I May As Well Live In a Garbage Dump At This Point

I don’t know, things are getting a little harried around here. We basically live in a dumpster. All we need is a fire, and it’ll be just peachy: a metaphorical and literally version of my life since that fateful day, back in January, when our landlord terminated our lease to give the place we had lovingly called home for years, to a friend.

I’ve provided you guys with plenty of updates, the most recent (which contains links to the previous updates on this rental situation) can be found by clicking HERE … don’t worry, we’ll be right here if you need to catch up. Since that grim, and a little nihilistic, update on May 31st – 12 days ago – an absolute shit show has played out at this rental, as we simultaneously continue to look for, get a lease to, and secure a new home.

What seems to be the most stressful about it is that the process of renting a home is not streamlined or – essentially – standardized. Anywhere. You go through one person and they make a decision at their discretion, which I guess is their right (it’s their home after all), but it’s also wide open to discriminatory practices that, well, who can prove? You then go through a property management company and they have a different way of doing things; go to a realtor who is managing a property, there’s another process. All different, all distinct, none that make this anything less than a full-time job. There’s also security deposit bidding wars, realtors and brokers in the mix, the timing of things being different at each location… it’s a real mess, to be frank.

So now, in the last week and a half or so, a complete disaster has unfolded at the rental we are in now. To be clear: this home was never going to work as a long term solution for our family. We took this because, at the time, we had no other option. When our landlord at the old place issued us our termination of tenancy,I knew that it was going to take a considerable amount of time to find someplace to go. So I wrote them a letter, practically begging them to give us at least until the summer. My reasoning was sound: our kids needed to stay in the school system, our daughter had surgery scheduled that would have to be canceled if we were in the middle of a move; and we were willing to pay considerably more in rent to allow us just two or so extra months. Callously, they said no.

In our county, it is reported that there is 1 housing unit available for 1,348 middle income families like us. People are turning to motels, RV parks, renting backyard spaces to tent camp, and their cars, to ride it out until more housing becomes available. We are up against, at times, hundreds of other people, and again – with a difficult timeline and our regular lives of work and kids, and a different process for every single house we apply to, it’s been an unsurmountable task to find a more permanent home that meets the needs of our family. So we are in some sense fortunate to have found this place before we were relegated to the streets, a middle class family with above median income, simply because there are literally not enough places available.

But at the same time, this experience has perhaps caused more harm than living in a hotel for a while ever could have.

So this temporary home, we identified early on, has a number of glaring problems that seem to boil down to: age of the home, neglect by the owner to keep up with maintenance, and some community issues with the water and sewer system. I suppose we should have considered it ominous that within a week of living here, our neighbors to the right of us had a massive mold remediation job done from water damage in their downstairs living room and half bathroom. The process took a whopping two months to complete: evaluation, remediation, restoration, repair, during which time we listened in on an HOA meeting at the pool and learned that two other houses on the other side of the complex were also having some sewer and water damage issues.

Now there are several aspects of this home that absolutely violate the warrant of habitability, so terminating our lease was going to be easy. We just – again – needed to a find a place. I suppose the Universe decided our reasoning on that was not sound enough, because since that last update, a cascade of maintenance crises have flooded this house, including both a literal flood, and the discovery of massive amounts of water damage and mold.

The Broken Sprinklers

Turns out the broken sprinkler I shared in my last post was worse than we thought: all of the sprinklers were spraying directly at the front of the home, and with improperly sealed stucco at the foundation of the home, the baseboards through the entire downstairs of the house had begun to squish.

We started to notice this a few weeks ago, but it wasn’t until we had other water-related issues that someone else identified the issue and the severity of it, which will require a complete replacement of the base boards and, possibly, some of the tile. This is, of course, only after the stucco is sealed, which can only happen after the HOA fixes the sprinklers.

Until then, the water will just spread further and further into the first floor of our 928 square foot rental…

The Great Flood

Early last week, we came home from running errands and picking up our Election Night Pizza (a tradition in this home), to see water coming out of the drain pipe at the end of our driveway. At first, we thought nothing of it – thought it may be from something else – until pizza time was over, and we went to the backyard to discover a massive flood had taken over the entire backyard. We notified the landlord, and rather than send an emergency team, he said the landscapers could come in the morning – leaving water flooding (and running up the bill exponentially) for upwards of 12 hours.

The next day, I awoke on the couch upon which I sleep (remember, this house is incredibly small and my husband works at his desk in our bedroom, overnight) to see a group of men staring at me through the front window, even though I had left the side gate open to allow them access to the backyard as I had been instructed.

They immediately began to dig into the hill at the back of the lot, to uncover an entire and abandoned irrigation system (that the landlord had previously told us did not exist). They ripped it out, only to discover the leak was coming from piping in the foundation. But… they didn’t want to have to rip up concrete, so after the landlord – himself – showed up, they all dug through our trash can to find an old Pringles can and a can of Diet Coke, from which they fashioned miniature buckets. They then bailed water out of this hole in the hill for approximately two hours, returned all the dirt, and – I guess – are now hoping for the best (that the remaining dripping water will just soak into the soil, I assume).

Oh and, of course, this happened, which my 5 year old stood and pointed at yelling “I can see that guy’s butt Mommy!” Repeatedly.

The Coupe de GrĂ¢ce

After all the hubbub, I was ready to put my chin up and move on. The flood was fixed (for now), everything was fine. We were continuing to look for a rental, we had been approved on one and were just waiting for the lease… we were going to make it to get out of here with the flood hopefully being the last major issue.

So on Thursday – the next day – I got up, showered, and was going to put on makeup for my first time in over a week, when I noticed that my makeup basket, which is stored under the sink in the half bathroom, was soaking wet. All of my make up in it? Ruined.

I emptied the cabinets underneath the sink and almost immediately vomited: a leak in the pipe had been dripping, and this issue was so clearly either overlooked or ignored by the landlord before we moved in, because the damage to the back of the sink was so profound, with mold growing around the edges.

Now remember, a few weeks before this, we had run some at home mold tests and mold did begin to grow in the tests. But this could always mean a variety of things, in California especially – where mold is everything – it simply means you need to keep an eye out. So we did, but I was not expecting the extent of what was going on in that half bathroom, which connects to the master bathroom; which effectively impacts about half the house.

The 928 square foot, temporary rental house for our family of 6.

So now there is a phenomenal amount of work that I am now being expected to facilitate. Be home for the contractors. Be available for the assessors. Be able to manage my 5 year old around the remediation equipment. Make this all work with my husband working nights still, sleeping on the couch, while getting the kids to and from their school and other activities; be available to let people in, schedule all the work, while still cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, taking care of the dogs, grocery shopping, getting my 5 year old to sleep every night amidst the noise and the chaos and a parade of workers coming in and out of the house … while trying to secure our new rental, and packing to move… in the middle of an alarmingly high amount of COVID in the community…

When it all gets spelled out like that, it really seems like the dumpster fire has already been lit. This house is uninhabitable. Though the rental market demands patience on finding a place to go. Like the others, the millions of people in California that make up 45% of the state – us, the people that rent either by circumstance or choice – what choices do we have? What recourse or urgency is there to provide us with safe and available housing? Who is representing us? What politicians will do something – anything – to right these wrongs?

Housing Situation Update

This is starting to feel like a diary of my demise, these housing situation updates. If you’re late to this glamorous party, here are some links to get caught up… don’t worry, I’ll be right here when you get back. Stuck. In this hell.

Link to my post when we first came to our temporary rental home HERE.

Link to my article about the housing crisis in California, including our part in it HERE.

Link to my post about how we are managing in our temporary rental home (grimly) HERE.

Link to my commentary on landlords in general HERE.

You can see that I waffle between incredibly personal updates, and ones that are simply more general or not specific, rather speaking to the crisis at large. That’s because I want to share my story, while also discussing the very real and certain reality that millions of Californians – actually, no, Americans – are experiencing at this moment.

If you don’t know about, and/or have empathy for, the situation for renters of this country (in my state of California, roughly 45% of the entire population), then you honestly have absolutely no soul. When my husband and I committed to renting, we did so in a time that renting was a luxury: it was a matter of being able to lock up and go whenever you want, be free of property taxes and exorbitant costs of maintenance, and it ensured we didn’t get into a position of being in over our heads. Now, the script has flipped, and after our landlord terminated our lease that fateful day in January (the 4th, to be exact), we have been thrust into the position of being in insecure and unsafe housing.

(I’ll get to the insecure and unsafe part for us in a minute.)

Last week I watched a fantastic documentary on the homelessness problem in Los Angeles on my local Fox News station. I’m not a fan of Fox, but this is the local one (Fox 11) and they tend to be more balanced, moderate, and local… a lot of news reports from the zoo, and quirky local weather forecasts. That kind of thing. What struck me in the documentary, though, was the emphasis on mental health. People tend to think that mental health and addiction issues are the reason for homelessness, when the truth to the matter (just reported recently by the LA Times) is that less than 30% of people that fall into homelessness are mentally ill or addicted to substances at the time they go to live on the streets. But what was stated in this documentary, and to which I understand fully, is that for that 70% – the ones that just fell on hard times: once people are thrust into insecure housing, a series of events and lack of social support happen that affect them so profoundly there is just no way their mental (and in some cases physical) health will not decline. It just won’t.

I see myself cracking around the edges, as well as my children. We’ve now been here for just over three months, and my 14 year old now is having what appear to be panic attacks. We’re roughly 45 minutes away from where she is to go to high school in the fall, but we still don’t know if we’ll even be able to get back before then. She’s enrolled, registered; but as the cost of gas rises, I am now spending over $800 a month just to take the kids to the school groups, tennis lessons, doctors, and friend activities. When school starts, we don’t have some magic fund from which we can draw to pay $9 and $10 a gallon that is being projected to keep driving to and from our old home every day; we can’t even sustain the $6 we are paying now. And anyway, as I’ve addressed in previous posts, with two other kids and absolutely no consistent and regular support system, I just cannot even say now that I am going to be able to make that happen. Of course my older and younger kids are both stressed to the maximum too, the oldest affecting her menstrual health and endometriosis that is now warranting emergency room visits, the youngest affecting his sleep and overall learning and focus; and – well – the fact that I’ve had a sinus infection for 4 weeks, and now my entire body is covered in stress hives sort of speaks for itself.

… so at least for the kids and I? The ship seems to be going down. Fast.

Compounding this is that the longer we stay here in this temporary rental, the more boils to the surface.

  • Several parts of the wall, ceiling, and baseboard around the house of our temporary rental are bubbling out with moisture;
  • We ran a mold kit both up and downstairs and black mold was detected in the dust in the air;
  • We purchased a moisture meter and almost every room in the house sounds the alarm;
  • One window upstairs and one window in the downstairs bathroom actually opens, no other windows in the home open;
  • Both sliding glass doors to the backyard were installed improperly, making the emergency exits difficult to open, at times impossible;
  • There are roots in the sewer, it has so far backed up twice, one of the times in a dramatic moment of raw sewage spraying into my 5 year old’s face;
  • The circuit breaker is old and in need of updating, it has burn marks on the rubber around the edge and the landlord refuses to repair or replace it;
  • The neighbor next door is psychotic, which we’ve discussed in previous posts; but moreover, the neighbors on both sides smoke cigarettes within 25 feet of our backyard making it impossible for our children to use;
  • The sprinkler is broken, and while this isn’t exactly dangerous – per se; the HOA refuses to fix it, nor to turn it off (we have no access to the controls), and in a drought this is going to result in a hefty water bill of wasted water and fines;
  • And more…

At this time, the landlord has refused to address these issues. I could certainly call the area housing authority, or the fire department, about the clear code and safety violations. And also, we have sought legal counsel that has assured us our warrant of habitability has been broken and we can legally leave at any time with no penalty to us. But then what? At that point we’d likely be given notice to leave and have absolutely nowhere to go.

Our search for new housing has been going on since January 4th. So many people have criticized us for moving here, but what other options did we have? Exactly one: an apartment in the ghetto, where a methamphetamine lab was recently busted by the area sheriff’s department. Not exactly the best area.

Otherwise, it was this, or living in our cars. Or a hotel, if we could find one that would rent us three rooms we could all cram in, plus a storage unit for all of our things, for the price of rent we pay per month. Most local motels have largely filled up with locals that are in a similar situation, though, and remember we live in coastal California: ie, tourist area, so hotel room pricing peaks at this time as is. Again, we could have joined the renters that have strapped their mattresses to their car roofs, driving around and sleeping in parking lots. California has such an exponentially worsening situation in this space, they’ve set up entire lots with security, port a potties, and toaster ovens with picnic tables for people’s safety while they sleep and exist. I don’t know, it might get to that at some point.

For now, this was all we’ve had as an option. When our lease termination was closing in, we had to take what we have been offered. And to be fair, we tried to be positive about it, but it was hard after just a couple of weeks. Every week is effectively a lifetime in this place: a lifetime of worsening mental and physical health, exponentially rising financial costs, and more of a casual drift downward into the place these landlords and the housing crisis has subjugated our family to be.

This became even more clear to me this past weekend when a realtor friend of mine helped us find out more information on our landlords in this temporary rental. To call them slumlords is a woeful understatement of the situation. We cruised by a few of their other rentals, and considered ourselves fortunate that black mold and possibly dying in an electrical fire in an unescapable home in the middle of the night is all we have to deal with. One of the rentals they manage has a tarp for a roof; another a port a potty in the front yard. Given our experience with their refusal to do maintenance here, it makes sense; of 20 rentals they own and manage, maybe they just got in over their heads on investments, right?

Wrong. My friend also managed to get us details on the landlord’s property as well – you know, the one he lives in. I figured it must be a scummy, slimy home too… he just has his tenants live in the type of conditions he himself finds acceptable. Right? … right?

While I won’t dox his address or give any details, I will leave it just at this: his mansion is worth $4.9M and sits on 20 acres of farmland that he also owns and operates. Like a castle looking down upon his peasants, this man is bathing in $100 bills for leisure.

And his tenants just don’t have any choice.

What’s heinous about it is that since January, we’ve now applied to 30 different rentals, all of which we applied to only after we were overwhelmingly sure we were more than qualified. Why not just shoot for the moon? Well, we have four legal adults that have to apply, which comes to about $30-$40 non refundable fees per application, per person. Back of the napkin math? We’ve spent over $3800 just to apply to all these rentals, of which we have been so far offered this one and a meth lab apartment.

People have told us to make more income, as if this suggestion is not preposterous enough as is, that would be all fine and good if only they knew that in most cases we make 4, 5, and in one application even 6 times the rent. The requirement is 3. The problem isn’t the credit scores or the income or the number of people. There are simply not enough houses, not enough apartments, and absolutely no local representation for tenants. At all.

I keep trying to remind myself to be patient. We’ll find a new rental eventually. But will we? And at what cost? There are physical and financial, and at some points mental, costs to this situation at this point, that I cannot see us withstanding for much longer. At some point we have to pull the plug and stop the faucet on the application fees; at some point we have to make choices on our children and their futures and education. What I do know is that we have utterly failed them, and when I watched that documentary on my local Fox station – the one on homelessness, the crisis and its tolls – I could see what this shame and hopelessness of failing your children, no matter how hard you’ve tried, does to a parent.

And when we do pull the plug on this house search, and accept our lives amidst sadness and hopelessness? Then what? I honestly have no idea.

Landlords Are Literal Scum

Of course the irony of me calling landlords “literal scum,” is that many of them actually view renters in the same vein. And, in both cases, there are likely a whole scale on which you could plot individuals who either landlord or tenant. Some are probably genuinely good people, just using their starter home as a way to make a little extra income in their retirement; and in the case of tenants, most are simply middle or working class people that find themselves the product of capitalism run amuck. There are always going to be slumlords, of course; and there will also be your occasional renters that burn cigarette holes in the carpet, and mix meth in the bathtub.

This is no different, though, than your average home owner. For every slumlord that expects others to live in mold and grime, I’m sure there are just as many voluntarily doing it themselves. And, well you know, people that make drugs actually are often homeowners, because — duh – who else can afford a house in this market?

If you are a landlord, this is of no offense to you. I’m sure you’re a nice person. But, if you continue reading this and see some of your own behaviors in what I am about to describe…

… well, it’s time to start evaluating your behaviors.

As many of you know, we’ve been looking for a new rental home for what feels like forever. In January our lease was terminated so that our landlord’s friends could move into the home we had rented and taken care of as our own for years; and because they callously refused to give us a little extra time to find a new rental, we wound up 45 minutes away from our home and community in a temporary rental that is looking less and less temporary by the day.

The process of finding a new rental has been less than desirable.

Security Deposits

It’s common knowledge, now, that a security deposit is really just a tip or a bonus that your landlord nickels and dimes to death at the end of your tenancy, so as to never have to give you a penny of that back. And say you are able to get some of that money back… Well your landlord put that in a bond, cd, or savings all those years and earned interest… and you? Well, you’re not going to see a penny of that (the interest earned on your money).

What’s absolutely bananas now, though, is that while people purchasing homes are getting into bidding wars over house prices; renters are now getting into all out bidding wars over rent, and security deposits. We’ve had several rejections now that were as simple as the other party was able to offer upwards of double or triple the security deposit.

Back of the napkin math, at the prices and the security deposit limits in California: that’s people offering $10,000, $13,000, in some cases even $18,000 for the security deposit, alone. Just to get the edge over other applicants. And while laws prohibit what a landlord can require, nothing stops them in any amount that they are allowed to take.

Maintenance

Maintenance is tricky in a rental because, while required to provide you with a habitable home, the definition of habitable is very subjective. When you sign a standardized lease, it’ll say something to the effect of: you accept the condition of the home as is. But most of the time, if the landlord even takes the time to show you the rental, they want you in and out in a matter of just a few minutes at the viewing.

We just attended a viewing of a home we did not get selected for last week, and the place was not only limited in the amount of time the irritable property manage let us look at it for, but it was a complete disaster. Had we been able to even see the counters, we may have uncovered major cosmetic issues; or holes in walls, or missing essentials. It was just that much of a pigsty, the previous renter being a real estate agent herself who apparently didn’t think renters deserved to actually view the condition of the floors or sinks. We left at the point when we needed to measure the room that our California King bed would go in, and the door wouldn’t even fully open because there was so much stuff on the floor. I guess to a landlord, if your bed doesn’t fit you should just sleep on the concrete tile.

I took some heat for complaining about this over on Facebook – busy mom, you should worry about the home itself not the mess. Well the issue was that the mess and the rush of the viewing made it virtually impossible to see the home itself, and potentially major maintenance issues. And maybe that was the point. Major maintenance issues often can’t be noticed until you’ve lived in the home for a while. At the temporary rental we’re in now, after spending just over two months here, we’ve discovered:

  • Mold and moisture in the floorboards
  • An electrical problem through the entire house
  • No working garbage disposal
  • Roots in the sewer line
  • And quite a few more minor things that are inconvenient, not dire, but for the amount we pay should be fixed

The problem with maintenance of course is several fold. First, it’s common knowledge that landlords retaliate for major maintenance issues, especially appliances that have to be repaired. In our prior rental, we suspect that at least part of their decision, or the way it played out, was retaliation for the fact that the oven broke and had to be replaced just a few months before they terminated our tenancy. Retaliation is – of course – illegal; as is outright refusing to make repairs. But what are you going to do? Go to court? Sue them?

Some states have laws that protect you, that allow you to claim what’s called warrant of habitability. You have several options, legally, at that point: you can move out without notice, repair and deduct, refuse to pay your rent… But under any and all circumstances, you’d better be prepared for attorney retainers and a court battle.

Back to the rental we are in now: we’ve already had one maintenance issue outright refused, and another blamed on us simply because they didn’t know about it until someone moved here. Bottom line? Landlords are literal scum, and expect their tenants to live among that which they leave in their trail.

They’re Doing You A Favor, Ok?

The most pervasive, and the same time backwards, attitude that I have come across over the last year is that landlords are doing us a favor by letting us live in their homes.

First of all, many landlords (again, not all; but many) are actually major corporations or big time, locally owned, commercial property management companies. These are not their personal homes that they lovingly cared for over decades and just grew out of, and decided to rent out instead of sell to help fund their retirement. Even single property owners that have no personal history with a home are becoming more prevalent in the rental market: it’s a money maker, after all.

At our last rental, the one we got booted out of, the owners had 10 other properties around the county, and had purchased the one we lived in and immediately turned it around to rent out without ever stepping a foot into the house.

But the idea of ownership is so uniquely built in to the fabric of our society… They’re doing you a favor, ok? If they didn’t own the home, you’d have nowhere to live. Right?

Wrong.

In California, as just one example, approximately 45% of the state identifies as a renter, which – obviously – is almost half the state’s population. But the issue isn’t that without ownership we’d all have nowhere to live; it’s actually that the owners (again many of whom are mostly just investors, property management companies, and large corporations) have an absolute death grip over municipal and county governments, and their lobby has profoundly limited even the amount of housing that is built for anyone – rent or buy. Have you ever looked at the campaign finance disclosures for your local elections? It’s typically one realtor and broker, property manager, and property investor after another that donates to local candidates, as well as the local and state real estate PACs that have the explicit interest of keeping the market hot in mind. Their sway – the NIMBYism, or practice of not wanting to build more and adequate housing in a timely manner, has created such an unprecedented crisis of housing availability that its effects are a little much to even wrap your head around: they’ve not only driven up rental prices, but they’ve created this environment of competition that leaves middle and lower income renters with few options, filling up short term rentals, local motels, and side streets with entire families living in their cars (or worse) simply because there just is not enough housing to go around.

Of course the irony is that were it not for renters, these types of corporations – the Blackrocks of the world; the small time property management companies and commercial investors; the realtors that are in the rental game too; and, single or limited individuals that have a extra property they do not need to use personally, so use it to help fund their retirements, vacations, or… whatever…

… well while they’re of the opinion that they’re doing renters a favor, the reality is that none of their profit margins would exist were it not for renters paying them on the 1st of every damn month.

And that is, ultimately when you get down to it, the rub of it all: that landlords and tenants both think the other is what they themselves may very well be. Delinquent. Doing you a favor. Scum.

But as a renter, myself, who has neither the money nor the interest in owning a home in this country, and this economy, I have to side with the underdog on this. Landlords are absolute scum. Maybe it’s unfair to paint them all with the same brush, but then that’s what they’ve all done to us. Two can play at this game.