Maria Boeker leaned forward on the full-size bed she shares with her 8-year-old son Santiago as she described the measures her landlord had taken against the three families living in the single-family home north of downtown that she calls home.
All the utilities are in her landlord’s name, and she has full control of the breaker box. Although Boeker and others pay their shares on time, the electricity, water and gas are often turned off. An episode last year left her without power for a week. Anyone who complains is shown the door.
Booker, who is 50, is disabled after a car accident years ago, which has left her dependent on the roughly $1,000 a month she receives from her state disability check. She uses this to provide for her and Santiago, who has Down Syndrome.
To deal with the erratic actions of her landlord, Boeker cooks on a propane-powered grill donated to her by fellow churchgoers, despite there being a fully-functioning stove just a few feet outside her bedroom door.
In an interview the night before Thanksgiving, Boeker says she is grateful that her congregation invited her and Santiago to dinner the following night, sparing her from missing an American tradition that she can neither afford nor prepare on an apparatus more suited for tailgating.
Boeker pays $400 a month to stay in this room that’s barely big enough to hold her bed and the few belongings she does have. It’s paid in cash, just like the utilities, leaving no paper-trail, making evictions a matter of placing a person’s belongings on the sidewalk—an outcome she’s both been threatened with and witnessed happen to others.
As she explains the issues that she and others in the community suffer from in varying degrees, she eludes to the utter collapse of faith in the system that’s supposed to protect tenants from bad landlords in Long Beach. Calls placed to code enforcement have been a fruitless venture for Boeker and her neighbors, so much so that they’ve stopped calling.
“They actually call it the anarchy city,” Boeker said of people in the community. “The people that know the situation say ‘this city is the anarchy city.’ There’s no laws, there’s no protection for tenants, there’s no protection for anybody.”
The issue of renters’ rights and what the city can and will enforce has been the subject of debate for quite some time now, with community organizations asking for the adoption of stronger ordinances and city staff stating that those requests are either too expensive or illegal given the city’s rental legislation landscape.
Housing Long Beach (HLB), one of those community organizations, helped score a small victory for renters in the city when the Long Beach City Council voted to codify the Proactive Rental Housing Inspection Program (PRHIP) last summer. The program was touted as less expensive than the rent escrow model that HLB had advocated for since the city’s last Housing Element was adopted in 2014.
The PRHIP program, which aims to inspect thousands of rental properties with four or more units annually, was amended before its adoption in June of last year and shortened the amount of time that immediate health hazards would be referred to the city prosecutor’s office to 24 hours instead of 120 days as it stood previously. It also cut in half the amount of time that subsequent citations would be issued to landlords found in non-compliance after an initial violation was recorded.
HLB Executive Director Josh Butler said at the time that the amendments were a good start toward strengthening the ordinance, but one element that was left out—a recommendation that the city publish a list of bad landlords—ultimately gives the “worst of the worst” a free pass.
“I think one of the biggest cons right now is the worst of the worst get off the hook by not having the list of unresponsive and non-compliant landlords published,” Butler said. “That was a big item that came from Councilwoman Gonzalez and I think that was a way to bring those folks to some sort of action by showing who they are.”
He said the decision came after the city attorney’s office found that doing so could open the city up to lawsuits because “publishing the names of landlords who have received citations but have not been charged with formal nuisance violations may lead to defamation charges and or other litigation against the city.”
Butler said his group will continue to push for small changes, because any policy this complex, like the Affordable Care Act, doesn’t occur over night. However, the end game is for a REAP program to be instituted in the city to offer real protections for tenants dealing with problem landlords.
“We still want to see a REAP ordinance,” Butler said. “We think that truly holds slumlords accountable and so in regard to this particular program, we want to make sure that it’s working for all Long Beach residents, and we have instances where it’s not.”
The changes implemented by the city have resulted in a dramatic spike in cases being referred to the city prosecutor’s office for non-compliance. In an interview in January 2015, Former Deputy Director of Neighborhood Services Angela Reynolds estimated about four cases annually were referred to the city prosecutor’s office; that number jumped to 18 by January 2016.
“The key to measuring the success of a code enforcement program is the compliance rate,” said city communications specialist Jackie Medina in an email earlier this year. “The PRHIP serves to strengthen the functions and activities of the City’s proactive inspection program that have proved effective for nearly 50 years.”
It also pledged tens of thousands of dollars annually toward an outreach program that targets non-English speaking residents and others that my be reluctant to call code enforcement.
But despite those efforts, some residents continue to fall through the cracks.
Ken Roth, a resident of downtown, went nearly a year without rodent and plumbing issues being resolved. He finally ended up in small claims court earlier this year with a suit filed against his property management company.
He said that inspectors were in his apartment so often that he was on a first name basis with them and would have coffee and donuts ready for when they showed up. An examination of records pertaining to Roth’s address showed gaps in documentation where code enforcement officers responded to calls to his residence but failed to log the visit.
The suit ended in a settlement that covered his moving expenses and forgave months of withheld rent.
Roth, who recently celebrated the launch of a low-power FM radio station in the city, will carry out a Federal Communications Commission mandate that his station address a public need in the community. His choice was simple: housing in Long Beach.
“What they think they’ve done, they haven’t done,” Roth said of the council’s codification of PRHIP last year. “There’s a lot of talk about certain things, and a lot of this cheery ‘Long Beach is this beautiful destination,’ and it is, but it’s a beautiful destination to visit. If you live here there’s a lot of things that we can talk about, housing being one of them, that you could run into significant problems without looking for them.”
Fourth District resident Melissa Martinez dealt with mostly-tolerable code enforcement issues for months at her Eastside apartment complex. There were lights out and general plumbing issues but once her landlord discovered she was the source of code enforcement being called to the property, those issues quickly morphed into verbal and physical threats. The threats escalated to her tires being slashed and racially-worded notes being left on her car.
She testified before city council multiple times last year—the instance occurring in April—when she notified the council she had been evicted without cause and her only recourse was to head to court.
“They don’t even pretend to try and help these people,” Martinez said in an interview. “They just throw them under the bus. It shouldn’t have to be that you have to spend all this money on a high-priced attorney just to be heard or be treated fairly.”
More recently, Cassanda Hohman and the entirety of her downtown apartment complex were left without gas for over three months due to a leak. The property management’s solution was to provide space heaters to the tenants, but those didn’t provide a solution to the loss of the use of their stoves.
Holman, who herself worked for a property management company in Los Angeles, said she was baffled by how long it took to fix the issue and how bad things got before they got better. She was able to get by with the use of a hot plate but others in the building were forced to eat out for nearly every meal until the gas issue was resolved. The timing she attributed to the company’s efforts to keep costs down.
“We re-piped an 80 unit building in two and a half weeks so I mean it can be done but I think they’re trying to save money because they kept getting plumbers in here that were unlicensed, they were nickel and dime-ing people,” Hohman said. “I think it was on the management company’s end because they didn’t want to spend the money.”
During a March rainstorm, the roof of the Whiting Arms apartment complex partially collapsed, causing water damage to multiple units, some of which might not be covered if the damage is found to be due to property management negligence. In a letter to the company, Shauna Spellman noted the company’s reluctance to address the issue, including leaving tenants on the top floors with holes in their ceilings without remedy.
The list could go on.
The issue is part financial, part aging housing stock and part reluctance or awareness of the program or other rights that exist outside the city’s scope to fight back against problem landlords. When asked if the program could put a dent in the mistrust articulated by some residents, Medina responded with a reference to the city’s development of materials to inform residents, noting that they’re translated into Spanish, Tagalog and Khmer for readability.
The PRHIP program currently applies only to those units with four or more units because those are the units that the city requires to obtain a business license. A request by the council last year for city staff to explore the possibility of expanding to duplexes and triplexes—a total of 20,800 additional units according to city figures—was shot down in the staff memo to council last month.
Among the issues was the contention that these properties aren’t currently subject to business licenses and it would be hard to determine how many actually exist or would be subject to PRHIP. Included in an October 2015 PRHIP staff memo—but not the one currently set to be reviewed by the council—was a price breakdown of the inclusion of duplexes and triplexes.
The inclusion of triplexes only ($5.462 million annually) and triplexes and duplexes ($9.97 million annually) trump the projected annual $4.35 million needed to expand PRHIP to all 9,570 rental properties with four or more units.
All three figures are dramatically more expensive than the $2.3 million REAP program that staff and members of the council characterized as too expensive last year.
The memo does call for a change in the master fee schedule to provide for more inspectors if PRHIP is to expand to all 4+ unit buildings in the city; however that’s not expected to take place until the next fiscal year’s budget process. It also included graphics that laid out the more impacted areas of the city in terms of overcrowding, poverty levels and the age of the housing stock.
That, combined with the city’s recent implementation of data collection, could also help fine-tune future efforts to address the issues where they exist, instead of potentially deploying resources to areas where they’re not necessarily needed.
Butler said that the data collection is one of the good things that came out of the revisions to the ordinance last year, but it will only be as useful as the data that the inspectors end up logging.
“What is going to be tracked?” Butler asked. “What information are they going to be capturing on these inspections? Because at the end of the day without good data we’re not going to be able to measure the success or lack thereof of this particular program. We need good data to measure this program.”
While the policy is sorted out and fine-tuned, those left out of its protections, like Boeker, are stuck in a kind of limbo where they’re stuck in substandard living conditions but socioeconomic or immigration status keep them locked into their dwellings.
Despite her living conditions, Boeker has a perspective that most might find difficult to maintain. Though she dislikes her landlord for the problems she’s caused for her tenants, her daily practice of meditation, yoga and her spiritual beliefs forbid her from projecting anything but gratitude for not being any worse off than she is.
“We have to pay her; it’s her house,” Boeker said. “Nobody lives nowhere for free. I’m very thankful to god that I have a roof over my shoulder because there are people in a worse situation than me.”