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Tribune investigation: What it’s like for SLO County renters stuck in bad housing

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Tribune investigation: What it’s like for SLO County renters stuck in bad housing

Picture of Lindsey Holden

This story is part of a larger project, "Standard of Living," by Lindsey Holden, a participant in the 2019 Data Fellowship. The project focuses on the experiences of low-income renters living in poorly maintained housing in San Luis Obispo County.

Other stories in this series include:

Q&A on renter’s rights: What you need to know as a tenant in SLO County

The Tribune
Thursday, October 1, 2020

 

 

Editor’s note: This is the first story in The Tribune’s monthlong “Substandard of Living” series examining the experiences of low-income renters living in poorly maintained housing in San Luis Obispo County. The Tribune spent nine months investigating the issue by talking to residents, conducting surveys, speaking to experts and evaluating government resources.

To read this story in Spanish, click here » La investigación de Tribune: Cómo es para inquilinos del condado de SLO atrapados en malas viviendas.

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All Blanca wants is a safe, clean home where she can raise her children and visit with friends. But no matter how much she scrubs her Oceano apartment, it never looks as it should.

The rental has old, dirty carpet that’s peeling away from the floor, cabinets and drawers that are stained and falling apart and broken windows in the living room and one of the bedrooms.

Blanca worked at a Pismo Beach hotel until she was laid off due to the coronavirus outbreak. She now spends most days in her apartment, caring for her disabled husband and two of her sons. On a recent visit, one of her sons sat on the couch doing his schoolwork on a laptop, his feet resting on a rug Blanca bought to cover the stained carpet.

Blanca has told her landlord about the problems in her apartment, but she’s struggled to get them fixed, especially after COVID-19 hit. She’s tried to move into a different unit in the same complex, but has repeatedly been told she doesn’t qualify, even though she’s never been given the opportunity to apply.

Blanca’s Oceano living room carpet is old, dirty and fraying at the edges. She bought a rug to cover the carpet, which is peeling away from the floor underneath. Laura Dickinson LDICKINSON@THETRIBUNENEWS.COM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The conditions of Blanca’s apartment take a psychological toll. She’s sad her house is never as clean as she wants it to be, she’s frustrated her landlord won’t let her switch apartments, and she’s too ashamed of her living situation to have guests over.

“I just want help to look for a new place that is comfortable, secure and clean for my kids,” Blanca told The Tribune in Spanish. “Because sometimes I feel like it’s my fault that I can’t provide them with a clean place to live.”

Blanca is one of many San Luis Obispo County tenants trapped in dilapidated housing because the system that’s meant to enforce state habitability codes does not hold landlords accountable for renting units that are unhealthy for residents.

To better understand the problem, The Tribune spent nine months investigating the issue by conducting hundreds of surveys, speaking with residents about their living conditions, consulting with housing experts and evaluating government resources. The Tribune is not using the full names of tenants who described their rental housing experiences to protect their privacy and prevent landlord retaliation.

Among the findings: Low-income residents face challenges across the county, but the difficulties are most severe for people of color, undocumented immigrants and residents who primarily speak a language other than English, as they also sometimes face discrimination when searching for new housing.

The cabinet door in Blanca’s Oceano bathroom is coming apart at the top, making it difficult to open. Laura Dickinson LDICKINSON@THETRIBUNENEWS.COM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those at-risk residents often have few places to go for help because little government oversight of rental housing allows landlords to get away with renting old units that are falling apart.

In one case, tenants took legal action against the owners of Grand View Apartments in Paso Robles after living in poor housing conditions for years. But the owners opted to shut the complex down rather than fix millions of dollars in problems — leaving hundreds scrambling for a place to live when it closed.

Such situations promote a culture of fear among tenants, who frequently aren’t aware of their rights and are vulnerable to abuse.

“What happens is a lot of families put up with serious health and safety issues in their building because they’re afraid to report it to their landlord, because they’re afraid they could lose their home,” said Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), a nonprofit that works with tenants in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

“Their landlord may find a way to evict them or may say, ‘Sure, I’ll fix that up, but I’m going to dramatically raise your rent in order to do so.’ And among people who are already living with a lot of fear due to their immigration status, they’re even less likely to report those things.”

Blanca, an Oceano renter, has struggled to get her landlord to make repairs in her apartment during the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s also been told she doesn’t qualify to switch apartments, even though she hasn’t been given the opportunity to apply. Laura Dickinson LDICKINSON@THETRIBUNENEWS.COM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BREAKING DOWN THE INVESTIGATION

The problem of substandard housing in San Luis Obispo County begins with the area’s high cost of living.

Ranked as the 10th least affordable place to buy a house with a median home price of $659,000, San Luis Obispo County is home to a large proportion of renters.

In fact, nearly four out of every 10 county residents are tenants living on someone else’s property, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. More than half of those residents are cost-burdened, meaning they spend 30% or more of their income on housing.

Meanwhile, many of those renters work low-paying jobs in the county’s two top industries: tourism and agriculture. They live paycheck-to-paycheck, and they often take whatever housing they can find — a dynamic that makes their housing situation even more precarious.

For many, rental options are slim, and complaining about poor conditions to their landlords or to code enforcement may leave them with no home at all.

To fully explore the issue, The Tribune embarked on an effort to reach those tenants and hear their stories. The Tribune modeled an effort used by CAUSE staff and volunteers in 2019, when they surveyed nearly 600 renters to assess rental housing conditions in Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Paula, Santa Barbara and Santa Maria.

Together with the Promotores Collaborative of San Luis Obispo County, part of The Center for Family Strengthening, The Tribune surveyed nearly 200 tenants — many of whom primarily speak Spanish — from San Miguel to Oceano, both in-person and online.

The project showed large numbers of low-wage workers live in poor apartments and homes for many years. Tenants raise their children and live out their retirements in rental housing with broken windows, dirty carpets, moldy walls and faulty plumbing because finding a new place to live is so challenging and reporting problems doesn’t always get results.

Some renters told The Tribune and the Promotores they avoid reporting problems to their landlords because they fear having their rent raised or being evicted from their homes. And other tenants said they’ve reported maintenance problems only to see their landlords turn a blind eye or tell them they must pay to fix the problems themselves.

Undocumented immigrants who lack the Social Security numbers needed to apply for rental housing are even more vulnerable to landlord abuse — especially those who primarily speak languages indigenous to regions of Mexico, such as Mixtec.

The simple fact is, tenants living with poor conditions have few options.

Blanca, an Oceano renter, has struggled to get her landlord to make repairs in her apartment during the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s also been told she doesn’t qualify to switch apartments, even though she hasn’t been given the opportunity to apply. Laura Dickinson LDICKINSON@THETRIBUNENEWS.COM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SURVEY RESULTS: WHO WE TALKED TO AND WHY

The Tribune and the Promotores conducted in-person surveying primarily in working-class areas where most tenants speak Spanish, including neighborhoods in San Miguel, Paso Robles, Oceano and Grover Beach. Nearly two-thirds of renters surveyed identify as Hispanic or Latino.

The Tribune opted to focus on these areas because such renters are the most vulnerable to landlord abuse due to language barriers, discrimination, immigration status and income levels.

More than eight in 10 surveyed renters reported they’ve experienced at least one substandard condition in their rental unit during the past five years, including broken windows or doors, pests, mold, roof leaks and plumbing problems.

The Tribune and the Promotores also asked renters how they deal with problems in their rental housing units. Tenants could select more than one response — they’ve fixed problems themselves, lived with them, gotten help or received no help from landlords or asked the city or county for help.

Almost 40% of renters who answered the question said they repaired things themselves, continued to live with problems or sometimes didn’t get things fixed.

UNHEALTHY HOUSING PROBLEMS

Renters who responded to this survey question reported dealing with a host of poor housing issues, from broken windows to old carpets.

Blanca, an Oceano renter, has struggled to get her landlord to make repairs in her apartment during the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s also been told she doesn’t qualify to switch apartments, even though she hasn’t been given the opportunity to apply. Laura Dickinson LDICKINSON@THETRIBUNENEWS.COM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nearly 60% of renters said their landlords eventually fixed issues for them. But 20% of the tenants who said their landlords made repairs also reported making their own fixes, putting up with problems, having their rent raised after things were fixed or waiting a long time for repairs.

Only 4% of those who answered the question — 6 people — said they took the step of contacting their local governments for help.

Most of the tenants surveyed lived in large or small apartment complexes, indicating poor rental housing conditions are a problem for all types of renters — not just for those living in homes owned and managed by individual landlords.

More than half had lived in their rental unit for more than five years, and a few renters said they had lived in their homes or apartments for decades.

Among the tenants surveyed, renters of color were more likely to live in crowded housing.

Nearly a third of respondents said five or more people lived in their rental unit, most of whom were tenants of color. Only two white tenants reported living in a rental with five or more people — the remaining tenants identified as Hispanic or Latino, Black or Mixteco.

DEALING WITH POOR HOUSING A STRUGGLE

Even if renters are able to get poor conditions in their units fixed, the experience can be stressful and frustrating.

Miranda has had panic attacks only twice in her life — once when her father died and once when she was unable to bring her baby boy home from the hospital because the walls of her Cambria home were infested with fungus.

“It was stressful for a normal person,” she said. “And then going postpartum, it was 10 times more stressful.”

While Miranda’s son — who was born prematurely — was still in the NICU, she and her husband started noticing there were mushroom-like growths sprouting up around the windows of their rental home. They looked moldy and felt wet and squishy.

The couple had experienced previous issues with roof leaks and the water heater, and Miranda thinks the house’s age may have contributed to the problems.

“The people who lived there before, they really didn’t complain about anything — they didn’t really care for the house,” she said. “I don’t think (the landlords) were used to tenants who would speak up and say something.”

Even before Miranda and her husband discovered fungus in their wall, their landlords had told the couple they could be on the hook if additional repairs were needed.

“They started telling us if more stuff happened, they would raise the rent or make us pay for stuff,” Miranda said.

Miranda’s landlords had to tear out the wall to remove the fungus and didn’t charge the family rent while the repairs were being made. But Miranda couldn’t settle her baby in at home once he was released from the hospital. She had to take him to a relative’s house, instead.

Just after Miranda gave birth to her son, she and her husband began noticing fungus growing on one of the walls in their Cambria rental home. Mold was visible on the wall, and they spotted fungus around window sills. Courtesy photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that’s not the only poor experience Miranda had with rental housing. She had to take a previous landlord to small claims court to get her deposit back.

This occurred after a toilet began leaking into the couple’s bedroom, and they had to sleep in the garage for a month.

According to San Luis Obispo County Superior Court records, a judge awarded Miranda and her husband a portion of the money they requested.

“There are people who would’ve been, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, keep my deposit,’” Miranda said. “Not me. I’m not a complacent person.”

After Miranda’s son was born, she and her husband began looking for rentals in the Five Cities area. Her family lives in the South County, and she wants her son to grow up there.

But it took the family almost 10 months to find a new place to live. Miranda, who is bilingual and identifies as a Latina, said she would talk to landlords and property management companies on the phone and noticed they would treat her differently once they saw her in person.

She and her husband both have jobs, and they maintained a good relationship with their previous landlord — even after the incident with the fungus.

Even so, she said, landlords would choose a different tenant or assume she and her husband planned to double up with another family.

Eventually, Miranda was able to find a rental in Oceano. But she was “shocked ... shocked” by how challenging the process was.

TENANTS STRUGGLE TO EXERCISE THEIR RIGHTS

Tenants dealing with poor rental housing face an uphill battle if they decide to exercise their rights as renters, two housing attorneys who work with renters told The Tribune.

They said it’s tough for tenants living with substandard conditions to persuade their landlords that they’re breaking the law — and there are few legal resources available to help residents.

Frank Kopcinski and Vincent Escoto of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) assist tenants dealing with evictions and habitability issues.

They said the combination of a low rental housing vacancy rate and a transitory student population makes it easy for landlords to find new renters, sometimes in spite of poor conditions.

Kopcinski, directing attorney, said they see such problems in all types of housing.

“I don’t think it’s one structure or the other,” he said. “It’s a problem that we see all up and down the county with different landlords.”

They also said tenants frequently aren’t aware of their rights, which makes them less empowered in their housing situations.

“I’m really surprised about the number of people who think the sheriff is going to come to their door,” Kopcinski said. “They’re not even aware of an eviction process.”

 

California tenants who receive eviction notices can’t be locked out of their rental units until after they go through a legal eviction process, which guarantees tenants a right to a court hearing. Landlords give renters a notice asking them to vacate their housing within a certain number of days.

After that time period, landlords can serve tenants with court papers, which begins the legal eviction process.

But tenants who are unfamiliar with state rental housing laws are likely unaware of this, and undocumented renters may fear their landlord will use their immigration status against them — a threat that’s illegal in California.

In addition to the lack of renters’ rights education, it can also be hard for tenants to find affordable legal help, as there aren’t very many nonprofit and tenant attorneys in the county, said Escoto, a staff attorney.

“There’s almost always a dispute as to whether there’s been a violation of the law,” Escoto said. “Tenants either have to find an attorney to convince the landlord of the violation or try to convince them on their own. Most of the time the landlord does what they feel they have to to get rent, including seizing deposits or eviction, and the tenant has to enforce their rights in court.”

LANDLORD PERSPECTIVE ON SUBSTANDARD HOUSING

For their part, landlords are required to follow state housing habitability laws, but their primary goal is to use their properties as a source of income.

In a market like San Luis Obispo County — where vacancy rates are low and tenant turnover is frequent in areas with large student populations — that means there’s little incentive to voluntarily improve housing for long-term renters.

Property owners want their rental rates to keep up with the market — and they’ll sometimes want to pass on the cost of property improvements on to tenants, said Janet Wood, owner of B&W Management.

Wood’s company manages properties from San Luis Obispo to Orcutt, most of which are in the Five Cities area.

“Owners don’t buy to provide housing for people,” Wood said. “They buy as an investment.”

 

Residents of Grand View Apartments in Paso Robles were forced to move after the owners sold the property rather than pay to renovate it. David Middlecamp DMIDDLECAMP@THETRIBUNENEWS.COM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wood said frequent tenant turnover is helpful for B&W because they use the time between tenancies to refurbish units. But landlords also value long-term tenants, and they will sometimes keep rents lower than market rate to hold onto renters, she said.

She’s aware of some landlords who will keep the cost of their units low — almost in exchange for maintaining poor rentals. B&W says tenants don’t have to live like that, but it’s also up to renters to tell their landlords if their units have fallen into disrepair, Wood said.

B&W staff annually inspect units to make sure all smoke detectors work, and they can assess the state of rentals if they’re already making fixes, Wood said. But, otherwise, there’s no way for landlords to know independently whether tenants are living with problems in their units.

When property management companies do perform regular inspections of units, they frequently find unreported problems. The decision to charge renters for fixes then lies with company and the owner of the unit.

California West Real Estate Management — which oversees rental properties from Atascadero to Santa Maria — likes to inspect units annually, and some landlords want their rentals looked at every six months, president Derek Banducci said.

Staff frequently find unreported problems, so much so that Banducci “(considers) those inspections to be a necessary service.”

“It is almost a certainty that if we schedule a couple days of inspections, then that will no doubt keep our maintenance staff busy for a while,” Banducci wrote in an email to The Tribune.

Most of the time, the problems inspectors find are “just leaky faucets or running toilets or malfunctioning smoke detectors that tenants neglect to report but that need to be fixed,” Banducci said. California West has standing approval from owners to fix some problems, but bigger problems require them to get the OK before making repairs, he said.

“As a property management company, our job is to advise our property owner clients on what is ordinary wear and tear and what is neglect or misuse by a tenant,” Banducci wrote. “Tenants are usually charged for neglect or misuse, but it of course depends on the discretion of the property owner, who may waive such a charge or not.”

A Grand View tenant’s wall shows splotches of rusty red blood where bed bugs were smashed. Tenants were forced to move out of the Paso Robles complex after the landlords refused to make improvements and sold the property. Lindsey Holden LHOLDEN@THETRIBUNENEWS.COM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RENTERS WHO LOSE THEIR HOUSING HAVE NO PLACE TO GO

When tenants lose their housing abruptly, it can uproot their lives and leave them with few rental options — especially those who primarily speak Spanish.

Aburto was previously a tenant at Grand View Apartments in Paso Robles, where renters lived with bedbugs, plumbing problems, broken windows and more for years. After tenants filed a class-action lawsuit against their landlords in May 2019, the property was removed from the rental market and tenants were evicted. The lawsuit is currently pending in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court.

Prior to moving to his Grand View apartment, Aburto was sharing a room with his two children, who came to the United States from Michoacán, Mexico, he told The Tribune in Spanish.

After they were forced to leave Grand View, Aburto moved into a room in a family member’s home, but he was separated from his high school-age daughter. She briefly had to return to Mexico before finding housing with family in San Luis Obispo County.

Aburto, who works at a Paso Robles factory, wants to be able to live with his daughter. But he’s struggled to find an affordable place for both of them, and he faces additional challenges because he mostly speaks Spanish.

Antonia dealt with a similar situation after her landlord sold her Grover Beach apartment complex. It took her seven months to find an apartment in Oceano for her and her son. They stayed with a friend, a nephew and then her nephew’s mother-in-law before finally getting a place of her own.