California tenants stand up and demand rent caps from town halls

ANTIOCH, CALIF. – Kim Carlson’s apartment has been repeatedly flooded with human excrement, the plumbing has never been fixed in the public housing complex she lives in in the San Francisco Bay Area suburb of Antioch.

Her property manager is verbally abusive and calls her 9-year-old grandson, who has autism, a dirty word, she said. His radiator was broken for a month this winter and the dishwasher has mold underneath. But the straw broke the camel’s back in May: a rent increase of $500, bringing the rent for the two-bedroom apartment to $1,854 per month.

Carlson and other tenants hit by similarly high increases converged on Antioch City Hall for marathon hearings, pleading for protection. In September, City Council, by a 3-2 vote, approved a 3% cap on annual increases.

Carlson, who is disabled and undergoing treatment for lymphoma cancer, begins to cry as she imagines what her life might be like.

“Just normality, just freedom, just being able to walk outside and breathe and not have to go out and wonder what’s going to happen next,” said Carlson, 54, who lives with his daughter and two grandchildren. son in the Delta Pines apartment complex. . “You know, to make the kids feel safe. My babies do not feel safe.

Despite a landmark tenant protection law approved by California lawmakers in 2019, tenants in the nation’s most populous state are heading to the polls and city councils to demand even more safeguards. They want to crack down on tenant harassment, poor living conditions and callous landlords who are usually limited companies.

Elected officials, for their part, seem more inclined than in the past to regulate what is a private contract between landlord and tenant. In addition to Antioch, the city councils of Bell Gardens, Pomona, Oxnard and Oakland have all cut maximum rent increases this year as inflation hit a 40-year high. Other city councils have put the issue to the November 8 ballot.

Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director of advocacy group Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, says local officials can no longer pretend supply and demand are working when so many families face homelessness. In June, 1.3 million California households reported being behind on rent, according to the US Census Bureau.

The situation in working-class Antioch — where more than half the population is black or Latino — illustrates how tenuous even a victory for tenants can be.

The two council members who voted in favor of rent stabilization are re-elected on Tuesday, one of them, Tamisha Torres-Walker, facing a former council member she narrowly beat two years ago . The local newspaper endorsed Joy Motts and called Torres-Walker, who was homeless as a young adult, polarizing.

Mayor Lamar Thorpe, who provided the third vote, faces allegations of sexual harassment from two women, which he denies. They are part of a progressive black majority.

If one of the members loses their seat, the rents ordinance could be repealed.

The two board members who voted no are both in the real estate business and are not eligible for re-election.

A once largely white suburb, Antioch became more politically liberal as black, Latino, and low-income residents were pushed out of San Francisco and Oakland moved in. the expiration of a statewide eviction moratorium in June to gain movement.

Outraged tenants crammed into council chambers describing fridges rebuilt from spare parts and washing machines that reeked of rotten eggs. They talked about skipping meals, working multiple jobs, and living in constant terror of becoming homeless, sleeping in their cars, and bathing their children with bottled water.

“We saw a lot of fear, a lot of desperation,” said Rhea Laughlin, organizer of First 5 Contra Costa, a county initiative that focuses on early childhood. But, she said, she also saw people find the courage “to go before the council, to rally, to march, to speak to the press and to be exposed in a way that I think which tenants were too afraid to do before, but now really felt they had little to lose.

Teresa Farias, 36, said she was terrified of speaking in public but was even more afraid that she, her husband and their three children, aged 3 to 14, would be forced to leave their home. When the family received a $361 rent increase notice in May, they called the East County Regional Group, a parent advocacy organization supported by First 5. They told her to start knocking on doors and talk to his neighbours.

“I really don’t know where my strength comes from, to be able to speak in public, to be able to speak in front of the city council…to ask them to help us with this issue,” she said in Spanish. in front of his house in the Casa Blanca apartments.

California Tenant Protection Law limits rent increases to a maximum of 10% per year. But many types of housing are exempt, including low-income complexes funded by government tax credits and increasingly owned by corporations, LLCs or limited partnerships.

The tenants who flooded city council meetings were largely from four affordable housing complexes, including sister properties Delta Pines and Casa Blanca, where about 150 households received large rent increases in May. The properties are linked to Shaoul Levy, founder of the real estate investment firm Levy Affiliated in Santa Monica.

The rent increases never took effect, canceled by the landlord as the city council prepared to approve rent stabilization. Levy did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Councilman Michael Barbanica, owner of a real estate and property management company, called the rent hikes outrageous, but said the city could have worked with the district attorney’s office to prosecute the business owners who abuse prices.

Instead, the rent cap penalizes all local landlords, some of whom are now considering selling, he said.

“They’re not the ones making 30-40-50% increases,” Barbanica said, “but they got caught in the crossfire.”

But, Carlson said, the city needs to enact even more protections for tenants. The apartment complex is infested with cockroaches and her neighbors are too scared to speak, she said.

Her apartment has flooded at least seven times in the eight years she has lived there, she said, flipping through photos of her toilet and bathtub filled with dark yellow-brown water. In October 2020, she slipped from water leaking from the upstairs apartment and dislocated her hip.

She was never compensated, including all the gifts lost when the apartment was flooded with water on Christmas Eve 2017. Two months later, in February 2018, excrement and urine gushed out of the bath and toilet.

“We got two five-gallon buckets and a bag of plastic bags and we had to (urinate and defecate) in those buckets for five days because the toilet blew out of the floor,” Carlson said.

The toilet is still gurgling, indicating a blockage. That’s when she turns off the water and waits for the plumbers to clean out the storeroom.

Tenant organizer Devin Williams grew up in Antioch after his parents left San Francisco in 2003, part of a migration of black residents from inner cities to cheaper homes in safer suburbs. The 32-year-old is devastated that the same opportunity is no longer available to tenants like Carlson now.

“People have a responsibility to make sure people have livable living conditions,” he said. “And their lives are just taken advantage of because people want to make money.”

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