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Evictions in a pandemic, part 2: Forced out, fighting to stay

 December 15, 2021 at 8:58 AM PST

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It’s been a little over two weeks since Vanessa Houston first got a notice that she had to leave her home.

Good morning. My name is Vanessa Houston.. I'm just waking up and I'm so sorry anyway, I just woke up and it's like seven fifty or yes, I have a bad headache and I don’t know what to do today.

Now she and her mother Frances have 60 days to find a new place to live.

Ever since they got the letter … a mere two days after San Diego County’s eviction ban expired… Vanessa has woken up every day to the sound of an imaginary countdown clock…

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We are paying our bills on time. We are doing everything required. And we got to leave and now I don’t know where to go.

Her mother Frances, who suffers from early dementia, has been cleaning and packing up the one-bedroom ever since she heard the news.

“It’s all packed up to leave and I still have clothes in the closet so we have to get more boxes to put our things in. but that’s about it. That’s all we’ve been doing since they told us we had to move”

Once the county eviction ban expired -- …in mid August -- if a landlord in San Diego county decided they wanted to substantially remodel a building or some units -- they could terminate a tenant’s lease.

And that’s exactly what happened to Vanessa, her mother Frances and their neighbors.

I Came home one day and there was white envelope. I looked and I said, God, this quite envelopes on everybody's door. And when I opened mine, I realized what they were. They were telling everybody they had to go.

Vanessa and Frances have been living in their El Cajon apartment building for 5 months.

The building’s called “The Palm Gardens..” And...as the name implies...it’s surrounded by these huge, stately palm trees…

Vanessa and Frances knew their building had been sold in August to a new owner...the GLC Legacy Trust.

But they didn’t think much of it, thinking it wouldn’t change anything for them.

They were not prepared to get those white envelopes.

And that's not right. It's really not right, you know, because nobody knew. None of us knew that we were going to have to move out of here.

The new owners told them they could move back in when construction is finished, but their rent will go up.

it was 11 when we moved in here. Right? And it's going to be 50-50. Yeah. Going up to 15 50, that's a big jump from 11 to 15. You know what I mean? [00:03:08][36.6]

Their rent went up from 1100 to 1550. It’s an increase they simply can’t afford on their limited budget. Vanessa is unemployed and Frances is retired.

Vanessa and her mom aren’t alone in this difficult search for new homes.

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As eviction protections end…

AND San Diego’s rental prices continue to soar…

low-income tenants across the County are finding themselves pushed out…..

with few options to remain in their current neighborhoods.

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I’m Cristina Kim, KPBS race and equity reporter.

On this second and final episode of KPBS Investigates - A special on evictions, we follow Vanessa and her mother as they try to find another affordable apartment in San Diego County…

AND...

We take a closer look at the skyrocketing rental market and growing housing rights movement in the wake of the pandemic.

Stay with us.

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I first met Vanessa in August when she got the news that she and her mother had to move out.

Since then she’s been keeping me posted .. sending me audio diaries or updates … of her journey to find a new place to live.

I'm still at it. So try to find a place. I'm. Every place I go to, I'm being shot down like crazy and it's getting kind of close to my surgery, which I'm supposed to be having. There are things I have to do doing my surgery that I can't even think right now because I'm trying to find a place.

As you just heard Vanessa has another approaching deadline she’s trying to meet …

A long awaited Surgery to help her manage her fatty liver disease.

It’s a surgery she needs if she’s ever going to be able to go back to work again.

She can’t stand for long without severe pain and swelling in her legs.

And that way, I have a place to go to, to lay down and recuperate from the surgery, which I'm not sure if that's gonna happen. And I hope I don't have to end up in a hotel for this.

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Until then she takes several pills a day to manage it all …

So I take it and this is ibuprofen, but I get that for pain, but I take it all the time, but I have to take three in the day.

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But I take three or four in the daytime and the eight that you just saw, that's what I take at night.

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Due to the pandemic she’s had to push back the surgery, and she’s racing to find a new home so she can have a place where she can recover

It’s hard to find a place she and her mother can afford.

The average rent for a place in El Cajon is over 1,400 dollars a month for a one-bedroom, according to Zumper, an online rental marketplace.

That’s a 7 percent increase in rental costs in the last year. And nearby, in the city of San Diego...the average rent is over 2,000 dollars.

Vanessa and her mom also face other barriers. … like credit scores.

A lot of these places say they want 600. Your credit rating has to be like six hundred, and unfortunately, my mom has five seventy, I have four seventy and we're not getting anywhere.

The cost of getting their credit score checked is also adding up.

Each time they apply they have to pay a fee to the landlord or management company to run a credit check.

They're charging thirty five, thirty five or forty five dollars per person to do a credit check...

THAT’S just one expense in a growing list of costs and fees that Vanessa … and other people who have been pushed out and need to relocate… are dealing with.

They also have to pay for things like moving boxes, cleaning supplies, u-hauls, movers….and...as the search for apartments gets tighter… storage facilities.

So the manager told me that it looks good on our end, that we most likely got the apartment. And he said, OK, we pulled samples to find out on Saturday. So I'll keep my fingers crossed because my whole attitude was I was getting too tired for this. And I'm like fighting a losing battle type thing, trying to get a permit that I was to by just go get some boxes, put all my stuff in storage and we was just gonna leave.

Putting her stuff in storage will cost her anything from 100 to 300 dollars a month.

Money she doesn’t have…

But the idea of selling or donating everything they own... doesn’t feel possible.

The clothes, television, photographs…

It’s all they have.

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What’s happening to Vanessa is perfectly legal.

Under California and the county’s current tenant protections… landlords can evict tenants for “just causes”...

Which includes substantial remodels or if the landlord intends to move in or take the unit off the rental marketplace.

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In a housing market as hot as San Diego’s … substantial remodels are a common practice as new owners.. Like those that recently acquired Palm Garden….Look to add value and up the rents..

So for the last 40 years, the textbook solution was buy the building with the right things wrong with it.

That’s Terry Moore, he’s been a landlord here for 4 decades and is the co-owner of a San Diego income property brokerage firm.

What are the right things? Well, if it's got ugly paint, it's lousy management, has poor tenants, has poor landscaping. That's the right thing. Wrong with it. You fix that and you can rent it for more.

Terry helps sell apartment complexes like the one Vanessa lives in to investors. His firm actually oversaw the sale of The Palm Gardens this past year.

In all the years he’s worked as a broker, Terry says he’s never seen anything like what’s happening now in San Diego County.

There's 1500 millionaires who want to buy apartments and there's going to be three hundred and fifty apartment buildings. Four units not sell in San Diego County this year. So people want it because it's been a better return than the stock market. People bought apartments in North Park 10 years ago, quadrupled their equity in the last 10 years.

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The demand for multifamily housing and apartment complexes in San Diego is high -- it's a good investment with guaranteed returns for those wealthy enough to invest.

There's a huge demand and not much supply. Rents have gone up faster than inflation for most of the last generation.

He believes increasing the supply could help … but it’s a problem with no quick solutions.

But whenever there's more demand and supply, prices tend to go up. But it took a generation to get this far behind. And it will probably take more than a decade to catch up.

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As the days pass … Vanessa is starting to feel more and more like she just can’t afford to live in San Diego. The place she grew up, went to high school and where most of her mother’s side of the family lives.

Just 6 days before her surgery was scheduled… Vanessa receives some hopeful news.

Just yesterday, I had actually, to be honest with you, I actually found her apartment. And even though I found that apartment, I had to let it go. They charged me like. They charge me like thirty five dollars each, which is 70 dollars to do a credit check, and I give them the money like on a Friday, and they just got back to me as of yesterday. They told me that we got the apartment so far, so I was happy with everything now and he changed the price on this twice for the apartment. And even though I found that apartment, I had to let it go.

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Vanessa thought she had finally found a place….

But at the very end, the rent was increased… twice.

And so..

The search continues…

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As more and more people face housing challenges, local groups are organizing to help people stay housed.

Groups like ACCE … the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

Jose Lopez is a Chula Vista native and the Director of the local ACCE chapter.

We work on the things that our members care the most about. And for the past few years, housing has been the number one issue, specifically rent.

Jose got involved in advocating for affordable housing five years ago … when he worked to bring investment to his community and improve his local park.

Then that's when I saw that there is power in numbers and that I wasn't the only one that wanted to see change.

But that change has its challenges.

One of the toughest challenges here in San Diego County is that many people are unaware of tenants’ rights….They don’t know about the potential for policy changes that could make housing more affordable..

When I first started to talk to people about rent control back in 2017, the majority of the people that I talked to had never had never even heard of rent control. They had no idea that there was there was such a thing where there could be a limit on rent increases.

There’s never been the kind of activism here around tenants’ issues like what we see in other parts of the state like Los Angeles or Oakland.

In Los Angeles, somebody would get like an eviction notice and they would think, like, how do I fight this? And then in San Diego, people were get an eviction notice and they would think, where am I going to move to?

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In response to the rising cost of rent and increased vulnerability for tenants like Vanessa ….Lopez says his focus is growing a movement of tenant empowerment.

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We're doing a lot of work to do outreach and education about the tenant rights. That way, you know, tenants can actually stand up for themselves, because even though there's not a lot of rights, you know, there are some basic protections that we have right now.

And it’s catching on…

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ACCE has been at the heart of several protests and rallies calling attention to unjust evictions…

AMBI OF PROTESTS PIPES THROUGH

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Jose and his team are out there demanding more protections…

and promoting a culture... of fighting back.

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“We started get together as a community and talking over what our options were…”

Charles and his mother Gloria Canizalez are among those fighting back…

Right now, they’re struggling to stay in their apartment in Chula Vista.

Like Vanessa and her mom in El Cajon, their apartment complex was sold to new owners and they were asked to leave for substantial renovations....

And from the get go we felt this sense of hostility…. They took our apartment numbers, they painted over our mailbox and we didn’t know at the time we just thought that was it.

We reached out to the company, Robert Stack and Associates, but they refused to comment.

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Charles and his mom didn’t know what to do when they got the first notice…. but then they reached out to Jose’s tenants right group.

They tell us we have rights, they can’t just throw people out, especially during the pandemic.

Now they want to do whatever they can to stay in their home.

His mother Gloria has become an activist, too.

“Dicerlos a la communidad que se pongan, que buscan ayuda que si hay. Y que nos unamos porque si no nos unimos tambien que esta dificil.”

She says she wants to tell her community that they need to look for help…

That it exists…

And that united…

They are stronger.

It’s possible to fight it, to stay, to make noise…

AMBIE

But for some… like Vanessa…

They don’t have the time and resources to keep fighting.

She had to cancel her surgery because she hadnt found an apartment.

Days later… a friend who lives in another state offered Vanessa and her mother a place to live… rent free… until they can get on their feet again.

So I'm leaving California because the price of living is very expensive.

Vanessa didn’t want me to share where she’s going. She wants a clean start and is afraid some people in her family will get mad at her for making the hard choice to leave San Diego.

But it’s a choice she says she’s been forced to make. She tried for weeks and weeks to find a new home. She called the city for help… and was told the wait for subsidized housing could take years.

I hope we can be able to fit everything into the U-haul. I don't know. But yeah, that's the only thing I could say is that the only thing we're doing now is try to get out of here.

Except for two backpacks… one for Vanessa and one for her mom…

everything they own will go into storage until Vanessa can find her way back to get their clothes, furniture, photos and momentos.

Until then…

She's paying a monthly rent for their things to sit in storage in El Cajon….

While Vanessa and her mother make a new home, a new life...thousands of miles away from San Diego County.

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The question now… is how many more people like Vanessa will be priced out…. And who can afford to stay?

Terry Moore, the long-time landlord and investment property broker, says Vanessa is far from alone.

In the last decade, California has exported thousands of families who made between $30,000 and $110,000 a year. It ain't fair. But it's true not everybody can afford to live where they want to live.

He says that’s just the way the market is…

Things are expensive in California. Not everybody can afford to live in paradise.

But not everybody is giving up hope.

Jose Lopez of ACCE … and the tenants he works with… believe that everybody has a right to live where they work

And they should be able to enjoy the communities they’ve helped build…..

It’s a fight that in some ways is just beginning in San Diego…A fight over the future of the region …. And who gets to be part of that future.

We believe that housing is a human right, this is a movement that is taking off, where community members and tenants realize they deserve respect and dignity… that is what our fight is about, it's about respecting dignity.

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This special KPBS Investigates episode was written, reported and hosted by me, Cristina Kim and Claire Trageser. Rebecca Chacon and Matt Bowler helped with sound, Kinsee Morlan and Alisa Barba helped produce and edit the show. And Emily Jankowski did the sound design.

If you think stories like this one are important and you want to keep hearing them, consider supporting KPBS by becoming a member. Go to kpbs dot org and look for the blue “give now” button.

Thanks for listening.

Vanessa Houston and her mother, Frances Houston in their El Cajon apartment, Sept. 2, 2021.
Matthew Bowler / KPBS
Vanessa Houston and her mother, Frances Houston in their El Cajon apartment, Sept. 2, 2021.
When pandemic-inspired protections for homeowners and renters expired, renters especially have become vulnerable to evictions in San Diego’s hot housing market.

In this second part of a two part series on evictions, KPBS Race and Equity reporter follows one family that has been forced out of their apartment and their search for new housing. Like thousands of other low-income renters in San Diego, their best option may be to leave the region all together. But there are groups organizing to fight evictions, and a growing tenants’ rights movement in San Diego.