San Diego tenants get no help fighting rats, mold

April 4, 2010

By Megan Burks

Appalled by the substandard living conditions they found in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, community organizers told residents last year that they would take their concerns to the city—literally. Armed with storage-sized freezer bags full of roaches and rats from houses and rental units, healthy homes advocates presented their findings to the San Diego City Council and asked for better housing code enforcement.

The group called for regulation of mold and vermin infestation to help combat the disproportionate level of housing-related asthma in City Heights. According to the National Latino Research Center, residents of City Heights are three times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than others in San Diego County.

The council delayed action, asking for more information from Proyecto Casas Saludables, the organization spearheading efforts to improve living conditions in City Heights, and other stakeholders.

But the information the council needs could be as close as the California Health and Safety Code, which the city’s Neighborhood Code Compliance office said it already enforces. But the city’s enforcement leaves out several components of the state code, including regulation of insect infestations, mold, mildew, rats and other rodents, according to information on the city’s web site.

According to the California Department of Housing and Community Development, such negligence could be grounds for legal action against the city if shortfalls aren’t remedied.

Doug Hensel, the assistant deputy director of codes and standards with the department, said cities are obligated to uphold the code, which delegates enforcement to city housing or health entities.

Rosalie Leon, a supervisor with Neighborhood Code Compliance, said no agency in San Diego deals with mold or infestation complaints. That’s because the code doesn’t specify mold as evidence of substandard housing, said Alan Johanns, a program manager with the city’s Environmental Services Department, which doesn’t oversee housing code compliance. Instead, the code vaguely regulates “dampness of habitable rooms” and “inadequate sanitation.” What’s more, the code’s language suggests that a health officer–not expressly an inspector–is responsible for determining whether the unit has a cockroach, vermin or rodent infestation.

San Diego doesn’t have a health officer. Residents with these housing problems and other health queries are referred to the county government, which often cannot help. The County Department of Environmental Health regulates mold and vermin, but only for residents under the county’s jurisdiction. Complaints from city residents are looped back to the city.

Leon said residents with mold and vermin problems can also contact the California Indoor Air Quality Program for help. Funding cuts, however, have forced the program to discontinue its phone hotline. Residents can still email their concerns, but response time is slow; the program did not respond before press time.

Though Casas Saludables and other affiliated organizations said they do not have plans to take legal action against the city, they said red tape like this makes policy change necessary.

The residents most affected by substandard housing are also most likely to be refugees and immigrants with limited knowledge of local government services. Virginia Angeles, the director of Casas Saludables, said many of the residents she worked with qualified for Section 8 housing subsidies and feared their landlords would retaliate if they complained. That’s why Casas Saludables works to train residents to become promotoras who educate their neighbors on housing issues and help press for repairs at a grassroots level.

Valerie Camacho, a City Heights resident, said her lungs have been “pretty much obliterated” by living conditions in City Heights and the Imperial Valley. Although she did not want to comment on her current apartment, she said that generally, landlords in the area neglect their properties.

“A lot of the landlords don’t live in City Heights and never have and never will,” she said. “I don’t think they understand what it’s like to live with the realities. The majority of them live in North County and City Heights is just a cash cow to them.”

Alan Pentico, a spokesman for the San Diego County Apartment Association, said negligent landlords “are the exception and not the rule.” He said the association supports better code enforcement, but cautioned against mandatory inspection policies because of the cost to landlords and the city, and the privacy rights of tenants.

“There is already a process in place and it’s just a matter of following through,” he said.

Community organizers said the Asthma Coalition of Los Angeles County is a model for the kind of reform they’d like to see in San Diego. Los Angeles began mandatory three-year inspections after working with the coalition to alleviate childhood asthma, but Casas Saludables has not expressly pushed for mandatory inspections.

Currently, the city of San Diego conducts inspections only at the behest of tenant or community complaints. The Housing Commission, which oversees public housing, also does not conduct regular inspections of its properties, except to take inventory of fixtures when tenants move in, said commission spokesman Terry Rogers.

“Housing is crucial to make the difference for City Heights,” said Angeles. “It’s connected to everything.”

Though outdoor air pollution and health care disparities are other factors that plague the community, housing stock in the area is much older than in other parts of the county. According to the 2000 Census, only 17 percent of the housing in City Heights was built after 1980, compared to 32 percent and 36 percent in the city and county, respectively. This leaves residents susceptible to lead paint, old carpeting and leaky plumbing, all of which have been linked to asthma.

More than 80 percent of residents do not smoke or keep pets and said they clean on a regular basis. Still, nearly 80 percent had roach infestations and over half reported signs of mold, according to the National Latino Research Center. Of those with roach problems, nearly half had asthma.

“The single most determining factor for a person’s health is their zip code,” said Camacho.

Despite gaps in enforcement, the City of San Diego is addressing community health issues in City Heights with its Housing and Urban Development Healthy Homes grant. Awarded in 2007 and scheduled for renewal this summer, the grant allows the Environmental Services Department to fund voluntary inspections and follow-up education and repairs for low-income families affected by, or at-risk for, asthma. Since 2007, the program has worked with 225 households and educated hundreds more, said Johanns. The renewal will award $875,000 and is expected to serve 150 households.

Johanns said the program will complete a report later this year that he hopes will affect policy change and provide suggestions for more enforcement funding. City authorities and advocates alike said funding is the main hurdle for better housing regulation.

“In a perfect world, the government should and would enforce all their codes and regulations, but we are not in that world,” said Steven Kellman, an attorney with the Tenants Legal Center. “Based on such a limited budget and funding, the Neighborhood Code Compliance will have to work with a triage method.”

For now, Angeles said Casas Saludables is focusing on getting more funding and working with the community before it goes back to the city council. Hensel said the legal department with state housing authorities would need to be contacted for it to enter into discussions with the City of San Diego.

“We don’t just go out with a heavy hand at first,” he said. “We have and we will, but usually they just don’t really know what their responsibility is.”

City Heights residents grow their own remedies

Rich Macgurn scooped soil away to reveal a weed-like plant fanning out along the ground.

“This one dilates the bronchioles,” he said.

He revealed unsuspecting roots and more plants that could be passed over as weeds.

“These can be steeped in hot water for tea that boosts the immune system and opens the airways,” he continued.

Macgurn, who has a degree in herbalism, is reinventing the community garden. In City Heights, where residents are more likely to suffer from asthma, diabetes and obesity than in many parts of San Diego County, the community garden is as much about relief as it is sustenance.

Opened just over a year ago, the City Heights Community Garden provided plots of land and workshops for residents who want to grow vegetables. But Macgurn and garden coordinator Valerie Camacho also grow herbs and roots that can treat ailments common among residents. At periodic workshops, attendees are given handfuls of gumweed and astragalus, along with an information sheet–a prescription of sorts to take home to their wheezing kids or aging parents.

Camacho said the goal of these herbal remedies is to build up strength and resistance in the body, but she said she’s noticed the garden strengthening community ties, as well.

“Having this space is really important because everyone in this community knows someone struggling with a serious health issue,” she said. “It gives people a place to talk about issues.”

What’s more, Camacho said it gives residents who are new to the country a place to share experiences and learn from others who have successfully navigated health and legal systems in San Diego.

“It becomes about building self-sufficiencies,” she said.

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