The percentage of California households that can afford a median-priced house dropped in May, from 19 percent to 16 percent, according to the California Association of Realtors, indicating that the majority of people who call the Golden State home are and will likely always be tenants at the mercy of their landlords and rental laws.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were originally written for and by landowners and the vote was for white, male landowners. Nonwhites, women and those who don’t own land can now vote. However, the gap that has always existed between landowners and the landless is ever growing.
California supposedly has the most tenant-friendly laws, but what does that matter if those laws are just like pesky fruit flies — annoying but harmless if you don’t have a conscience. The poor will accept substandard housing and health risks and the resulting health problems will make them financially poorer for life.
My former Altadena landlord made promises — oral and written. The oral ones didn’t need to be written down, I thought, because warrant of habitability covered them.
On our contract, he promised to build a shed to protect my washer and dryer and dogs from the elements. He also promised me a copy of my lease agreement. I later paid a lawyer $600 before I saw it and had already paid $400 to buy a shed.
I was threatened twice with eviction. The first time was for withholding rent because the backdoor was a flimsy interior door that was so fragile that your frail grandmother could have torn a large hole in it. The law requires a sturdier exterior door. But who cares? Certainly not the landlord who was to replace it in September but by March had not. So I withheld rent and by April it was replaced.
The second time was for plumbing — leakage that attracted cats and vermin for a year, and a toilet that backed up sporadically for six months. After phone calls and letters, I deducted the cost of the plumber and sent a copy of the bill and then got an eviction notice.
The Altadena landlord also raised my rent. I reported him to the county. The county sent him a letter. An inspector came and cited him. My landlord wasn’t fined then. And he wasn’t fined when he failed the next inspection. But he did fix the ceiling that was about to fall in. Still, I was forced to move.
The next landlord was a real estate and insurance lawyer who I thought would have proper respect for the law. I moved into this housemate situation in January. By July, the landlord decided to dig up the back and front yards to install an irrigation system. When the workers came over, they did not give 24-hour notice. I requested privacy. But I was later told that as a woman living with two men I didn’t need privacy.
They left open trenches for several months — not a safe place for friends or dogs.
On Aug. 2, 2004, I opened the door to a backyard shed. The 60-pound door fell and hit me on the head. A worker had detached the door hinges and left gravity and the latch to hold it in place. I called. I wrote a letter. I called again. The wife left a vague message, saying I needed to sign something. Two weeks passed. There was nothing, that is until they learned I was in touch with a lawyer.
They gave me a 30-day eviction notice and a letter to sign that would give my lawyer landlord permission to access my medical records. They didn’t bother to mention whom they were insured by.
For two months, homeless, I stayed with a friend; my dogs were with friends or in kennels. My things were in storage (some were actually lost or stolen). The move, the medical care and surgery put me into debt.
According to the 2000 US Census, about 20 percent of renters do not own cars (4.5 percent for non-renters). Yet drivers don’t get first, second and third notices for traffic and parking infractions. Why are there no fines for housing violations the first time around? Couldn’t the cities, counties and state of California use that money?
My Altadena landlord was not given a monetary penalty for withholding the lease agreement or warrant of habitability. He also seemed more eager to help white renters. There seems to be no monetary penalty for my Sun Valley lawyer landlord refusing to give me his homeowner’s insurance information. Both rentals were in relatively nice areas. I have seen worse places available for rent and know they still got rented by someone who was less choosey or more desperate than I.
My lawyers advised me there wasn’t enough money involved for them to devote two years or so, even though my total medical costs are over $35,000. Instead, taxpayers will pay for the disability funds I received and, as a result, health insurance premiums will rise. Meanwhile, both landlords can continue flaunting housing landlord-tenant laws without any fear whatsoever of a negative consequence.
And so, the non-landowning classes get poorer and can expect to be less healthy. Owning pets is a definite no-no. The landless will learn from hardheaded people like myself that the laws meant to protect renters are only gentle deterrents. People like me will end up homeless. Yet the anger from the injustice can’t help but fester until it explodes — and if things stay as they are, some day it will do just that.
Jana J. Monji is copy chief of the Pasadena Weekly.