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City Heights Refugees Cope With Substandard Housing

A Congolese family lives in this home in City Heights that they say is infest...

Photo by Andi Dukleth

Above: A Congolese family lives in this home in City Heights that they say is infested by cockroaches and mold on August 16, 2019.

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Those hit hardest by San Diego's affordable housing crisis are often from the most vulnerable communities. Some feel they must accept unsanitary living conditions or lose their home.

Aired: September 6, 2019 | Transcript

Alulu Kashindi came to the United States as a refugee from Congo four years ago with his wife and six children.

"I left my country to come to the U.S because the Mai-Mai militia was hunting me," he said through a translator.

After a temporary stay at a refugee camp in Burundi, the Kashindis ended up in San Diego.

"I felt very happy that I would get to live in peace and away from those people that were hunting me," he said.

But living here brought a new set of problems. Last year the family moved into a home in City Heights, their third house since resettling in the United States. Since then, they've dealt with a broken window in their daughters' bedroom, mold in their sons' bedroom and a cockroach infestation.

"When we're cooking, they crawl into food when we put food on a plate and step away for a second to grab something in the room, you'll find them crawling onto the plate," Kashindi said.

They say they've made numerous complaints to their property management company, Prime Asset Management.

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

Instead of addressing their complaints, the Kashindis say the company began eviction proceedings against them. They are among at least a half dozen families who've said they're living in substandard conditions managed by Prime Asset Management.

Tenants' rights lawyer Dan Lickel, who is representing three of the families, said the Kashindis' situation is not uncommon.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the complaints have been made in this case about these problems," Lickel said. "But the response was inadequate and now what we're hearing from management...is that 'we never knew anything about this.' And that's not true."

KPBS reached out to the company's president Jim Purdy who said through text message that he's unable to respond to questions due to pending litigation.

Lickel says tenants have more rights than they think they do, but they need to know the law.

"California law would respect the decision of tenants to withhold the rent if repairs aren't being made," Lickel said. "But it's something that needs to be done very carefully because you want to make sure that, as a tenant, that [the problem] is a serious violation of the warranty of habitability."

Another place to turn is San Diego's code enforcement division. Tenants can make a complaint to the city by phone (619 236 5500), online or in person at the division's First Avenue office.

The department has three levels of priorities, said Leslie Sennett, deputy director of the city's Code Enforcement Division. The first level, which inspectors respond to within one day, is imminent health and safety.

These include complaints involving live exposed wires, open sewage or unprotected swimming pool barriers. The next level, which inspectors respond to withing five working days, covers things like mold and insects and animals that transmit disease.

After receiving a notice of violation, the inspector gives the property owner anywhere from a week to a month, depending on the seriousness of the violation, to bring the property into compliance, Sennett said. If the property owner doesn't make the necessary changes or repairs, the case can be forwarded to the city's attorney's office.

At any given time in San Diego there are about 3500 open code enforcement cases being worked by 15 inspectors, Sennett said.

Kashindi speaks philosophically of his struggles.

"I see what the reality is, but I just have to love and live in this country that gives me peace," he said.

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