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Facing threats from landlords, immigrants push for tenant protections

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Marta Gonzalez, an immigrant from Mexico who has gotten involved in tenants’ rights issues through nonprofit Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, is photographed on Friday, May 19, 2017 at the apartment complex where she lives with her family in Concord, Calif. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

CONCORD, Calif. — Concord resident Marta Gonzalez, an immigrant from Mexico, said her troubles with her building manager started last summer. After a series of rent increases that drove up monthly rates by $200 to $300 every time a lease ended, Gonzalez, a member of the nonprofit Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and other residents in the complex began to organize an effort to stabilize the rents there.

Not longer after, Gonzalez said, her children and others at the complex who play outside started receiving threats from the building manager that she would call immigration enforcement officers to the complex. After being threatened with eviction, Gonzalez and her family had to fork over an extra deposit to be able to stay in the apartment, which now costs them $3,000 a month.

Their situation is an example of what immigrant and tenant advocates in California say is a pattern that has troubled them in recent months: more landlords and building managers harassing or threatening immigrant tenants because of their real or perceived immigration status. They hope a bill making its way through the state Legislature will boost the rights of tenants like Gonzalez, who fear punishment for trying to negotiate rent or even report habitability issues.

Many people in the complex where Gonzalez lives are worried they will see immigration authorities at their door, she said through a translator. Many families there now fear sending their children outside to play, she said.

While immigrants, particularly those without legal residency status or those who do not speak English, have always been vulnerable when it comes to housing, harassment in the Bay Area seems to have increased in the past year or so, said Jovana Fajardo, a director at ACCE, particularly as immigration has come to the forefront of national political discussions and was prominent in President Donald Trump’s campaign.

“It has been going on for a long time, but definitely after this past election, it’s gotten way worse,” Fajardo said. “We’ve been having these conversations for years, but with the new administration, there’s a big fear in the community.”

Fajardo has received many calls from East Bay residents who report harassment by landlords, including a recent incident in which a renter was at a building’s garbage bins when the landlord came up, seemingly unprovoked, and started pushing her and threatening to call immigration enforcement officers.

“We have tenants living in properties with holes in the walls, saying ‘I don’t even know if I should report it,’ or, ‘I’ve been trying to get rid of rats,’ but they’re not wanting to risk being evicted or worse,” Fajardo said.

The ACCE, part of a new coalition called Housing Now California, has been pushing for a bill that is making its way through the Legislature to create stronger protections for immigrant tenants without legal residency status. The bill, introduced by state Assemblyman David Chiu of San Francisco, a Democrat, would prohibit landlords from disclosing information about tenant immigration or citizenship status if the intent is to influence them to vacate a dwelling, and bar landlords from harassing or discriminating against tenants based on their immigration status or perceived immigration status.

Supporters of the bill, which passed the Assembly and was sent to the stare Senate, say landlords all over the state are threatening immigrant tenants to get them to vacate apartments or agree to unfair living conditions, like the renters in Concord said.

Chiu, at an Assembly floor session, cited complaints his office has received from around the state about incidents where landlords threatened to report tenants to immigration authorities — often for reporting habitability issues, which landlords are legally required to fix — or in order to raise rents.

Laura Lane, the director of housing practice at the East Bay Community Law Center, said the bill would add more specific protections for immigrant renters than exist currently. Under California state law, landlords cannot ask tenants about their immigration status, but landlords typically have access to information used to determine financial qualifications of prospective tenants, including Social Security numbers, taxpayer identification numbers or other information. While there are anti-discrimination laws for renters, there are none that specifically prohibit discrimination or harassment based on immigration status.

Lane said her office has seen an increase over the past two years in immigrants citing harassment and threats from landlords, mostly in an effort to evict them from rent-controlled apartments and get more money for units.

“This (harassment) is a tool that is being more frequently used,” Lane said. But even if the bill becomes state law, tenants face another struggle: accessing affordable legal aid to represent them in these cases in an era where there are more people needing low-cost legal help and fewer lawyers to help them.

Debra Carlton, senior vice president of public affairs for the California Apartment Association, said the bill does not appear to interfere with landlords’ ability to “appropriately screen” tenants.

Except for affordable housing programs, which often ask for new tenant documentation each year, landlords should not have to go back and ask for tenants’ documents, she said. “When a landlord has already approved a tenant based on their criteria, that should never change, so asking for an updated Social Security number or other document to prove who you are does not make sense.”

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©2017 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

Visit The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com

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