Terry Robbins is steamed. "For these landlords to do this to us is just unconscionable," the 79-year-old New York native says disgustedly. "They have no heart and they don''t care. What gives them the right to do this to us?"
"These landlords" are the Buena Vista Land Company, a Napa-based rental property owner with buildings throughout the greater Bay Area. The "unconscionable" act is announcing a $200-a-month rent increase to the tenants of four of Buena Vista''s six Monterey Peninsula properties.
"We''re going to have to move," frets Robbins, who settled here five years ago with her husband, now 81, to be near their two sons and grandchildren. The couple lives in a two-bedroom unit. "My rent is going to be $1,050. I can''t do it. I''ll have to leave Monterey. I don''t even know where the hell to go."
Residents of the complexes--two in Monterey and two in Pacific Grove--were shocked to learn in early November that their rents will jump starting Jan. 1. Mel-vin Fortes, a company spokesman, did not return calls from the Weekly, but at a Nov. 18 meeting with tenants, he named rising property taxes, insurance costs and energy bills as reasons for the hike.
"When I opened the letter on Nov. 6," says Sam Lipsky, a resident of Olympia Grove in Pacific Grove, "I thought, ''This must be a mistake.''" The new rent on Lipsky''s one-bedroom apartment will be $1,120.
Since then, he says, he''s heard of many people, most of them elderly, who are planning to move. Others will manage to stay. "There are people who have remarked to me, ''We''ll just skimp on meals and take our medication every other day,''" says Lipsky sadly.
Indeed, Olympia Pines, Olympia Grove, Olympia West and Olympia Oaks have apparently been nice places to live, places no one wants to leave. At Olympia Pines, lushly vegetated grounds make up for the plain apartment interiors, and judging from the holiday decorations and plants on people''s balconies, it''s truly home to its residents. Some of them have been there 20 years or more. All the complexes have a large contingent of seniors.
Velma Hollingsworth, an advocate for the nonprofit Legal Services for Seniors, says she got "dozens" of calls from seniors from the apartment complexes after the notice went out. "Our clients are 60 or over, and their incomes don''t go up, unlike rents around here," she says. "It''s very difficult for seniors to be displaced. It''s very traumatic."
For Stuart Goldman, the somewhat reluctant organizer of an effort to negotiate with Buena Vista, the issue is the size and suddenness of the increase. If Fortes had just raised the rent slowly, "he could have more money right now and no one would notice."
That''s just what Goldman and other tenants discussed with Fortes at two meetings on Nov. 15 and Nov. 18. Goldman hoped to persuade Fortes to drop the $200 hike and in its place implement a steady but controlled increase. Instead, Fortes gave them two options: accept the $200 increase and be spared another until Jan. 2003, or accept a $175 increase with no guarantee of what will happen in the future. Either way, Fortes stipulated, continuing to raise the notion of any sort of rent control would nullify the bargain. (Fortes did relent on the subject of long-term renters. Those who''ve been there eight years or longer will pay a $125 monthly increase.)
The tenants opted for the $175 increase with no guarantees.
A couple of weeks ago Monterey Mayor Dan Albert called Fortes. It''s the first time he''s ever called a landlord on behalf of tenants, but, he says, "I haven''t received this many calls dealing with large rent increases since I''ve been here. I know water''s a big issue, but I think the housing issue is going to become a bigger issue unless there''s some kind of housing that''s going to be built."
Though neither city has any jurisdiction over rent amounts, Pacific Grove Mayor Sandy Koffman also called Fortes. She says he seems amenable to considering the plight of low-income seniors on a case-by-case basis.
Sam Lipsky, who learned of Stuart Goldman after he called the Conflict Mediation Center, is mailing a letter to Fortes with 50 signatures requesting mediation. Mediation would not be binding, but it would give participants neutral territory on which to extend and consider offers.
For Dorene Matthews, executive director of the Conflict Mediation Center, it''s a sad, familiar story. "Large rent increases are definitely the trend," she says. "The largest we''ve seen is $400.
"I see some people commingling households," she continues. "I see people gravitate toward what they consider substandard housing. And a lot of people keep their mouths shut about substandard housing now, because it''s the best they can do."
For more info, go to www.geocities.com/sillytenant.
Rebecca Crocker contributed to this report.