Protests organized; laws proposed; guidelines questioned.
Thursday, April 4, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell; Sonia Nateras-Gomez stands with her children, Selene San Emeterio and Oscar San Emeterio, outside their Seaside apartment. Nateras-Gomez is organizing her fellow tenants to resist a rent increase.
Thursday, April 4, marks the launch of a statewide campaign to fortify renters as a political force in California.
In Monterey and seven major cities from San Diego to Oakland, activists will rally against the often one-sided power of landlords. The event coincides with legislative action undertaken this month aimed at providing some safety to those who pay rent for shelter.
"This is the first action in a campaign for renters'' rights in California," says Brian Ketterning, campaign director for the California stem of ACORN, (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) an advocacy group for low-income people. "The ultimate goal is to build more power for renters and working people around the state."
Ketterning, who works out of Sacramento, says the campaign is aimed at making relations more fair between renters and landlords. A coalition of 60 organizations, including labor unions, grassroots activists and church groups, is being mobilized for the effort.
"It showed how arbitrary the eviction process can be for tenants," Ketterning says.
This month, a bill sponsored by state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton of San Francisco will be heard by state legislators. Introduced last year, the measure would issue a $2.1 billion bond to provide housing for farmworkers, other low-income workers, and shelter for victims of domestic violence. If it passes the legislature, Burton''s bill will be put on the November ballot for a public vote. Given Burton''s powerful position, Ketterning is confident of the bill''s ballot chances.
"The Burton bond will definitely pass. There''s no question," he says.
The legislature will consider other renters'' rights bills, including one that would require a 60-day eviction notice and another that would protect security deposits.
The statewide effort is linked up with local campaigns here on the Peninsula. Last fall, city leaders in Monterey, Seaside, Pacific Grove and Marina tried to make the housing situation more equitable by implementing voluntary rent guidelines. Under the measures, landlords are asked to "keep rent increases reasonable," give tenants "predictability and the opportunity to plan ahead," maintain their properties, and, in the event of a rent hike, to "attach a sensitively written letter."
Local housing activists allege that greed is a stronger impulse than fairness and that some landlords are skirting the guidelines.
Asked if the city has had complaints about landlords not complying with the guidelines, Monterey''s housing director, Bob Humel says, "there have been some."
Humel plans to report on the progress of the voluntary guideline program to the city council within the month.
Bill Melendez, chairman of the Coalition of Minority Organizations'' Committee on the Housing Crisis, (COMO) is already calling the guidelines "ineffective."
"Everybody we''ve talked to has had increases in the past year of 15 percent, if not 20 percent," Melendez says.
Melendez contacted Mangold Property Management company in Monterey by letter, admonishing it for allegedly raising rents 23 percent in a year in one Seaside complex-raising rent on people who have not had corresponding pay raises. He implored that the matter be addressed before the tenants have to complain to an outside mediator. Mangold, which is located in downtown Monterey, will be the site of the April 4 rally. The protest is being organized by COMO in conjunction with the Hotel Employee and Restaurant Employee (HERE) Union Local 483.
No one was available to speak for Mangold at press time. However in a letter dated March 1, Mangold noted that the increases were in compliance with the voluntary rent guidelines because the rents being charged are below market rates. The letter also said the company is "willing to discuss hardship cases on an individual basis."
HERE represents hundreds of area hospitality workers. Since Sept. 11., many members of the union have had their hours cut back or been laid off. Even so, Mark Weller of HERE says many union members are hesitant to speak critically about their landlords.
"They''re afraid of retaliation," Weller says.
One person who is not afraid is Sonia Nateras-Gomez.
"I am very angry with this owner because he wants more money," Nateras-Gomez says. "He never wants to talk to us directly. He never talks in public."
A teacher at Juan Cabrillo Elementary in Seaside making $1,441 per month, Nateras-Gomez lives across the street from the school in an apartment building on La Playa, in the complex that was the subject of correspondence between Melendez and Mangold. Through COMO, Nateras-Gomez has organized her fellow tenants in protest of a rent hike that took effect on April 1. She keeps a folder stuffed full of pay stubs from her neighbors-many receipts for cleaning houses, motel rooms and dishes. She showed them all to a reporter to prove, as she says, "They don''t have money, these people."
Nateras-Gomez had been paying $645 a month for a one bedroom apartment that she has shared with her three children for a year, after moving from Mexico in 2000.
She has been informed she will have to pay another $50 per month on April 1, then on Oct. 1, $50 per month more.
"I don''t have money," she says. "I need money for food. I need money for clothes for my children. I don''t have money for him [the landlord]."
Nateras-Gomez says she was told not to speak to the press about any rent increases. But she is, and she''s trying to establish solidarity among all the tenants in her complex not to pay the increase.
"I don''t have scare for him," she says.