California tenants rise up and demand rent caps from city halls

ANTIOCH, Calif. (AP) — Kim Carlson’s apartment has been flooded with human feces multiple times, the plumbing never fixed in the low-income housing complex she calls home 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 jerk, she said. Her heater had broken for a month this winter and the dishwasher is growing mold under it. But the final straw came in May: a $500 rent increase, bringing the two-bedroom rent to $1,854 a month.

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

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

“Just normalcy, just freedom, just being able to go outside and breathe and not have to go outside and wonder what’s going to happen next,” said Carlson, 54, who lives with her daughter and two grandchildren in the Delta Pines apartment complex. . “You know, for the kids to feel safe. My babies don’t feel safe.”

Despite a landmark rent protection law passed by California lawmakers in 2019, renters across the nation’s most populous state are taking to the polls and city councils to demand even more safeguards. They want to crack down on tenant harassment, squalid living conditions and unresponsive landlords who are usually faceless businesses.

For their part, elected officials seem more willing than in previous years to regulate what is a private contract between landlord and tenant. In addition to Antioch, city councils in Bell Gardens, Pomona, Oxnard and Oakland all lowered maximum rent increases this year as inflation hit a 40-year high. Other city councils put the issue on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director of the advocacy group Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, says local officials can no longer pretend supply and demand works when so many families are facing homelessness. In June, 1.3 million California households reported being behind on their rentaccording 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 renters can be.

The two council members who voted for rent stabilization are up for re-election on Tuesday, with one of them, Tamisha Torres-Walker, facing a former council member she beat barely two years ago. The local paper supported 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 his seat, the rent regulation can be repealed.

The two councilors who voted no are both in the real estate industry, and not up for re-election.

Antioch, once a largely white suburb, has become more politically liberal as black, Latino and low-income residents forced out of San Francisco and Oakland moved in. Advocates tried for years to mobilize tenants, but it required shockingly high rent increases. the expiration of a statewide eviction moratorium in June to get movement.

Outraged tenants stormed council chambers and described fridges ripped apart from spare parts and washing machines smelling of rotten eggs. They talked about skipping meals, working multiple jobs and living in constant terror of becoming homeless, sleeping in their car and washing their children with bottled water.

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

Teresa Farias, 36, said she was afraid to speak in public, but she was even more afraid that she, her husband and their three children, ages 3 to 14, would have to leave their home. When the family received a $361 rent increase in May, she called the East County Regional Group, a parent organization supported by First 5. They told her to start knocking on doors and talking to her neighbors.

“I really don’t know where my strength came 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 outside her home in The Casa Blanca apartments.

California’s Rent Protection Act 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, limited liability companies or limited partnerships.

The tenants who flooded City Council meetings drew largely from four affordable housing complexes, including sister properties Delta Pines and Casa Blanca, where an estimated 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, rescinded by the landlord as the City Council moved toward approving rent stabilization. Levy did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Councilman Michael Barbanica, who owns a real estate and property management company, called the rent increases outrageous but said the city could have worked with the district attorney’s office to prosecute price-fixing business owners.

Instead, the rent cap penalizes all local landlords, some of whom are now planning to sell, he said.

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

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

Her apartment has flooded at least seven times in the eight years she’s lived there, she said, flipping through cellphone photos of her toilet and bathtub filled with dark, yellowish-brown water. In October 2020, she slipped from water flowing down from the apartment above and dislocated her hip.

She has never been compensated, including all the gifts lost when the apartment flooded with water on Christmas Eve 2017. Two months later, in February 2018, feces and urine bubbled from the tub and toilets.

“We had two five-gallon buckets and a bag of plastic bags brought to us, and we had to (pee and defecate) in those buckets for five days because the toilets were blown off the floor,” Carlson said.

The toilets are still gurgling, indicating blockage. That’s when she shuts off the water and waits for plumbers to handle the backup.

Tenant organizer Devin Williams grew up in Antioch after his parents moved from San Francisco in 2003, part of a migration of black residents leaving urban centers for cheaper homes in safer suburbs. The 32-year-old is devastated that the same option isn’t available to renters like Carlson now.

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

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