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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

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

 August 14, 2019 at 10:59 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 The ongoing housing affordability crisis impacts nearly everyone in California, but few are hit harder than the refugee community. A tenants' union was formed late last year to protect the rights of these vulnerable residents and other renters. KPBS reporter Prius Sridhar takes a look. Speaker 2: 00:20 Yeah. The Lone Loma family came to San Diego in 2016 from a refugee camp in Tanzania. They say since moving to their two bedroom apartment in city heights, they've dealt with a broken stove and refrigerator and cockroaches in their apartment. Speaker 1: 00:37 Luck. This is to go back in Africa. We thought America was heaven. [inaudible] America is not [inaudible] Speaker 3: 00:43 bedroom over here and this is where the mold is still come in. Speaker 2: 00:46 On a recent afternoon, Katherine [inaudible] came to visit the SLM was and other families living on Polk avenue. She's a community organizer with the San Diego Tenants' union. Speaker 3: 00:56 A lot of them are refugee and immigrant status or non citizen status. Um, a lot of them have resettled and I've just gotten acclimated with what it, 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 Speaker 2: 01:17 and the toilet was leaking on us. They came and they repaired that on the ceiling. Nicole Johnson lives downstairs. She called the tenants union after getting eviction papers for not paying her rent. She says the people living here have been dealing with awful conditions and the manager's responsible for her property or doing nothing to help. Speaker 4: 01:36 We don't have a working stove. We don't have a working frigerator there. Their toilet was not on the ground properly so where you can move it, the water, the feces, water was leaking from silly I me and my daughter Speaker 2: 01:50 Mendoza says it's a common problem she sees with low income and minority tenants, especially when there is a language barrier like with the SLM was, she says one of the top priorities of the tenants union is to notify renters of their rights. Speaker 3: 02:03 People need to think of it more as a contract between two parties versus a landlord that is deciding everyone's fate. It's a mutual contract when you pay each month that means you and the property manager, landlord, et cetera excepts that contract. Speaker 2: 02:20 The tenants 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. We reached out to the company after hearing about the residents' complaints. The owner made a site visit but left before our scheduled interview. He told me over the phone that he hadn't received any work orders from the upstairs tenants and that the issues with Nicole Johnson's apartment had been resolved. He said their company has an online work order system but acknowledged that it might be difficult to navigate for tenants who don't speak English. Refugee resettlement agencies regularly have to deal with situations like these. Donna Dooven is the executive director of the international rescue committee in San Diego. The agency that resettled the Salaam was. Speaker 3: 03:09 I do think there's an element of 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. Speaker 2: 03:22 She says during the first six months after placing a family and housing, they see them almost every day. Sometimes case workers make home visits, but usually the families come to the IRC offices. Dooven says the IRC tries to educate families about their rights, but it's often hard for them to understand that as tenants they can speak up about housing problems. Christopher Ridgway is a real estate attorney. He says he frequently deals with habitability issues with tenants and that it's a landlord's responsibility to resolve most problems in a timely manner. He says a landlord could be sued if they don't, and what is the population that they're dealing with isn't likely gonna sue them. What then? Then it becomes a moral question. Really it's, it's any of their business question or moral question. What's gonna motivate somebody back on Polk Avenue? Men Don says says legal help is among the services the tenant union offers as part of a $25 a year membership. Speaker 3: 04:19 This is a beautiful community. It is so diverse with how many people of different backgrounds live here and they deserve the same living conditions as anybody else living in the u s regardless if they know it or not. Speaker 2: 04:35 Since we started working on the story, prime asset management says they're not going to evict Nicole Johnson from her apartment. The IRC has also offered to find new housing for the east. Salaam was joining me is KPBS reporter Priya Sharifa and Pria. Welcome. Thanks. You say the San Diego tenants union was just formed late last year. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? Like who got the ideas started? Sure, so it was a group of activists and they actually started a organization called San Diego tenants United back in 2015 but late last year they got a big grant from the California endowment. So they're in the process of turning it into a five oh one C3 and renaming it the San Diego tenants union and making it more of a, what you would think of as stereotypical union. And it was a kind of interesting concept to me cause I think most of the time when we think of unions, we think of labor unions and this is obviously a little bit different. Speaker 2: 05:31 Can anyone who rents in any area of San Diego join? Absolutely. So they're based in city heights and they have a focus kind of on low income renters or minority renters because that's where they're seeing a lot of the problems. So right now a lot of their members are based in city heights, but they're open to people joining from anywhere really in San Diego County. What do tenants get for their membership? So it's about a $25 a year membership. And some of the things they offer are legal services for issues that might arise between tenants and landlords. People who might be able to look over leases if there are payment disputes, um, habitability issues. They also serve as an advocate. Someone who can potentially talk to your landlord or your property manager. And they also try to just educate you about your rights. What are your landlord's responsible for when it comes to the amenities of your apartment or house or the conditions of your house. Speaker 2: 06:30 And then on the flip side of that, they're also doing a lot of political advocacy. You know, we obviously talk about affordability of housing here in San Diego. And one of the things that they're pushing for strongly is a rent cap here in San Diego. And that's something that really doesn't exist in most of California. How much leverage does this union have with landlords? So one of the things that they've found to be the most successful is actually doing what they call a rent strike. And this isn't necessarily just encouraging people to not pay their rents, but what they're seeing a lot is that rents are being increased, sometimes doubling with just a 60 day notice period. Or I actually did a story recently where the rent went up about 75% and the people who were living in that building only got a 60 day notice. And so oftentimes they're seeing that in these buildings. Speaker 2: 07:21 Um, the conditions aren't really that great. So they're encouraging their tenants to only pay the standard rent that they had agreed to in the original lease and not paying any sort of difference until conditions have been met. And according to them, it's actually been a pretty successful tactic. If the conditions were as bad as described by the tenants and your story, couldn't they contact the city and, and have the landlord sided? Absolutely. There are laws, there are property rights ordinances. Um, there's a code enforcement division in the city, but oftentimes people aren't really aware of these things and you have to keep in mind that, especially with this particular story, there was a language barrier. So these people don't really know where their resources are or what their rights are. And to be perfectly frank, I even didn't know a lot of what my own rights were until I really started researching this story. Speaker 2: 08:13 But through that research, I found that there is the food and housing division within the county of San Diego. And if you do a simple, I'm having housing problems in San Diego county, Google search, a list of phone numbers for everywhere in the county comes up and they have a, the county actually has the department of Environmental Health, food and housing division and they'll come and do essentially investigations or site visits if you have complaints. And then housing disputes are settled by the California Department of Consumer Affairs. If you're having mold issues, it's the California Department of Health Services. So yes, there are different agencies, governmental agencies that deal with all of these issues. But of course that's very bureaucratic and it can take a long time. And if you're living in mold, you kind of want it to get resolved pretty quickly. And the introduction to this report, you mentioned the housing affordability crisis. Speaker 2: 09:07 Did the people you spoke with indicate that that crisis is affecting how landlords treat their properties and their tenants? So one thing I found kind of fascinating was both the Union and uh, the real estate lawyer that I spoke to said that unfortunately here in San Diego County, in so many situations, housing has turned into more of a business rather than a right or a moral obligation. And that's sort of the lens that we're looking at it through that instead of thinking of this as a right for all of the city's residents, that, you know, people are trying to just make a buck. And I think that can oftentimes be exacerbated when you look at people who are on government assistance, when you have people who are getting section eight housing vouchers and that's how the landlords are getting paid. Sometimes they don't necessarily view the tenant as the person who's paying the rent. Speaker 2: 09:56 And so it seems like there's a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunications, especially in those scenarios. Did you find out if the Salaam was found a new place to live? So what's interesting is the executive director of the IRC said that they were trying to find them new housing, but the SLM was actually turned it down. And in my head I thought, well, how could that be possible? But she said, you really have to understand the mentality of refugees, that they have been moving sometimes for decades with war zones and completely hostile situations. This particular family went from Congo to a refugee camp in Tanzania, and finally were able to settle here in San Diego in 2016 so for them, this is the first stability this family has had in decades. So they simply don't want to move. They just want to make this work. I've been speaking with KPBS reporter Prius. Sure. Ether. Thank you, Priya. Thanks. Speaker 5: 10:51 Uh.

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