When Maria got an eviction notice telling her she had to be out of her Redwood City apartment by late February, she thought something seemed fishy.
She contacted housing attorneys, who confirmed to her landlord that the notice was not served legally and she didn’t have to move out right away.
Her landlord responded with a text message threatening to call immigration authorities on Maria if she didn’t comply, saying it was a “duty” to report anyone who is undocumented.
A second text from the landlord referenced Maria’s attorney, Daniel Saver, who works for an East Palo Alto nonprofit law firm.
The landlord warned of reporting Saver to the State Bar of California “for helping his clients who illegally live in the United States of America,” according to text message correspondence Saver sent to a legislative committee in March.
The text continued: “I believe the State Bar of California will be interested (in) my complaint, under the new leadership of our president.”
“This has gotten pretty pervasive,” said Saver, a lawyer at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto.
Even before Donald Trump’s presidency, landlords across California were capitalizing on the state’s tight housing market by jacking up rent, delaying costly health and safety repairs and evicting tenants to move in higher-income renters, housing attorneys say. But since Trump took office, they say, tenant harassment, intimidation and discrimination have gotten worse – especially in immigrant communities throughout California, from Los Angeles and the Central Valley to the Bay Area and Sacramento.
“It isn’t anything new that immigrant tenants are threatened by landlords, or that they’re fearful about complaining about unhealthy conditions or asserting their rights,” Saver said. “What has changed now is the tenor of those threats and the brazenness of landlords who make those threats. That has shifted in the Trump era. This is not anything we’ve ever seen before.”
Backing up lawyers’ reports with specific data is difficult. No agencies track data on the reasons people are evicted or loss of housing due to someone’s immigration status. And immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, are reluctant to come forward out of heightened concern that they, or their family members, will face repercussions. The Sacramento Bee agreed to use the pseudonym Maria, which Saver used in his testimony, because she is fearful of being identified by immigration authorities.
State Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, said he isn’t surprised tensions are running high. He said the state shouldn’t “protect illegal immigrants and keep them in housing when we’re trying to find housing for legal residents.”
“There’s always a concern that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from U.S. citizens,” Moorlach said. “Now we have an issue of them taking housing away when it is getting so expensive, and our young kids are moving out of the state because of it.”
State and federal fair housing laws, however, cover undocumented immigrants and make it illegal to discriminate against someone based on their race, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, disability and more. Still, some state lawmakers say California must strengthen tenant protections.
Estimates show California is home to roughly 2.5 million undocumented immigrants.
“Most of them are renters, and landlords almost always known the immigration status of their tenants. They are even more vulnerable than other low-income tenants because they have this fear of being deported or their landlord reporting them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” said Jith Meganathan, an attorney and policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
“We’d like to think this is happening in the dusty corners of the San Joaquin Valley, where there are more farmworkers, but it’s happening everywhere – Silicon Valley, Oakland, throughout Los Angeles, on the Peninsula and in the East Bay,” Meganathan said. “It’s all since November, with the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from this new administration. Many more of these threats are being made, often times with invocations of Trump.”
Maria Estrada said she and her family were forced out of their Oakland apartment after her landlord threatened to call immigration agents.
“He (said) he’s going to report us to ICE,” Estrada said. “Any car we saw stop in front of the place, we couldn’t even go back to sleep because we (were) scared. Every time he would stop by the house and talk to us, he’d say ICE is going to pick you up ... when we hear that, we’d run away for the whole day.”
Estrada, 56, is in the country legally, but some in her family are not.
“I was worried what would happen to them, and for me, too,” she said. “I’m not a criminal.”
Abel Gonzalez said his landlord threatened to call immigration on him and his family, then sought to evict them from their southeast Los Angeles apartment that they’d lived in for seven years.
“I said, ‘Please don’t threaten us with this,’ ” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez, 46, said he and his wife are going through process of getting a green card and had spent their disposable income on “solving their status issue.”
“It felt really bad. We’ve been here 25 years,” he said.
With the help of their 21-year-old son who was born in the U.S., the couple negotiated an agreement with their landlord to stay in their apartment in exchange for paying higher rent. They now pay $2,000 per month for their two-bedroom apartment, up from $1,200 previously.
“We’re still worried,” said Gonzalez, one of hundreds of tenants across the state participating in the activist group Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a housing group and part Housing Now, a coalition formed this year to put pressure on elected officials to enact rent control and stronger anti-eviction policies across the state.
Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, said something must be done to to help tenants facing extreme rent increases, evictions and deportation threats. He has proposed legislation that seeks to prevent landlords from threatening to report tenants to immigration authorities or disclosing their immigration status themselves.
“Since Election Day last year, it has not been an easy time to be an immigrant in our country. For immigrant tenants, in particular, it has been a frightening time,” Chiu said. “We don’t think anyone should live in fear.”
State and federal fair housing laws prohibit discrimination based on race or national origin, disability status, sexual orientation and gender. Assembly Bill 291 from Chiu would strengthen those laws by:
▪ Prohibiting landlords from threatening to report tenants to immigration authorities, either in retaliation for asserting their rights or to evict them.
▪ Bar landlords from disclosing a tenant’s immigration status.
▪ Allow tenants to sue landlords who disclose their immigration status to law enforcement.
▪ Prohibit questions about a tenant’s immigration status during a trial.
▪ Prohibit attorneys from reporting or threatening to report the immigration status of people involved in housing cases.
Moorlach criticized the bill for “seeking to legislate something based on a few bad apples.”
Though he and other Republicans in the Legislature voted against Chiu’s bill, it has no recorded opposition. The California Apartment Association, a statewide lobbying organization representing landlords, has endorsed it.
“The vast majority of landlords are in the business of providing housing. They’re not in the business of trying to identify, capture and report people to immigration officials – that’s just not their job,” said Debra Carlton, senior vice president for public affairs for the association. “Tenants shouldn’t have to worry after they’ve already been a tenant that their landlord is going to report them to ICE.”
Ilene Jacobs, statewide director of litigation for California Rural Legal Assistance Inc., called the bill is an important measure to help tenants facing unlawful eviction or deportation threats.
“People have rights to not be discriminated against because of who they are, or what language they speak, what they look like or what their gender expression is,” Jacobs said. “That doesn’t mean they are not discriminated against and it doesn’t mean they don’t need help enforcing those laws.”
The California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation is a co-sponsor of the bill along with the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
She said it’s critical to beef up the ranks of nonprofit lawyers in the state who can help tenants who need legal assistance.
The state’s recently adopted budget includes $45 million to assist undocumented immigrants, including those seeking help to become citizens, deportation defense and other legal and immigration-related services.
Dean Preston, executive Director of Tenants Together, a statewide housing advocacy organization, also endorsed Chiu’s bill. He has seen cases skyrocket this year amid soaring rents in the Bay Area.
“This is not an anecdote here and an anecdote there,” he said. “This is an ongoing problem that has gotten even worse since the election.”
Angela Hart: 916-326-5528, @ahartreports