Roach-infested apartments, human feces in the hallway, broken toilets. Substandard living situations are more common in Monterey County than you know.
Thursday, July 29, 1999
Colorful bed sheets are the window coverings here and linoleum covers the floors of some units. Most of the holes and chips in the exterior stucco have been caused by careless drivers bumping into the building.
But the grandmother, who declined to give her name, says her apartment is not so bad. The hole in her wall caused by the upstairs neighbors'' leaky pipe has only been there two weeks and the maintenance people have promised to come soon and fix it, the woman says through a teenage neighbor who has agreed to act as interpreter.
Health inspectors, community activists, and district attorneys say it isn''t uncommon to find families living in garages, rat-infested apartments and sometimes even tents in Monterey County.
"We do get a lot of tenants that live in what a lot of people would consider substandard housing," says Teri Scarlett, an attorney with Legal Aid, a nonprofit organization that offers free legal help to low-income people. "That''s all they can afford."
The county''s 10 health inspectors investigate anywhere from 300 to 500 substandard housing complaints each year, says Susan Rimando, a senior environment health specialist with the Monterey County Department of Environmental Health. Those complaints can range from the relatively minor, such as junk piles in the front yard, to allegations of serious problems like ceilings falling in, vermin infestation and broken sewage lines.
Officials say there''s no way to estimate how many apartments and homes in Monterey County meet the legal definition of "substandard"--a definition laid out in state law. Still, some might be surprised at the places people find themselves shelling out hard-earned money to live in.
"Some of the places people live in are unbelievable," says Monterey County Sheriff''s Deputy Rich Matthews, a member of a local multi-agency task force that investigates substandard housing as part of its duties.
Scarlett once represented a Cachagua Valley woman with a young son who paid $350 a month to live in a vinegar barrel. There was no running water or electricity.
And that''s not the worst of it. The county courts and local officials are full of stories of people paying to live in tool sheds and VW vans, stuffed nine-deep in a two-car garage, sidestepping human feces on their way into their apartment door, living in fear that the cockroaches and rats that infest their rented homes will bite their babies, shivering through a winter''s night in an apartment with no heat, or walking on carpet that is so water damaged and wet that mushrooms are growing on it.
Most landlords, officials stress, hasten to clean up problems that are brought to their attention, and not every low-income housing tract is a slum.
"But there are landlords that just don''t really care," Scarlett says. "There are certain slumlords in this town."
And the problems aren''t confined to cities that have a reputation for providing cheap living accommodations.
"There are even pretty junky places in Pacific Grove," Scarlett says.
"There are problem people out there," says Lydia villarreal, a deputy district attorney who has prosecuted several property owners.
Health inspectors, who are on the front lines in the battle against substandard housing, say they often encounter the same names when dealing with complaints.
But Rimando says most of them have fixed past problems and remain in compliance with health and safety codes.
Perhaps it has something to do with the hefty fines the courts can levy on property owners.
A cased settled in 1998 required Rameshwar and Deri Shanti Singh, owners of the Northridge Villa Apartments on Castro Street in Salinas, to pay $50,000 for providing substandard accommodations that included cockroach- and rat-infested units, "common areas" littered with trash, food and feces, and front doors that lacked locks.
Robert Taylor, a Salinas attorney who represented the Singhs, says sometimes health inspectors'' reports make problems sound worse than they are.
The inspector who investigated Northridge Villas could "write up a leaky faucet and make it sound like a major health risk," Taylor says.
He said tenants caused many of the problems at Northridge Villa.
"The interesting thing is if the tenant doesn''t keep it clean, it''s the landlord who''s violating the health code," Taylor says. "At Northridge Villas, I would say that was 50 percent of the problem."
After the violations were brought to the Singhs'' attention, court records indicate they made substantial improvements to the complex. They have since sold the property, Taylor says.
In 1991, Villareal prosecuted one of the most notorious local substandard housing cases. A 1990 health inspection report detailed 577 violations in 27 units on North Hebbron Street in Salinas owned by Durell Agha, and the lawsuit resulted in the largest fine ever levied on a MoCo landlord.
The units--Nos. 47 through 55--were closed by judicial order following the inspection, and at the end of the case, Agha was ordered to pay a $100,000 fine.
Among the violations found by a health inspector included "general deficiencies" such as lack of working smoke detectors and heaters, rat-infested units, broken toilets, water-damaged walls, rooms without windows or ventilation, serious heating and wiring problems--including evidence of arc marks and burns on circuit breakers--and flammable materials stored throughout the units.
Court records estimated Agha made $200,000 in rental income during the three years she owned the complex. Tenants paid between $150 and $250 a month to live there, some of them in closets, carports, sheds and a Volkswagen van.
Court records indicated Agha owned at least 20 other properties at the time, and health officials were prepared to testify that "she [had] people living in similar conditions elsewhere."
The Hebbron Street units have since been cleaned up and are now bordered by a tidy lawn and clean-swept parking lots.
No Way Out
The reasons people live in such conditions has as much to do with socioeconomic status as it does with Monterey County''s infamously tight housing market.
"There is a shameful lack of affordable housing, not just for farmworkers but for low-income families," says Juan Uranga, executive director of the Center for Community Advocacy in Salinas, a 9-year-old nonprofit that teaches tenants how to work with property owners to clean up housing accommodations.
Since its inception, the center has helped improve conditions in more than 30 housing sites--most of them farmworker labor camps--by helping tenants form committees that can work with landlords to make improvements.
He says hard-working families are often forced to accept poor accommodations because they can''t afford anything else.
Monterey County''s bedrock industries--agriculture and tourism--create lots of jobs, Uranga says, but those jobs generally come with low wages.
"People are creating jobs for a population of low-income workers without any thought for how those workers are going to get housing," he says. "That''s a big part of the problem."
"I''ve been here 12 years," says Legal Aid''s Scarlett, "and this is one of the worse times I''ve seen for tenants. The vacancy rate is so low, pretty much people are desperate and they just move into a place and think, ''Wow, I got this two-bedroom house for $700.''"
In other cases, the tenants may be illegal immigrants who are wary of dealing with the hassles that may come with renting an apartment. Or, Matthews says, many of the renters "don''t want anyone to know they''re around."
Still, it isn''t cheap to live in substandard housing. Scarlett says the majority of tenants she finds living in substandard housing situations pay between $500 and $800 per month. And no matter how bad those homes may be, many tenants are glad to have them.
One of the most common problems inspectors discover locally is people who live in garages. The city of Salinas handles "hundreds of cases" every year of people--many of them immigrant farmworkers--who pay anywhere from $100 to $150 a month to share a two-car garage, says Sheila Laurie, the city''s code compliance specialist.
Such tenants must vacate the garage immediately, Laurie says. Garages aren''t zoned as living spaces, she says, and also, many garages contain a home''s water heater. It is dangerous for people to live in such close proximity to the devices.
"We''re not into the displacement or deportation of people," Laurie says. "Our concern is if we walk away from it, it could be a problem."
Better Than Sleeping Under a Bridge
California Health and Safety Codes mandate the basic necessities landlords must provide. At the same time, state law contains a very clear definition of at least 40 conditions that define a "substandard building."
Those conditions vary from inadequate sanitation to "general dilapidation" of the premises (such as peeling paint or broken windows) to the accumulation of vegetation and debris that could constitute a health, fire or safety risk, or that could become a harborage for rats or other rodents.
For most tenants, the county health department is their first line of defense against living in squalor. The department is responsible for enforcing the health code, and many complaints about housing conditions are directed toward them first.
"Our concern is generally protecting health and safety," says county Director of Environmental Health Walter Wong. "We''ve had deaths--people dying from asphyxiation due to improperly vented stoves and things like that."
The department must investigate every complaint it receives, Rimando says. When violations are discovered, property owners receive notice that they must rectify the problem. Health inspectors then do a follow-up investigation to make sure the problem has been rectified. If not, the health department has the power to refer serious scofflaws to the district attorney for possible prosecution.
Sometimes, health inspectors find conditions so deplorable and dangerous to health and well-being that the buildings are "red-tagged"--shut down on the spot--and all tenants are forced to leave. That''s what happened in the Agha case, for instance.
In the bigger cases, the Department of Social Services steps in to help the tenants find housing (in the Agha case, Villarreal says the county shelled out $40,000 for emergency housing for the displaced tenants. Agha later repaid that money).
Scarlett says the fear of "red-tagging" and its subsequent eviction means many of the people she represents don''t lodge complaints with the county.
"A lot of our tenants are afraid of being evicted," she says. "They won''t go to Environmental Health, they''ll just live with it."
And, says Uranga, "as dangerous as (the living situation) may be, it''s better than living under bridges or in cars."
Officials themselves are also sensitive to those problems, which is why some of the worst cases can drag on in the courts for years before substantial improvements are made.
"Nothing on This Scale"
Take the Cypress Sands Apartment Complex in Marina, for instance. That''s another well-known Monterey County case that, months after the problems have begun to be corrected, frequently comes to attorneys'' and health inspectors'' lips when speaking of substandard housing.
The 85-unit complex--nicknamed the "Halls of Hell" by city inspectors, police officers and others involved with the case--was visited by a health inspector nine times in the months between Feb. 9 and July 27, 1994. Over and over, the inspector found the same violations, including inoperative toilets, bathrooms that lacked either hot or cold running water, water-damaged and mildewed cupboards, walls and ceilings, rodent and cockroach infestations, inoperative smoke alarms, faulty wiring, and an "accumulation of debris, garbage, sewage, fecal material, disabled vehicles and trash."
"I''ve been with Marina since 1984, and this is the only time we''ve ever had anything like that," says Marina Assistant City Attorney Ken Buchert, one of a group of lawyers who had a hand in trying clean up Cypress Sands. "We''ve had problems sometimes with smaller apartments, but there''s been nothing on this scale."
But attorney Taylor, who also represented Cypress Sands'' owner Barbara Epis, says the health inspector overstated the extent of the problems in the complex.
"The report made it look way worse than it was," says Taylor, who again attributed many of the complex''s problems to bad tenants, especially a few "drug dealers" who earned the complex its reputation. "I think it''s a nice project. Even when it was at the point when the county Health Department was saying it was in its worse condition, it was still 50 to 70 percent better than some college housing I''ve seen."
Cypress Sands resident Vicki Heilmann might disagree.
"When I first came to look at an apartment, I saw a pile of human feces on the carpet in the corner," says Heilmann, who moved into Cypress Sands in October of 1997 with her two teenage sons. "The carpet [in the upstairs hallway] had big stains on it and stank of urine. When I went into the apartment, it was clean, but I saw a cockroach in one of the closets. I asked the manager about bugs, but he told me there weren''t any."
Her first night in her new apartment, however, Heilmann went into the kitchen late at night, flicked on a light, and was greeted by the chilling sight of cockroaches "all over the walls."
After complaining, she was given tubes of a super-strong pesticide gel she squirted around the perimeters of her upstairs unit. The cockroaches left, but other problems--like broken burners on her stove and a hole in her ceiling--remained.
Meanwhile, Cypress Sands and owner Barbara Epis were facing a lawsuit from the District Attorney, and were under inspection from the Health Department and Marina code and fire inspectors.
Later, the lawsuit was turned over to the Marina City Attorney''s office, which has been successful in mandating necessary repairs at the complex. (Sometime during those months, incidentally, rent was raised. A one-bedroom apartment that rented for $450 a month in 1995 was raised to the $625 per month it rents for today.)
All those years, however, tenants continued to rent apartments in Cypress Sands.
"The theoretical way of coming down on a building like that is to get a court order that says the tenants have to move out," Buchert says. "But who does that hurt? It hurts the owner financially, but deep down it hurts the very people who can''t afford to be hurt, the very people who need to live there. In Monterey County, one of our biggest problems is low-income housing. This way, it hurts a little bit, but we finally get resolution."
Taylor says it was difficult to fix many of the complex''s problems, because tenants were the cause of much of it.
"One day I saw a window in a hallway being repaired because it had been broken by a tenant," he says. "The next day, it was broken again."
He also said many tenants didn''t report problems that later ended up in the health inspectors'' report.
Today, many of Cypress Sand''s 85 units have been renovated. (See story, pg. 17).
"It''s not a palace," Buchert says, "but then again, they''re not charging that type of rent. Unfortunately, there''s no law against things not being pretty, but they have to be sanitary and up to code. They can''t be dangerous."
"They''ve done a lot to clean it up," says Heilmann, who now lives in a downstairs unit, the front of which she''s landscaped with rows of colorful flowers she planted herself. "I like it here."
Ironically, many tenants who live in such conditions would be better off on the taxpayers'' dime. Health inspectors and others say that, in some cases, tenants in federally funded Section 8 housing tracts are better off than those living on their own. Section 8 housing, at least, is subject to annual inspections of cleanliness and minimum safe living standards, Scarlett says, whereas "a private person doesn''t have the same standards and is not held accountable."
Property owners and even health inspectors say that often tenants themselves create many of the problems.
It''s a tenant''s responsibility to keep the inside of their unit clean, Rimando says, and they should report problems to the landlord so they can be fixed before becoming a major problem.
Many times, Rimando will respond to complaints of a cockroach infestation to discover the tenant has created the problem himself.
"I tell them, you have cockroaches because you''re not keeping a clean house," Rimando says. "Sometimes people don''t like to hear that, but they have to do their part to keep the place clean."
Making it Better
Officials are teaming up to clean up substandard housing situations.
Three years ago, county agencies formed the Multi-Agency Environmental Task Force to deal with housing and other issues. The group, which includes representatives from Environmental Health, the Sheriff''s Department, Social Services, Animal Control, Vehicle Abatement and others, works to handle specific problem areas.
The task force will go en masse into problem areas--sometimes entire neighborhoods that contain homes known to contain many of the problems common to substandard housing. Junk piles, abandoned cars, stray or abused animals, and unsafe living conditions all will be cited during the group runs.
The first year, the task force handled 75 cases; in ''97, it dealt with 98 cases; saw 127 cases last year; and as of June 2 of this year, it has handled 76 cases, the Sheriff''s Department''s Matthews says.
Uranga says he hasn''t seen as many instances of landlords who buy property and collect rent without making any good faith efforts to make improvements or keep up the properties.
"It''s always going to be an uphill battle," says Matthews. "But I think we''re putting a pretty good dent in it."