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San Diego Tenants Union Fights For Refugees And Other Low-Income Renters

Apartments on Polk Avenue managed by Prime Asset Management where tenants say...

Photo by Priya Sridhar

Above: Apartments on Polk Avenue managed by Prime Asset Management where tenants say they are living in difficult conditions in San Diego on July 24, 2019.

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The ongoing housing affordability crisis impacts nearly everyone in California, but few are hit harder than the refugee community.

Aired: August 14, 2019 | Transcript

The San Diego Tenants Union was formed late last year to protect the rights of renters like the Esolomwa family.

Arriving here in 2016 from a refugee camp in Tanzania, they expected far better living conditions. But since moving to their two-bedroom apartment on Polk Avenue in City Heights, the family has dealt with a broken stove and refrigerator and cockroaches in their living space.

"Back in Africa, we thought America was heaven. No, no. America is not good!," Shabani Esolomwa said in Swahili through a translator.

Catherine Mendonca, a community organizer with the San Diego Tenants Union, regularly visits the Esolomwas and other families on Polk Avenue.

Reported by Priya Sridhar , Video by Kris Arciaga

"A lot of them are a refugee or of immigrant or non-citizen status. A lot of them have resettled and just gotten acclimated with what it's like to live in America, as far as the routine, the schedule and a lot of them aren't aware that there are rights with living in a home," she said.

Nicole Johnson, who lives downstairs from the Esolomwas, called the union after getting eviction papers for not paying her rent. She said families there have been dealing with awful conditions and the managers responsible for her property are doing nothing to help.

"We don't have a working stove. We don't have a working refrigerator," said Johnson, fighting back tears. "The toilet was not properly on the ground. You couldn't move it. The feces water was leaking from the ceiling on me and my daughter."

Mendonca says such issues are common with low-income and minority tenants, especially when there is a language barrier like with the Esolomwas. She says one of the tenants union's top priorities is to notify renters of their rights.

"People need to think of it more as a contract between two parties versus a landlord that is deciding everyone's fate," she said. "It's a mutual contract. When you pay each month that means you and the property manager, landlord, accept that contract."

The union also tries to serve as an advocate for renters when they have issues with their landlords. In this case, the properties on Polk Avenue are managed by Prime Asset Management.

KPBS reached out to the company after hearing about the residents' complaints. The president, Jim Purdy, didn't show up to a scheduled in-person interview with a KPBS reporter. In a phone interview, he said he hadn't received any work orders from the Esolomwas and that the issues with Nicole Johnson's apartment had been resolved.

He added that the company has an online work order system, but acknowledged it might be difficult to navigate for tenants who don't speak English.

Refugee resettlement agencies regularly have to deal with situations like these, said Donna Duvin, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee in San Diego, the agency that resettled the Esolomwas.

"I do think there is an element of this sense too that if they are expressing concerns about their living environment and if that isn't well-received then that also is risking the safety and stability of their families," Duvin said.

An IRC caseworker will see families almost every day during the first six months after they are placed in a home. But after that their contact is far less frequent, Duvin said. The IRC tries to educate families about their rights, but it is often hard for them to understand that, as tenants, they can speak up about housing problems, she said.

Christopher Ridgeway, a real estate attorney, said he frequently deals with habitability issues with tenants and that the law requires landlords to resolve most problems in a timely manner. Renters can sue a landlord for not following the law, but many renters don't have the means to hire an attorney, he said.

The tenants union says legal help is among the services they offer as part of a $25 annual membership.

"This is a beautiful community. It's so diverse with how many people of different backgrounds live here and they deserve the same living conditions as anybody living in the U.S. regardless if they know it or not," Mendonca said.

Since KPBS started working on the story, Prime Asset Management says they won't evict Nicole Johnson from her apartment. The IRC has also offered to find new housing for the Esolomwas.

Listen to this story by Priya Sridhar.

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