockroaches And Rats In Their Homes

We're sorry. This audio clip is no longer available.

October 4, 2011 1:16 p.m.


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

Related Story: Solutions Waning For Tenants Of Substandard Housing


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. When you live quietly, pay your rent and raise your child in an apartment in San Diego, you expect certain things. Like a heater that works or a broken window will be fixed. And roaches won't be crawling around your kitchen. But for very low-income people in San Diego, there are few options. And the public agencies are supposed to monitor housing violations are dealing with cut backs and consolidations. I'd like to welcome my guests, Megan Burks is web editor for speak City Heights a media collaborative. And Megan, welcome to the show.

BURKS: Thanks very having me.

CAVANAUGH: Mary Scott Knoll is executive direct offer of proof of the nonprofit fair housing council of San Diego. Good afternoon.

KNOLL: Good afternoon.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Megan, the focus of your web story is the plight of one woman renter in City Heights who for the last 12 years has been trying to get her landlord to make repairs and provide basic maintenance. Can you describe her had apartment for us? And I also want to let our listeners know that they can also see a video of this woman's apartment. What is it like?

BURKS: When you walk up the stairs, you can smell the rodent infestation. Of the odor is pretty strong. When you get to the front door, there's a large hole in the front window that was caused by a burglar in January. And she says that her landlord hasn't fixed that hole since January. When you go inside the apartment, there isn't a working heater. There are leaks in the bathroom and the kitchen. And those leaks are feeding molds and this roach infestation. Any time you open up the cabinet that's kind of hanging on its hinges anyway, about 20 to 30 roaches skitter out. And I mentioned the rodent infestation. She told me that she used to have a wooden bed frame, and that those rodents actually started chewing through the legs of it. So she tossed it. And now just has her mattress on the ground. And leans it up against the wall during the day

CAVANAUGH: The woman you called Graciela in your story, why hasn't she moved?

BURKS: She -- she's been in this apartment for 12 years. And she didn't want to upset her landlord. She was afraid her landlord would evict her. And she just feels like, for one, she can't afford to be evicted. Moving would require paying a deposit, finding a place that she doesn't believe would be cheaper. And she also told me that she watched her son grow up in this apartment and doesn't want to leave it. She'd rather live in it with the repairs made

CAVANAUGH: And one of the other problems she has in bringing this to the forefront is that she's undocumented; is that right?

BURKS: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Now, how much does she pay for rent?

BURKS: The one bedroom apartment is about $700. She shares this apartment with her teenaged son and two adult roommates, and a puppy. Her and her son sleep in the living room and then use the kitchen and bathroom. And for that, they pay all utilities and about $400

CAVANAUGH: As you say, Graciela is undocumented but her status hasn't stopped her landlord from accepting her rent for 12 years. Doesn't San Diego have any agencies to see that landlords maintain the property?

BURKS: There are several programs that tenants can go to. There are advocates and legal aid programs in the community that they can go to to get directed to resources. And Graciela is actually talking to a volunteer attorney right now who's helping her talk to her landlord. Of additionally, if they don't want to take that mediation route, they can file a complaint with the neighborhood code compliance. And they enforce everything from loud neighbors to substandard conditions like Graciela's

CAVANAUGH: And has she done that?

BURKS: She went to speak to a fair housing advocate in City Heights, the center for social advocacy. And they deal mostly with discrimination. And they also don't currently have the resources to take cases from people in City Heights. So they referred her to the affordable housing advocates, which is also in City Heights. And she never filed a complaint with neighborhood code compliance because she didn't know how to

CAVANAUGH: Let me bring you into this conversation, Mary Scott knoll. Based on what you've heard, is this a fair housing issue?

KNOLL: At first glance, it is not. It is, however, a very bad and horrific landlord/tenant issue, raising issues of habitability at first glance, and certainly under California's law, which is basically contractual, the owner is obligated to rent a habitable quarters. And this does not appear to be meeting that standard. The young lady is correct that it would be the neighborhood code enforce. Entity of the city that would have authority over the landlord. You must -- this place doesn't -- does or does not meet code standards as we know them. And you must make a move to correct this particular violation. The broken window, the lack of security, are the roaches, the rats, those things render a unit unnin habitable. One of the reasons why it's important to have advocate groups that are funded is so that we will have an opportunity through a counselor or a seasoned, trained fair housing person to go underneath this problem, to discover if in fact it has discrimination components. It could very easily have. If, for instance, the owner owns multiple properties, some of which are kept up, others of which are not, and if you remember is therea a showing that it's based on national origin and or that it's based on the presence of undocumented tenants, which haven't -- there's no prohibition whatsoever against renting to undocumented tenants, as you pointed out.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Megan, in your article for speak City Heights, you write about a gap that exists now in the City of San Diego in over sight of housing conditions because the city wants to consolidate service. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how -- where we are now in that? How long that gap has continued?

BURKS: Yeah, like Mary said, these fair housing advocates deal with discrimination in housing. But oftentimes, they're this first stop for people like Graciela. Upon the center for social advocacy is in the family resource center in City Heights. So if you go there to get help with a free clinic or to get food stamps, and you mention you have a housing problem, they'll refer you to this fair housing advocate. And so it's that first stop, and even though they don't necessarily deal with tenant/landlord issues, they're really helpful. But that 1207 isn't available and hasn't been available for about a year. The city was funding three fair housing advocates with housing and urban development funds. That's federal money they give to cities for everything from street-scaping to making sure homes are wheel chair accessible. And last year, the contracts ran out, and they didn't refund those three organizations. And instead, said they wanted to have just one organization be the single provider for city residents. They released a request for a proposal in February. And they postponed the announcement of who had run that contract a couple of times. Then in September, they released a memo saying that they were just canceling the request for a protest all together. And I haven't heard from the city about whether or not they're taking a different route. So as far as we know, there aren't any fair housing programs funded publicly

CAVANAUGH: Now, Mary, fair housing council of San Diego, I believe, was one of the agencies that were trying to get that contract from the city, and as far as we know from the city that has not been awarded to anyone yet.

KNOLL: Here is what I know. The fair housing council had affiliated with the legal aid society of San Diego as an applicant for those funds, to provide housing discrimination work. A secondary feature, of course, is always going to be tenant landlord referrals. I am not clear on who the other applicant was, or what organization it was. I can't say with any --


KNOLL: Factual account of that. But I do know that our agency -- well, actually our agency was one of the first funded agencies going back to 1989, and then fast forwarding to this date, our agency was an applicant along with or as a subcontracting entity with the legal aid society of San Diego

CAVANAUGH: Keeping in mind that indeed, you have something to do with this process of trying to find who's going to get the contract for the city. Isn't there some question as to whether the city might be breaching its contract with HUD, the department of housing and urban development by not having an agency in place? Let me pose that to both of you. Megan?

BURKS: I spoke with Jose servantacy for the center for social advocacy in City Heights, one of the fair housing providers, and he said by the city not funding fair housing advocates with this HUD money, it could be in preach of their contract with HUD. To get these community development block grants, cities must affirm that they are furthering fair housing choice. And he says that by not having these advocates, they're actually putting up a barrier to fair housing choice. I spoke with somebody from the national HUD office, and he said that not having a counselor isn't necessarily a violation of the contract, but that if it -- in turn shows that the city can't keep up its duty, that then it could be in trouble.

CAVANAUGH: Another issue that you touch on in your story, Megan, is the sort of fragmented responsibility of various state, county, and agencies to maintain proper housing. What government agency or places is a renter to turn to?

BURKS: Well, the idea would be that you could call neighborhood code compliance. That's your second line of defense after a mediator. But what you find when you call the city is that they don't enforce rodent or roach infestation. The California health and safety code says a health inspector must determine whether or not there's an actual infestation. They tell me that our health inspector is at the county level. So you as a resident then call the county, and when you call the county, they tell you that they currently cannot take complaints from city residents. So for infestations, you're kind of -- you hit a dead end

CAVANAUGH: And you hit sort of that circular kind of thing when you have a problem with levels of mold in your apartment as well, right?

BURKS: Right. The California health and safety code currently doesn't regulator molds. Of. In 2001 under the toxic mold protection act, the California public health department was charged with being research to figure out how much mold is too much mold. And 2005 came around and they said oh, you know, we can't figure that out. The science -- there are too many variables. 2008 came along, the same thing. And in September, there was actually a report saying that they think it's best not to use these measures because all the variables in that any visible mold or dampness should be treated as a health risk.

CAVANAUGH: Mary, you're very familiar with housing and low income housing in the City of San Diego. And I'm wondering -- you've seen this video, I would imagine of Graciela's apartment, you've heard the description. Is this an issue -- are these issues affecting a lot of people in communities like City Heights?

KNOLL: I would start with our current economic crisis, and not limit it to City Heights. But I might say that is spreads out into the county. I would also quickly say that over the year, I've had a vision of what I believe to be the things that we need. And it's especially critical these days with no funding. There should be a very strong landlordtenant organization. Very conserant and well trained about California's laws that has no cost element to it. There should be a very, very strong housing discrimination agency. Because both those areas of law are quite different. And if they were stood up with proper funding and proper staff, there could be a very strong cross-referral system set up to address the issues that I suspect are wide-spread. Here again is another thing that we need. Collective efforts where we fall short because of the economic crisis or people have to cut back, the city code departments should do what they're supposed to do. We should be working in close concert with them. We should have a more close cross-referral relationship. What we have now and have had for years has been the gap between these agencies, the walls that exist, perhaps in these days and times we're going to have to consider more closely working with each other so that everyone's resources can be put into the big pool and we can address more of the problems in a more holistic fashion

CAVANAUGH: I want to bring this up. Because I know that it must be on some people's minds. There are some people listening to this who will say if conditions are so bad for an undocumented person like Graciela here in this -- in San Diego, then she should just go home to Mexico because she's leer illegally anyway. I want to ask you -- what do you say to that argument?

KNOLL: Not my first thoughts. But rather, a philosophical one. America is built on a pattern of immigration, starting early on. I've heard many people far greater versed than I talk about it being our strength as opposed to our weakness. So it would never occur to me that she should go home. It would occur to me that we should at least live to the laws that we have put in place for ourselves. One, rent habitable quarters. And when they are not habitable, through no fault of the tenant, which is one of the reasons why we need a tenant/landlord agency, then the owner should be required to do what the city says it should do. Two, fund the agencies that can be the outreach in education entities for situations like this. And three, let us all abide by the law, be law abiders. With respect to who's here legally and who's not, that's something for a far greater, more forceful and stronger entity than my own. Ive learned pretty much how to stay in my arena, and I've very well versed on the areas of housing discrimination.

CAVANAUGH: Megan, we kind of have to wrap it up now. What resource is Graciela pursue something

BURKS: She's currently working with the affordable housing advocates, which is voluntary legal aid, and in -- at the end of September, they sent a letter to her landlord asking the landlord to make the repairs by the end of the month. And the last time I spoke to her, the repairs hadn't been made, and her landlord actually threatened her with the eviction. She says that she's still trying to work with that attorney, though, and still trying to fight

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that we invited representatives from the city to join us for this interview, but they were unavailable. Of and the article we've been talking about is from speak city heights, you can find the post and the video on our website at I've been speaking with Megan Burks, who is web editor for speak City Heights, and Mary Scott knoll with the fair housing council of San Diego. Thank you both of thank you very much.

KNOLL: Thank you very much.

BURKS: Thank you.