Uninhabitable and invisible

Berkeley resident faces squalid living conditions as Section 8 renter receiving subsidized housing

Section8.2_NicoleWhite
Nicole White/Senior Staff

Stretching across the wall in Monica Ferguson’s entryway is an eight-foot hole.

The hole has been a problem in Ferguson’s house since she first moved there in 2002, and her landlord had repaired it several times. At the first signs of rain last fall, Ferguson said the paint peeled back, reopening the hole and revealing 10 years of wood rot.

This time, her landlord didn’t repair it.

Throughout fall and winter, Ferguson said several rain storms caused water to pour through the hole and into her home “like a waterfall.” She had to line her floors with towels that became so waterlogged she had to wring them out five to six times per day.

By November, the hole had contributed to a rat infestation. Her food is sealed in airtight containers in a backroom of her house to secure it from the rats. Her kitchen cupboards and refrigerator are still completely empty.

“I told her to just get a cat,” said her landlord Susan Carrodus to an exterminator in a video that Ferguson has stored on her phone.section 8-01

The hole remains as a reminder of the months Ferguson has spent living with two of her children in a house that city inspectors have deemed uninhabitable.

Ferguson is a Section 8 renter, which means she receives government-issued vouchers that subsidize a portion of her rent. The damages in her home breach the housing assistance contracts between her, her landlord and the Berkeley Housing Authority, which stipulate that the landlord must provide a habitable environment.

The hole is one of 15 housing quality standard violations identified in Ferguson’s home by the BHA and one of 13 identified by the city’s Housing Code Enforcement division. The BHA inspects houses with Section 8 tenants whereas Housing Code Enforcement conducts citywide inspections and, unlike the BHA, can impose fines.

As a result of the termination of her housing assistance contracts, Ferguson and her children are being forced to move out of the home where they have lived for 14 years.

“It really has broken our family,” Ferguson said. “You can’t imagine.”

When housing inspector David Montes called Carrodus in February, advising her to repair the house to meet housing quality standards, Carrodus told him she would not fix anything because she wanted Ferguson to move out.

Though Ferguson is not being legally evicted, her lawyer Erik Bauman argues that Carrodus’ refusal to make repairs may represent a form of constructive eviction. Constructive eviction refers to deliberate actions landlords may take to interfere with tenants’ use of premises in lieu of formally evicting them.

Ferguson’s situation, however, is not the fault of her landlord alone. The federal and local laws surrounding housing assistance put already-vulnerable Section 8 tenants at risk of experiencing unsuitable living conditions.

Carrodus declined to comment on her relationship with Ferguson despite multiple attempts to contact her.

One of many problems

In 1974, the Housing and Community Development Act established Section 8, a federal government program that subsidizes qualifying low-income tenants’ rental costs by 60 to 70 percent to allow them to lease private houses or apartments. In Berkeley, the local housing authority provides vouchers for about 2,000 units through Section 8.

“It makes sense that they don’t want the government paying landlords who aren’t holding up their end of the bargain.”

— Monica Ferguson’s lawyer Erik Bauman

Ferguson first enrolled in the program approximately 20 years ago as a single mother trying to support her and her youngest daughter while working as a receptionist at a pharmaceutical company. In 2000, she started training to become an IV pharmacy technician and received her license after two years. Later that year, she moved into her current house at 1715 6th St. in Berkeley with her three kids.

She worked until 2005 when she developed a nerve tumor in her wrist. Ferguson is now on indefinite disability leave. Like Ferguson, nearly 50 percent of Section 8 renters have disabilities.

Ferguson currently lives in the house with her two younger children: her 16-year-old daughter and her 21-year-old son who has a disability. Her oldest daughter is now 28 and has moved out.

Up until 2013, Ferguson and her family had few problems with Carrodus. Ferguson would sometimes pick Carrodus’ son up from school at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School with her own son.

The safety violations in her home started off small — a loose shower knob, a leak under the kitchen sink, a broken refrigerator handle — but Ferguson said Carrodus was frustrated that the BHA required her to complete repairs within a limited time frame and felt that she was being “bullied.”

“Every time there was an inspection, it started to deteriorate our relationship more and more,” Ferguson said.

Whereas property owners are typically able to self-certify that their units meet the housing code, the Section 8 program requires annual inspections to ensure that units meet certain safety and living quality standards.

“It makes sense that they don’t want the government paying landlords who aren’t holding up their end of the bargain,” Bauman said.

As months went by, small holes got larger, mold began to grow on the wall and the house’s water heating stopped working for days at a time.

On June 10, 2015, Ferguson complained to the BHA about the state of her home. Two days later, Carrodus sent her a letter informing Ferguson that she had decided to reclaim the unit to give to her son and gave Ferguson 60 days notice to leave.

A landlord can legally evict a tenant if he or she wishes to recover the unit for personal use, according to the Rent Stabilization and Eviction for Good Cause ordinance. In 2000, however, the ordinance was amended when voters approved Measure Y, which stipulates that landlords who evict low-income tenants on the grounds of owner move-in must pay a relocation fee of $4,500.

Ferguson said after the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board notified Carrodus that she could only evict her if she paid a relocation fee, Ferguson never heard about the son moving in again.

The house failed a BHA inspection in June, but Carrodus repaired some of the problems, allowing it to pass a reinspection in August. Ferguson, however, said the repairs were short-lived and old issues resurfaced a few days later.

In November, the house again failed a BHA inspection with five violations. When the BHA reinspected the unit a month later, the number of violations had grown to 15.

Two days later, Ferguson’s Section 8 contract went into abatement, meaning that the BHA began to withhold rental subsidy payments from Carrodus. The BHA cannot impose fines to discourage violations, but it can withhold voucher payment from the landlord, according to Tia Ingram, executive director of the BHA.

bathroomThough Ferguson was still liable to pay her portion of the rent, Carrodus began refusing to accept her monthly checks in December.

“I think that shows there is some reason that the landlord wants Ms. Ferguson out,” Bauman said. “(Carrodus’ behavior) doesn’t make sense from a financial or a human empathy perspective.”

When the BHA  reinspected the unit in January, not one of the 15 violations had been fixed.

Meanwhile, Ferguson and her children had spent the holiday season in a home that was rapidly falling further into disrepair.

“That was 60 days of me putting those towels down and living in horrible conditions,” Ferguson said.

All the while, Ferguson tried her best to maintain a sense of normalcy for her and her children. In her house, the carpet is freshly vacuumed and potted plants line the windowsills.

“My house doesn’t look like we’re living in squalor,” Ferguson said. “I’ve learned how to keep certain doors shut.”

Nevertheless, some elements of the house’s damages could not be hidden.

When mold began to creep through the closet in her daughter’s bedroom, Ferguson started to sleep in the living room so her daughter could stay in the master bedroom. But when mold also began to appear in the bedroom of her son, who has asthma, he began sleeping in the master bedroom while Ferguson and her daughter both slept in the living room.

Until last month, Ferguson said the gardeners had stopped tending to her yard during the course of her conflict with her landlord. In front of her house, the grass reached well past her ankles. A shrub was so overgrown that it had tipped over.

“My house doesn’t look like we’re living in squalor.” I’ve learned how to keep certain doors shut.”

— Monica Ferguson, Berkeley resident

There are two other units on the same lot where Ferguson lives, neither of which house Section 8 tenants. The grass in front of both were neatly mowed and without weeds.

At the peak of her problems with her landlord, Ferguson requested an inspection from Housing Code Enforcement in the hope that fines imposed by the agency would motivate Carrodus to make repairs. In February, the city fined Carrodus for housing code violations.

Carrodus did not begin repairs until March. That month, the BHA also informed Ferguson that the Section 8 contract pertaining to her residency in the house would be terminated in April.

A growing problem

According to Michael St. John, an economic consultant for the Berkeley Property Owners Association, after the establishment of rent control in 1980, if the BHA’s payment standard was set above the rent ceiling of a particular dwelling or unit, leasing to Section 8 tenants was an opportunity for landlords to make increased profits.

Fifteen years later, however, the state Legislature’s passage of the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act stipulated that landlords can establish initial rent rates independent from rent ceilings whenever a unit undergoes a change in tenancy.

According to Jay Kelekian, executive director of the Rent Stabilization Board, the Costa-Hawkins Housing Act economically incentivizes the eviction of tenants.

The Rent Stabilization and Eviction for Good Cause Ordinance of 1980 is intended to protect tenants against arbitrary eviction, stipulating that landlords need “good cause” for eviction. Some examples of “good cause” include a tenant’s failure to pay rent, transgression of the rental agreement terms or willful infliction of substantial damage to the unit.

holes

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s regulations initially allowed property owners to opt out of the Section 8 program and evict tenants at any point, so long as they gave 90 days notice. This provision was removed through an amendment that went into effect in 1999, but the BHA, originally unaware of this change, continued to allow owner opt-outs until March 2013.

“(Property owners) chose to rent under Section 8 because they could get higher rents and they signed up for a program knowing they could opt out,” St. John said. “Now, 10 years later, they’re being told they can’t opt out and they feel trapped and they feel like they aren’t be treated right.”

Between Jan. 1, 2013 and Dec. 31, 2015, 252 contracts of the BHA’s approximately 2,000 contracts, including Ferguson’s, were abated for failure to meet housing quality standards.

Bauman noted that he has seen an increase in Section 8 tenants who say that their landlords are refusing to make repairs in the years since opt-outs stopped being granted.

“It’s illegal, (landlords) can get sued, but the reality is that … it’s hard for these tenants to get attorneys,” said Laura Lane, housing practice director at the East Bay Community Law Center.

An individual or family must make below 50 percent of the median income of their county or metropolitan area in order to qualify for the Section 8 program. Seventy-five percent of vouchers are required to be given to applicants that annually earn 30 percent or less of the area median income.

“We don’t have anywhere to go, but we’re packing.”

— Monica Ferguson, Berkeley resident

Starting Over

The walls in Ferguson’s living room are bare.

She originally took down all of her family photos to protect them from the rain during the winter, neatly stacking them in boxes. Now, the majority of her other belongings are also stored alongside them in a room at the back of her house.

After 14 years living in the house with her son and daughter, Ferguson is preparing to leave.

“We don’t have anywhere to go, but we’re packing,” Ferguson said.

The few decorations that remain in the house sit on her mantle: her son’s high school diploma, graduation cap and a picture from her daughter’s elementary school graduation.

“This is the only thing I can’t take down because it makes my heart hurt,” Ferguson said.

Because of his disability, Ferguson’s son is eligible to live in transitional youth housing, which he moved into in April. But Ferguson has been unable to find a place for her and her daughter to stay.

After looking for housing for almost a year, Ferguson has entered several housing lotteries and is on waiting lists but has yet to receive a housing offer. Being on Section 8, Ferguson said, is starting to feel like a “dealbreaker” when it comes to finding housing.

At one house showing, when Ferguson revealed she was a Section 8 tenant, the landlord told her she had “wasted her time.”

According to federal housing regulations, if a tenant’s housing voucher isn’t used for more than six months, the voucher is terminated and the renter will no longer receive assistance. Because her contract entered abatement in December, Ferguson has until May 31 to find a place to stay for her and her daughter.

Otherwise, Ferguson said, she will not be able to afford a market rent unit in the Bay Area.

“I have a 16-year-old that walks home from school on her own and I want her to be safe, but I have to get whatever I can,” Ferguson said, adding that they may have to move outside of Berkeley, forcing her daughter to transfer from Berkeley High School. “She’s going to be a senior next year. She’s doing really good — that’s why I hate to move her out of school.”

Despite her circumstances, Ferguson said she refuses to leave the house without putting up a fight. Over the course of her problems with Carrodus, Ferguson began contacting lawyers at the East Bay Community Law Center, who informed her of her rights as a tenant.

“I think she thought I was going to go out quietly, (but) I started becoming my own advocate,” Ferguson said.

She now plans to sue Carrodus for several causes of action, including the breaching of the house’s warranty of habitability and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. Ferguson expressed that she hopes the lawsuit will help to bring justice to her situation.

Up until this point, she’s faced almost no consequences,” Ferguson said.

Jessica Lynn is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jessicailynn.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Monica Ferguson went on disability leave due to a nerve tumor in her breast. In fact, the nerve tumor is in her wrist.