By Yvette tenBerge
It is difficult not to fall in
love with the six Bautista sisters. As 15 year-old Alejandra holds
tightly to seven month-old Itxel, the other sisters play affectionately
amongst each other. Giggling, some of the girls take turns sharing
their goals for the future.
Janet Bautista, an assertive 11 year-old, matter-of-factly states her plans to become a doctor. She, then, prods her much shyer, 12 year-old sister, Elythannia, into revealing her dream of becoming a teacher. Not to be outdone, nine year-old Lizbeth bounces around the room, her delicate features lighting up as she describes her desire to become a veterinarian who specializes in caring for "little pets."
It is a Thursday afternoon, and the girls have just come home from a day of school at Sherman Elementary and Memorial Academy. While other children in the Sherman and Logan Heights communities playfully wander home to houses and apartments where friends and relatives await them, the end of the journey for the Bautista kids finds them outside of a dull-red, brick building on Fifth Avenue. The sign hanging from the iron gate reads, "Emergency Lodge," and ever since the Bautista family was evicted from 620 32nd Street in October, they have called this Salvation Army building their home.
The children's mother, Aracelí Perez, rushes in from the heat. She has spent the day doing the same thing she has done every day for the past six-months: looking for possible places in which her family might live. She wipes the sweat from her forehead and explains that they, like so many others, are a typical, low-income, working family. The strength of her voice mixes with frustration as she adds that, although they are poor, she and her family had always been able to survive without using welfare or public assistance. For the past 14 years they were able to afford to rent homes in the area for upto $700 per month. All of that changed, though, in September 2000, when, without warning, their landlord told them that they had 30 days to vacate the run-down, two bedroom house in which they were living.
"The house was in bad condition. The bathroom had big holes in the floor and in the walls, and the kitchen cabinets were completely destroyed. The bedrooms were in good condition, but the landlord never cleaned anything - not the inside or the outside. One day, he told us that we had to get out because he was going to remodel the place so that he and his family could live there," says Ms. Perez, who was pregnant with Itxel at the time that she was notified. "I have gone back there since then, and though someone has cleared away some of the piles of old wood and boxes that were in the front yard, nobody lives there."
Although rents throughout San Diego County are on the rise, the increase in the cost of living in the Sherman and Logan Heights areas is even more severe. Since the City announced the proposal for the new PADRES stadium in September 1997, real estate developers have become ravenous, buying up any and all available property in these historic, Hispanic communities with lightening speed.
While the cost of living in these areas may have skyrocketed in recent years, the quality of living in them has not changed. Tenants in the community report that new owners often raise rents so high that eviction is inevitable, and they do this without actually improving the conditions of their rental properties. In other cases, such as that of Ms. Perez, the new owners simply announce that they, themselves, are planning to move in, and then serve the tenants a 30-day notice of termination of the rental agreement.
Eight months have passed since the owner from whom Ms. Perez was renting informed them that they needed to clear out. An entire fall, winter and spring have come and gone, yet the house at 620 32nd Street still stands vacant and boarded-up. Since that time, Ms. Perez and her six daughters have been homeless, unable to find affordable housing anywhere in the community.
Ernest J. Reyes, Chairman of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, comments that it is entirely possible that the owner of the property was simply a developer who had no actual intention of occupying the home.
"Since the advent of the ballpark, there has been a tremendous motivation on behalf of landlords to raise rents to a level that makes it impossible for people who have been there for so long to continue living there. It is another form of eviction," says Mr. Reyes, who goes on to speculate on Ms. Perez' situation. "Obviously, the owner is an investor."
Research into the transactions that occurred with 620 32nd Street over the past year indicate that the property was sold by owners Michael J. Picou and Martha L. Madera to Jorge S. Servin in September 2000. The sale of the house, though, did not occur until after Ms. Perez had been given her 30-day notice and after she had been told that the owner would be remodeling and moving in. No one ever moved into the house, though, and in March 2001, the property was repossessed. It is currently owned by Mark S. Austerlitz, M.D., a Trustee for Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, Inc.
In June, members of Developing Unity through Resident Organizing (D.U.R.O.), a coalition of Sherman and Logan Heights families and housing advocates, conducted an informal, door-to-door survey along 22nd and Market Streets and Island and Imperial Avenues. Out of the 50 families questioned, 43 rent their homes. On average, each household consists of four or five people, and most residents have rented at their current location for roughly nine years. Over the past few years, 72 percent of these residents have experienced rent increases averaging $194.33.
Although, to higher-income families, this may not seem like an increase that is either unreasonable or unusual, area residents have felt the crunch of what seems to be unwarranted price inflation. Javier Baza, a 48 year-old father of two, has lived in the Sherman Heights community for over 21 years. He has been paying $600 per month for a cramped, one-room apartment on 21st Street for the past year and a half, but he estimates that the space is actually worth closer to $450 per month.
"I am happy to be living in a community where everyone knows everyone. I have to say that I wouldn't know what to do if our rents went up another 10 or 20 percent. That's a lot of money, and it would limit what I could spend on food for my family and clothes for the kids," says Mr. Baza, an employee of a local construction company. "This isn't just something I fear; the whole Mexican community is in a difficult situation. It seems that if we are Mexican, they want to get us out of here."
While these cases in particular, and such real estate practices in general, are not illegal, they do seem unethical.
David De Witt has lived and worked in the Sherman Heights community for five years. Along with running City of Refuge, an urban Christian mission, he serves on the Board of Directors at the Sherman Heights Community Center. His work continually puts him into contact with displaced families who are in need of temporary housing, and he estimates that he distributes food to as many as 200 struggling families each week.
"Ever since about two months after the ballpark was voted for [in November of 1998], the evictions began. Since then, more and more have been occurring. Even today, another family's whole apartment building was evicted," says Mr. De Witt, explaining that many of these families are unable to meet rising rent payments despite the fact that they hold two jobs.
Mr. De Witt recounts story after story of responsible, local families who were evicted. Each was given 30 days notice, the amount of time that landlords are legally required to give their tenants, but a period that rarely provides residents with sufficient time to locate affordable housing. If they cannot secure alternate housing and vacate the rental property before the specified date, they will receive an eviction notice. This notice goes on permanent record, and in most cases, causes other landlords to refuse to rent to them.
"What this feels like is a cleansing of the working poor and the lower class from our city. Just as soon as the ballpark was approved, property in our neighborhood went out of range for most people. I was looking at a house to buy down the street, and was told that the house was on hold until after the vote on the ballpark. After the vote, the price went up $87,000 more than was asked for in the beginning. All prices have increased drastically, and too many people have been evicted for no reason," says Mr. De Witt, who asks the question that is on the minds of all residents. "Where are people to live?"
Mark Morales is a social worker who has spent the past four years of his career managing Home Start, Inc.'s Family Self-Sufficiency Program for the Central San Diego Region. He works closely with families whose annual incomes are less than minimum wage, which means that they fall below the federal poverty guidelines.
"I have clients who have reported being evicted for marginal issues. These numbers have dramatically increased over the last two years. With the vacancy rate dropping down to one percent, landlords have a large market of potential tenants and do not want, or have, to take risks on people who have been evicted. These families frequently end up in motels paying phenomenal rents. If they are lucky, they may be able to get into the over-burdened, family shelters," says Mr. Morales, adding to the bleak picture that area residents and activists have been painting.
According to Mr. Morales, new housing trends target moderate to high-income families, and offer no relief to low-income families. Even for impoverished families who qualify for Section 8 housing, like the Bautista's, the prognosis is far from promising.
Rather than live in Housing Commission owned apartments, as public housing residents do, residents in the Section 8 rental assistance program are provided with vouchers that can be used to rent apartments from private landlords. Section 8 residents pay a portion of their rent, and the San Diego Housing Commission pays the balance.
The Housing Commission estimates that over 25,000 families (representing roughly 70,000 children) are on the waiting list to participate in this government subsidized rental program. A family added to the list today can wait between seven and ten years before receiving any program benefits.
Statistics like these make Ms. Perez' recent experience hit even harder. She laughs nervously as she describes what happened to her post office box after they were evicted in October.
"After we were evicted, we did not have money to pay for our post office box anymore. Apparently, our Section 8 papers came, but we could not get them," says Ms. Perez, recalling a time when even hope seemed to have disappeared. "Thank God there is a social worker here who is trying to help speed up the process."
Perhaps what seems most ironic is that this tragedy surrounds the building of a ballpark, the home of the sport that represents the American dream. The Bautista children, and hundreds of others just like them, have dreams, too, but ones that fail to account for a world filled with investors, landlords and cities who refuse to enforce rent control. Lifting her head, Ms. Perez begins to smile as her daughters gather around her. She whispers her dream, "What I want is for my children to have a home."