Genoveva Aguilar points to a photo of a grinning curly-haired 5-year-old standing behind her younger brother who's got an equally big smile on his face. It's absolute childhood glee, despite the siblings' surroundings. The pair stands in the bathroom of their City Heights home, with its rotting wood floors, a sink that's set into a rudimentary wood table and a bathtub/shower area that lost a battle with mold months ago. It's something you'd expect to see in a third-world country.
“The mold is just terrible,” said Aguilar, director of housing programs for the nonprofit Center for Social Advocacy (CSA).
City code-compliance inspectors had threatened to condemn the house, Aguilar said, and the tenant—“Señora Anna” as Aguilar calls her—and her five kids, ages 2 to 13, would have to move out.
Through a referral from a promotora—a community-outreach worker affiliated with CSA—Anna contacted Jose Cervantes, CSA's housing counselor. Like he does with most cases, Cervantes tried to find a solution agreeable to both landlord and tenant. In exchange for Anna waiving her right to sue—something she was entitled to do since the house had been deemed uninhabitable—the landlord agreed to refund her two months' rent. Then Cervantes helped the landlord enroll in a program that assists property owners who want to rehab their blighted buildings, saving the home from condemnation.
A success all-around, it seemed. But a few months later, Cervantes got a call from Anna: The owner of the house she was renting was facing foreclosure and she'd received a notice saying she'd have to vacate the property within three days—nearly impossible for a working mom with five kids. Again, Cervantes came to her rescue.
“We were able to negotiate with the lender,” he said. “One month's free rent plus $1,500 in order to help her move.
“Everything happened over six months,” Cervantes said. “She was just putting something in the past when she had to deal with a foreclosure.”
“The journey of Señora Anna,” Aguilar sighed.
Cervantes is inundated with calls from people like Anna—renters being evicted from properties that are being foreclosed, landlords who refuse to refund a tenant's security deposit. With City Heights' aging housing stock, he gets lots of complaints about substandard housing—mold, cockroach and rodent infestations that no amount of cleaning on the part of the renter can abate. Sitting in a City Heights coffee shop, he flipped through some case files, stopping at one that involved a faulty stove that melted a cooking pan. Even though the fire department warned the landlord to replace the stove, the landlord instead tried to evict the tenant. Even when Cervantes got involved, the landlord refused to back down.
“You better get a lawyer because I'm kicking her out no matter what,” the landlord told him. So he contacted Catherine Rodman, a pro-bono attorney with whom he works closely and whose position is funded by Price Charities.“The attorney documented evidence,” he said, and the landlord backed down. On the day CityBeat met with him, Cervantes was expecting to receive a copy of the signed settlement agreement. “The tenant gets two months rent for free in exchange for not suing,” he said, “and a new stove.”
Cervantes is one of two housing counselors in San Diego whose positions are funded by federal money known as a Community Development Block Grant, or CDBG, that's allocated to each of San Diego's eight council districts and the mayor by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The goals of the CDBG program are simple: Projects that receive funding should focus on eliminating blight, should benefit low- to moderate-income earners (in San Diego, that means an annual household income of less than $86,500 for a family of four) and help alleviate conditions that pose “a serious and immediate threat to the health and welfare of the community.”
Earlier this year, Aguilar, on behalf of CSA, requested funding for five housing counselors—two for City Council District 3 (Uptown, City Heights and Golden Hill), which has the largest population of renters, some of the city's oldest housing stock and high concentrations of poverty; District 4 (Southeast San Diego), with its high rate of foreclosures; District 8 (Barrio Logan, Logan Heights and Sherman Heights); and District 7, which includes part of City Heights. Housing counselors had been funded by CDBG money in the past—Councilmember Donna Frye has allocated money for a housing counselor in her district since 2003—and Aguilar figured that an expanded program would only benefit the city. Estela Rubalcaba-Klink, the housing counselor for Frye's district, said that she, like Cervantes, is inundated with calls, some from outside Frye's district. “We don't turn anybody away,” she said.
Shortly after she submitted her application, Aguilar received a letter from one of the city's CDBG administrators informing her that there were “eligibility concerns”—for example, the administrator asked Aguilar why she proposed to provide “Direct Financial Homeownership Assistance” but failed to provide specifics.
“They made a huge mistake,” Aguilar said. CSA never proposed such a service anywhere in the application. The administrator also told Aguilar that the housing counselor position needed to include “fair housing” services—assistance to tenants who believe they're victims of discrimination. That surprised Aguilar, given CSA's longtime focus on fair-housing counseling—it's a HUD-recognized “Fair Housing Service Provider—and the fact that “fair housing counseling” was one of the services she included on the application.
It took Aguilar two weeks to get in touch with the administrator, and when she did, she thought she had cleared things up. But the letter, uncorrected, was passed on to Councilmember Ben Hueso, who factored it in when he decided not to approve CSA's request for a District 8 housing counselor.
In an e-mail to CityBeat, Hueso cited eligibility concerns as one of the reasons he passed on CSA's request for $67,500. He received funding requests totaling $2.9 million, he said, and has only about $360,000 in discretionary CDBG money to hand out. Hueso said he recognizes the need for housing services and pointed out that he's done his best support programs that assist homeowners facing foreclosure. He noted that he earmarked $100,000 of his CDBG money for the city's short-staffed code-compliance division with the request that investigators go after slumlords in his district.
“My job is tough, and I do my best to make wine out of raisins,” he said.
Toni Atkins, who represents District 3, received the same letter as Hueso, but said she worked with Aguilar and the city's CDBG administrators “to ensure that the services they were going to provide were eligible.” Atkins chose to award money to CSA for a housing counselor. Aguilar said she received a letter saying funding for Cervantes' position had been approved, and it's her understanding that his job was covered starting July 1—the date on the city's CDBG website and on CDBG application materials. Scott Kessler, head of the city's Community and Economic Development Department, told CityBeat that nothing will be final until October, after contracts are signed and recipients attend mandatory workshops. Kessler said, too, that Cervantes' position isn't eligible for funding under new HUD rules. This information surprised Atkins.
“Well, we worked with [Kessler] and his staff,” she said in an e-mail, referring to her efforts to make sure the position is eligible for funding.
Councilmember Tony Young said he consulted with the City Attorney's office to find out whether a housing counselor is eligible for CDBG funding and was told that, yes, it is. At a recent community forum, Aguilar told Young that his district needs a housing counselor—Cervantes fields too many calls from Districts 4 and 8, she pointed out. At the forum, Young told her that starting July 1, he planned to allocate leftover CDBG money for a housing counselor. But this past Monday, when CityBeat followed up with him, Young acknowledged that he could have been clearer in his response to Aguilar.
“I fully intend to use the money for that type of work,” he said, but he's not yet decided if a housing counselor is the way to go. “We're going to make a decision pretty soon,” he added, “because this is such an important issue…. We have to be urgent about it.”
Aguilar said she'll keep pushing to get more housing counselors—if not through CDBG funding, then through another source.
“We have to take into consideration that [the housing crisis] is going to become worse,” she said. Thoughts? Feedback? Ideas for a follow-up story? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.