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The Housing Games 

A lack of student housing causes a countywide rental crunch, enriching landlords and often leaving tenants with nowhere to go

Janie Hubert and Lynne Demarest are both in their 70s and neighbors in a Section 8 apartment building in Eureka's Old Town. They rely on the elevator to get to the street from their third-floor apartments. But twice this year, it didn't work — once for three months and then again for two weeks — meaning they had to walk down and up 72 stairs. Demarest's knee hurts when she climbs stairs. Hubert carries groceries on her walker but not on the stairs, so she had to use two canes and ask a neighbor to help her carry groceries upstairs. But when no one was around to help, she just didn't leave her apartment.

"It takes me 10 minutes just to walk down the stairs and 20 minutes to walk up them," Hubert said.

Her inability to make it down the stairs forced her to cancel multiple doctors appointments to get approved for a new walker that would help her get around more easily. Once she was finally approved, she couldn't pick up the walker because she had no way of getting it up the stairs.

And it's not just the elevator. In the year and a half Hubert has lived in the apartment, she has found that getting anything fixed takes time. Out of the three washers and dryers for 20 apartments, only one dryer and two washers have worked since she's been there.

Demarest's only income is Social Security and she can't afford to move. Her apartment stores not only her belongings but those of her youngest son, as well. Moving would be stressful.

"I keep calling to get things fixed and you might as well just talk to a wall," Demarest said. "But I don't have the means to move and, since I can't drive at night, the location is convenient."

Demarest and Hubert are two tenants in the hundreds of rental units managed by Real Property Management, one of a small number of big rental property managers and owners in Humboldt County. Among them: J&J Rentals both owns and manages around 117 properties, 36 of them multi-unit, making it the largest rental property owner in the county; Kramer Investment Corp. in Eureka owns and manages more than 300 units in seven apartment complexes; and Cottage Realty in McKinleyville manages 170 units. They all share this in common: Despite their large portfolios, they have few availabilities.

Back in August, students in a journalism class at Humboldt State University traded stories about renting in Humboldt County. Many prefaced their story with, "Mine's not that bad" before proceeding to detail conditions most homeowners wouldn't abide for themselves: A non-functioning toilet, a refrigerator that kept nothing cold, black mold covered with paint, a bathtub that didn't work, the continual stench of excrement from a backed-up sewer. One landlord didn't want to clean an exhaust fan, so told the student not to use the stovetop. Another student brought an electric heater into an apartment to keep warm, as the place had no heat, only to be told to stop using it — it drove up the electric bills, which were included in the rent.

This led the students to a question: Why did they accept those conditions? Over the next three months, they interviewed tenants, landlords, property managers, developers, housing advocates and city officials. They pored through property tax rolls, rental listings and U.S. Census data. They found high demand for housing with little supply.

In an August letter to the Humboldt County Association of Governments, the California Department of Housing and Community Development said the county needs more than 3,300 new housing units and of those, some 1,300 units need to be for low-income residents. The U.S. Census reports that Humboldt County issued just 293 building permits in 2017. And the nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California says that across the state there is a shortage of 1.5 million affordable rental homes.

This shortfall pits families and working professionals against students and those on government assistance for the same limited number of available units.

"The market is so tight that we barely need to advertise," said Judy Paye, who owns J&J Rentals with her family. "We practically have places rented before they are ready. We have people coming in looking for places that aren't even available."

In this seller's market, landlords charge high rents for substandard places, require high security deposits, consistent pay stubs and stellar credit or co-signers — conditions students and many working people have trouble meeting — and set conditions many consider unreasonable: no pets, no children or even such things as no guests or Halloween decorations. An absence of local rent control laws and tenant's unions leaves renters with the fear that to fight the restrictions will result in eviction.

Lyndsey Battle is a musician, radio disc jockey and mother. Originally from Florida, Battle moved to Fortuna in 2008. Earlier this year, her fiance told her to leave the home they shared and that left her without a place to live. Over the next three months Battle and her 10-year-old daughter moved 13 times while searching for a safe, affordable rental.

"It was impossible to go to work," Battle said. "I have instruments in seven different places, all around town. Some of them are in friend's garages. Waking up, getting [her daughter] to school and going to work was constant damage control."

When she turned to rental agencies, like Real Property Management, she found little support. They expected an income of three times the rent amount, or a co-signer. Because she is self-employed, Battle had a hard time convincing landlords she could afford the rent, as she couldn't provide steady pay stubs from one employer. "Single moms are going to pay their rent," Battle said. "We work hard and we have too much on the line to lose." Finally, she sublet an Arcata studio apartment from a friend only to be told by the owner that she had to move, as she wasn't on the lease. Plus, she had a dog. After she pleaded with the landlord, he let her take over the lease.

"He realized that my daughter and I had been through so much and he had the power to not put us in a situation where we did not have a place to live," Battle said.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable housing as housing that costs no more than 30 percent of the resident's income. According to the 2016 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census, the median household income in Arcata is about $31,000 and about $43,000 in Humboldt County. That would set the median affordable monthly rent at $775 for Arcata and $1,075 for the county. A recent search on Zillow found 84 available rental units for Arcata, McKinleyville and Eureka in November, with a median rent of $1,200. Only 29 of the 84 listings fell below $1,075. A search on Craigslist, meanwhile, showed 28 new listings for rental units in Humboldt County. One-bedroom apartments went for an average of $814; two-bedroom units went for $1,300 and three-bedroom units went for $1,560. The affordability gap is even wider for those the U.S. Census defines as "non-family," a category students fall into. Here the median household income in Arcata is just $23,000 and $27,000 countywide. That means that half of all households in Arcata comprised of people not related to each other should pay no more than $575 for a home or apartment. Moreover, about 40 percent of residents in Arcata fall below the federal poverty level set at $25,000 for a family of four or $12,000 a year for an individual.

The difficulty of finding an affordable place is driving some people out of Humboldt altogether. Take Saung Pio Lee, who worked as a caregiver in Humboldt County for four years until last summer. That's when a private equity firm bought the Arcata building he lived in and decided to remodel it. Lee received a 60-day notice to vacate his apartment. Lee, who goes by Sonny, first moved to Humboldt County in 2003 from Encinitas. "I decided to become a caregiver because I wanted to do something rewarding that helped others in need," Lee said.

Fed up with the high rents and the cost of living, Lee moved to Utah on Oct. 2. He now pays $695 with utilities included for a one-bedroom apartment he has to himself, compared to the $875 he paid in Arcata for a two-bedroom with utilities split among his roommates.

To save money, HSU student Oliver Winfield-Perez has lived off campus since his freshman year. A member of Associated Students, he started looking for his place while still in high school but it took him five months of applying and a trip up to Humboldt with his parents before he found a place to live. He ended up in an apartment in Eureka where he paid $300 a month for a shared bedroom.

Criminology and justice studies major Chandler Hardin-Ingram lives on campus. He pays about $740 a month for a shared bedroom in the Campus Apartments. If you want a room to yourself on campus, you can expect to pay about $900 a month. If you're willing to share a bedroom with two other people, you can get a room for as low as about $500. But neither guarantees quality.

"My current apartment has cockroaches in the kitchen, a clogged drain and a severe black mold issue," Hardin-Ingram said.

Olivia Keller also lives on campus in Cypress Hall but thinks she can do better off campus than the thin-walled suite she shares with seven other people while paying more than $700 a month. "It's not worth the money at all in my experience," Keller said. "I'll be paying less money to have my own room and more space (off campus)."

HSU Housing and Residence Life Director Stephen St. Onge said most of the dorms on campus are financed with mortgages and it is that debt that keeps the housing fees high.

"We have to pay that mortgage along with the utility expenses, cost and the staff," he said.

St. Onge said that altogether, campus housing produces about $200,000 a year above expenses, which goes into a reserve fund for future housing. That comes out to about $100 per student for the approximately 2,000 students who live on campus.

Students pay the high fees to live on campus, in part, because it comes without some of the barriers Battle faced in her housing hunt: The school doesn't charge a security deposit and doesn't look at credit scores or pay stubs. But the $700 HSU gets students to pony up for shared rooms sets the market rate for the surrounding community.

In Battle's apartment hunt, she found that landlords preferred students because they could pay higher rents by doubling up.

"The rent for a house that can accommodate a mother and a child in Humboldt, and Arcata in particular, is almost impossible for a single parent to provide that much a month," Battle said.

Landlords and property managers, such as Judy Paye, said they know that many people can't afford the rents they charge but they have little problem finding people who do.

"We have people come in and say that they can only afford $400 and we don't have a single thing for them," she said.

During a 30-minute interview with Paye at the J&J Rentals office, two prospective renters walked in to inquire about availability: a single woman and a mother with two children.

The market is so competitive it leaves many tenants who go through the rental hunt feeling that landlords favor some types of people over others: Women over men, those with no children over parents, Caucasians over people of color. Few landlords accept someone with pets and it's the rare landlord who will take people with mental illnesses or drug problems.

In October, Eureka resident Robert Stretton was told to leave the office he has been living in. Back in 1999, he was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 disorder. He takes medications to control it but still has anger management problems and often finds himself in altercations with neighbors. "I don't think on my feet, I need to process things," he said. "Because people fear me and get a restraining order, [landlords] don't rent to me."

He once rented an apartment for nine years from J&J Rentals until he was evicted. That left him so frustrated he started a website, www.slumlords.us, that collects stories about room renters across the country who are upset with their landlords. When he was served with a 30-day notice to vacate in October, his landlord brought along a security guard and police officer. He's now just about given up looking for another place to live.

"I have a PT Cruiser," Stretton said. "I'm going to outfit it so that I can camp in it at night and have all of my communications in a briefcase. My cell phone, my HAM radio and my satellite antenna."

Sally Hewitt, Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services senior program manager, said that Humboldt County currently has about 140 people with a mental illness living in a supportive housing unit, but that isn't enough.

"We need to have 300 permanent supportive housing units," Hewitt said, adding that when you have a system that puts working professionals in the same housing pool as a person with a mental illness, landlords often choose the professionals. "Our clients are not their first choice."

J&J Rentals makes a point of renting to those other landlords turn away. Take Michael Moss, who lives in a J&J rental on 10th Street in Eureka. Moss has been in Humboldt for five years. He was homeless his first year here while he battled drug addiction. But that did not stop the Payes from renting to him. "He doesn't care if you are a drug addict or homeless," Moss said. "Jim Paye takes you in."

But it isn't charity. Moss is on government housing assistance as are many of the tenants at the 10th Street building. The subsidy helps to cover the $750 monthly rent the Payes charge in a neighborhood where used needles are a common sight on the streets.

The Payes also own six transitional houses that combine to provide roofs for about 95 people. "They are for people that have been hooked on drugs, alcohol or they are fresh out of prison," Judy Paye said. "They are looking for a way to get clean or to get their feet on the ground." In these six houses, tenants follow strict rules: they attend weekly meetings and take drug tests, there are curfews and overnight restrictions.

Hudson Glover works for Tri-County Independent Living where he helps people who are homeless, elderly and have mental illness find housing. But the list of available options is so short in Humboldt County, he said, people who aren't in need of supportive housing try to qualify.

"So many people come to us who aren't addicts but want to move into a sober living environment," Glover said. "Clients ask me, 'Should I take up drugs so I can get housing?'"

The obvious solution to our housing crunch would be to provide more housing but you can't force people to build. The county's 2017 Property Tax Roll lists more than 6,500 vacant properties. In Arcata, even where zoning designates land for new housing developments, it is often underutilized. Arcata Community Development Director David Loya said that throughout Humboldt County there is a disincentive to build.

"While the city can obligate people to use their properties according to the correct zoning, they cannot force anyone to build," he said.

Jennifer Dart works with Loya and keeps track of affordable housing. The way Arcata is zoned limits development possibilities.

"The Arcata Bottoms, the threat of rising sea level, the Mad River, the community forest all are natural barriers and future barriers," Dart said.

But inaction on new housing in Arcata keeps prices high. The city has 600 units that are mandated affordable and there is a two-year waiting list for them. "That's not meeting the demand for affordable housing," Dart said. Meanwhile, students who can't afford the high rents HSU charges on campus pile into single-family homes in Arcata and Eureka that would otherwise house families. Alex Ozaki-McNeill is a member of Arcata Equity Housing, a partnership between HSU, city officials and the Arcata business community. With the natural barriers to new development, people need to construct taller buildings to meet the need for more rentals, Ozaki-McNeill said.

"No one is going to rip down the forest or go into the bottoms or intrude on agriculture zones," Ozaki-McNeill said. "The general community doesn't want to build upwards and nobody wants it sprawling. If you look around, everything is one- or two -story buildings."

Beth Burkes is a planning director for the consulting firm LACO Associates in Eureka, which provides planning and permitting assistance for private land development and infrastructure projects in Humboldt County. Burkes said that when she was a board member for Housing Humboldt, a nonprofit advocate for affordable housing, she saw community resistance to new development. But now as a private consultant, she has little trouble getting permits for clients who want to build housing at market rate.

"When I was volunteering, there was a lot of community pushback for low-income housing," Burkes said.

JLF Construction President Jim Furtado has been building for three decades and said he can also get permits, but it will take time and cost money. Building costs and bureaucracy are now tougher barriers than community resistance.

"Since 2010, costs for construction throughout the state have risen 45 percent," Furtado said. Furtado said multi-unit housing projects can take two years to complete — one year just to get the permit.

Kurt Kramer of Kramer Investment Corp. agrees.

"Ten years [ago] we had pushback," he said. "But the city is on board to build but the state regulations is what's blocking us."

Kramer said that within the last 20 years changes in standards at all government levels have made it harder to build houses. The number of specialists, engineers and consultants needed even before building starts has made it virtually impossible to build housing that is affordable, he said.

"You can't build for less than $400,000 out the door," Kramer said, referencing the cost of a single-family home. "Just to build a road in front of a new development is $50,000."

There is still local pushback to affordable housing. In September of 2017, PG&E donated modular trailers to the Betty Kwan Chinn Homeless Foundation to provide transitional housing for homeless people but they still sit vacant in Eureka awaiting an approved site. Eureka City Councilmember Heidi Messner said there was a backlash against the proposal.

"When Betty Chinn's Day Center was proposed the city went ballistic," Messner said. "I can't believe how much they attacked Betty. They said horrible, horrible stuff."

Glover, at Tri-County Independent Living, said the county declared a state of emergency for housing this year and received $2.5 million in grant funds. But he fears the county may lose the funding if a project proposal isn't agreed upon.

"The problem is we won't even be able to reach an agreement and the money will go back to the state," Glover said.

This kind of pushback frustrates people like Nezzie Wade, co-founder and president of Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives.

"We have pushed really hard to highlight that there is a crisis in housing, there absolutely is," Wade said. "I've talked to developers that can't do anything because the city denied them."

That's what happened to AMCAL, an out-of-town developer specializing in student housing projects, when it proposed The Village, an off-campus complex to house about 600 students in five buildings on St. Louis Road in Arcata. The rents would have been $732 for a furnished double room per month and $903 per month for a single room. As with campus housing, there would be no security deposit and wifi, utilities and trash would be included. While the university supported the project and said it would manage it if approved, many local residents opposed it. Some worried about noise and traffic, others opposed the idea of housing exclusively for students. The rejection of The Village surprised Wade, though she added that she also spoke to many students who opposed the project because they didn't feel the rents were affordable. But Wade thinks attitudes are starting to change at least at the county level.

"The county has adopted a Housing First policy," Wade said. In February, Humboldt County also established a Housing Trust Fund and Homelessness Solutions Committee to prioritize affordable housing projects.

And at the state level, the Legislature passed a package of bills in 2017 that provides increased funding and streamlines the approval process for affordable housing, and empowers the attorney general to act against cities that refuse to comply with requirements for affordable housing set-asides.

While that might help get new housing built, for now, renters continue to vie for housing that often lacks that new apartment smell. Arcata Building inspector Joe Bishop knows all about this. One day last summer, he climbed up a newly-replaced roof to test for weak points.

"A section of the roof decking that should have been replaced broke under my weight and I fell up to my knee," Bishop said. "If you were in the attic it would have looked pretty comical."

Arcata's Building Division is responsible for inspecting new buildings and secondary units, tenant improvements and any building complaints filed with the city. Until earlier this year, Bishop was the only person Arcata had doing the job and he only worked part-time. Four months ago, Arcata hired Kimberlee McArthur as building official.

"There are some really nice secondary units that are done right and they get the permits and then there are other ones that are just atrocities," McArthur said. "They're horrible. You have young adults in these places and they're usually far from home and they don't know what to do. They're afraid to make waves and don't [complain to the city] until it gets to the dark hour, until it's so bad."

McArthur moved from Washington State and her search for housing here was an apt introduction to her new job: She saw bad plumbing, electrical problems and mold. One place was so bad, she deemed it unlivable. McArthur is Arcata's first full-time building official in two years.

"They did the best that they could to function," McArthur said. "They sent plan reviews out to an outside consultant, they had a retired building official who would come in two or three days a week, they brought in a temporary inspector who's permanent now, but he was part-time."

Even with the added help, Bishop said the city can't do anything about substandard rentals if tenants don't complain. That's true even if the city finds a problem rental owned by someone with multiple units. "What I find is if someone has one substandard property, they're likely to have many," Bishop said.

Even where the city finds permit violations, it cannot go after other habitability issues without a tenant filing a complaint. But many tenants find it so difficult to find a place they can afford, they'll accept all kinds of problems.

In the Arcata house HSU student Oliver Winfield-Perez rents, the drywall in the bathroom is so thin it is disintegrating because of a water leak from the roof. The corners of the walls in the shower have sunken in and the attic is visible. Mold is rampant and appliances leak. When the heater is turned on, the place smells like fecal matter. Winfield-Perez suspects the rats he hears in the walls are dropping feces in the ducts. Aware of the problem, the landlord hired an exterminator who placed poison boxes along the perimeter of the house. Winfield-Perez told the landlord that the house has structural problems that need to be fixed but won't complain to the city because the city could declare the place uninhabitable.

"I think a lot of landlords take advantage of students in Arcata," he said.

Even when tenants complain, they often find landlords unresponsive. Holly Saint rents a three-bedroom townhouse at the Bayside Apartments in Arcata for $1,600 a month. "It's difficult to find good housing, especially if you have any pigment in your skin," she said. "My boyfriend is black so I viewed this place by myself because, otherwise, we don't have a chance."

But her lights don't always work and plugs in the wall become so hot to the touch she unplugs everything each time she leaves for fear of fire. She suspects that pressboard throughout the house covers up mold. When she contacted her landlord, she said there was little response.

"There are a lot of slumlords here who just want to make money off of renters and not fix anything." Saint said.

At Pacific Coast Rentals, Nicki Moore said she won't take on owners who won't maintain their properties. She said she looks for owners "willing to treat the property as an investment and not a rent check."

Other rental property companies say it is up to owners to maintain the properties. At Real Property Management, for example, Darius Trutna said there is only so much he can do since he doesn't own the properties he manages and sometimes has to wait for owners to make needed repairs.

"Unfortunately, people think we're evil and greedy," Trutna said. "We don't have that level of authority. We only make recommendations."

At Humboldt State, students are organizing.

Current HSU student Max Hosford helped found Cooperation Humboldt, a tenants' union that would get tenants legal representation in disputes with property management companies and landlords. There are models for tenant's unions in San Francisco and San Diego, Hosford said.

"It's just a good way to get renters together so we know what rights we actually have," he said. "A lot of us don't [know our rights], it's not something that we're taught."

The newly formed Student Housing Advocate Alliance, meanwhile, hopes to establish a revolving fund for security deposits, said its founder, Chante' Catt. Catt is also working on a program to set housing standards and educate renters, property managers and owners on expectations.

"If both the tenant and the landlords have gone through the training, we can start weaning out the property managers who aren't doing their jobs properly and start teaching students how to be good tenants," she said.

Catt is hopeful that awareness can help students and working folks throughout the county get better housing. Consider what happened back in that Eureka building where Janie Hubert and Lynn Demarest had to endure a broken elevator for three months and then again for two weeks. When the elevator broke down a third time, Real Property Management had it fixed the next day. That happened not long after a reporter came asking the company about the broken elevator for this story.

But Hubert isn't too hopeful that the latest fix will last but she can't afford to move.

"The elevator will probably break again soon," Hubert said. "They didn't do a very good job fixing it."

This story came out of a class at Humboldt State University on investigative reporting taught by professor Marcy Burstiner. Over three months, students in the class conducted more than 70 interviews and analyzed data from the Humboldt County property tax roll, as well as housing complaints reported to the city of Arcata and Humboldt County obtained through California Public Records Act requests. Participating in the project were: Tony Wallin, Freddy Brewster, Cassaundra Caudillo, Michael Weber, Walter Hackett, Curran Daly, Lora Neshovska, Dajonea Robinson, Alexis Flores, Elizabeth Locher, Cedric Lewis, Juan Alonzo, Abigail LeForge, Jerame Saunders, Weston Lazarus, Skye Kimya, Deija Zavala and Megan Bender.

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