Lawrence Johnson is wearing a hooded sweatshirt and canvas coat on an otherwise warm June day. Granted, he's in an air-conditioned room at the Tubman Chavez Multicultural Center, there to listen to a panel discussion on home foreclosures.
When the moderator asks for questions or comments from the audience, Johnson raises his hand. He talks about how a new owner took over the apartment building he'd been living in for eight years and how he was issued an unlawful detainer-the legal action a landlord takes to evict a tenant. Now he's living out of his car. He tells San Diego City Councilmember Tony Young, one of the panelists, that more and more people are ending up on the street because of housing costs, making homelessness a growing public-safety issue.
After the forum, Johnson elaborated on his situation. He's a 60-year-old disabled Vietnam vet-he did two tours and says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. "I never fathomed the things I'd see," he said of Vietnam.
As for being evicted, Johnson's tale goes something like this: The owner of the building he lived in tried to refinance the property late last year and was denied. New owners stepped in but didn't have tenants-or, Johnson, at least-sign a new lease agreement; nor was he informed about where to send rent. He'd been friendly with the previous owner; he was his "best tenant," Johnson said. But now, not knowing where to send the check, he stopped paying rent and waited. "There was no communication, no new rental agreement," he said. After six months he received a notice to vacate the premises within five days.
Johnson went to the courthouse to fight the notice and found some law students who helped him fill out the appropriate paperwork. He said they told him that unless the new owners could produce a rental agreement-signed by Johnson-he'd be able to get the unlawful detainer removed from his record (having such a mark would make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to find a new place to live). Ultimately, a judge ruled in his favor, Johnson said. He opted not to try to return to his apartment, though. "I didn't want to live there with [owners] like that."
That was back in March. Johnson, who receives a monthly government check for $931, said he's been looking for a place to live since then but can't find anything that would allow him to both pay rent and cover other costs.
"Market rate-that's a sign of greed. I remember when a two-bedroom was $600. Now, with no new amenities, it jumps up to so-called market rate.' It's not right," Johnson said, copping the catchphrase used by KUSI consumer advocate Michael Turko.
"Market rate is a slogan to charge higher prices for less value," he said. "Put that in your paper."