Erika D. Smith

If he weren’t blind, he would’ve lost his apartment. What's that say about California values?

Billy Lei was afraid he'd be forced to move out of his Sacramento apartment.
Billy Lei was afraid he'd be forced to move out of his Sacramento apartment. Courtesy of Billy Lei

When did the endless debate over the unfairness of California’s housing market become such an exercise in missing the point?

Developers huff and puff about rent control and how, if it’s enacted, the construction of apartment buildings will grind to a screeching halt, exacerbating the housing crisis. Renters rant about how they don’t care because they need help – now. And political candidates, well, they try to have it both ways.

But, from where I sit, this isn’t just an impassioned debate over public policy. It’s a debate over people, and how much the poorest – and often the blackest and brownest – mean to the policymakers of California.

People like Billy Lei.

For the last 10 years, Billy has lived with his mom and sister in a small, one-bedroom apartment at 17th and T streets in midtown Sacramento. It’s the only home he’s ever known in this country.

The 20-year-old spent the first half of his life in – China, where he was denied the opportunity to attend school because he’s blind — something that’s not atypical for children with disabilities. So Billy and his family moved to America.

Since arriving, he has learned English and become a U.S. citizen. He’s discovered a passion for advocacy, even traveling to Washington, D.C., with the National Federation of the Blind.

Billy also is the primary translator for his family. So when a letter arrived for his mother in late January from the company that manages their apartment building, though he couldn’t read it, he was the one to deal with its message.

It read: “Notice is hereby given that within sixty days after service upon you of this notice, you must surrender and deliver up possession of the premises … If you fail to surrender possession within the sixty day period, legal proceedings will be commenced against you.”

In other words, Billy and his family were being unceremoniously ordered out of their apartment by the end of March, the shortest amount of time permitted by state law. They weren’t given a reason why, nor do they have a legal right to one. This is what happens week after week in cities across California that have eschewed local ordinances to protect renters.

But whether a reason for terminating a lease is given or not, one always exists, and increasingly, that reason is money.

In Billy’s case, it’s because his building was bought by new owners last December – a pair of wealthy local investors, as best his online-sleuthing friends can tell. It’s now overseen by Raymond Management.

The new owners want to redo both the inside and outside of the building, which Raymond Management founder Scott Raymond says has been neglected for a long time. To do that, they need to clear out all of the apartments in two phases. And you’d better believe that once new floors, cabinets, appliances and windows are put in, rent for those remodeled units will be hundreds of dollars more.

This is what gentrification looks like.

It’s a perfectly legitimate, legal and, yes, lucrative business model that has been happening in other, more pricey parts of California for years. But now it’s happening in historically low-cost parts of Sacramento, where affordable housing has suddenly become scarce and where rental prices have been climbing faster than in most of the country.

So, yes, poor people are being displaced and neighborhoods are changing.

Billy and his family pay about $650, which is a steal for midtown Sacramento. They survive on his disability check and the wages from his sister’s job. They can’t afford the city’s current median rent of $1,500 for a two-bedroom apartment and so they haven’t been able to find a place on such short notice.

“We’re looking for a new property, but it’s hard to find, you know?” he said. “It’s so expensive for a low-income family. That’s how they create more homeless people, by kicking people out.”

Billy asked Raymond Management for a lease extension under the “reasonable accommodation” provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He sent the company an email and dropped off a paper copy, but employees, he said, seemed unmoved.

This is what led Billy to me – and, in a roundabout way, to Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s office.

It turns out one of Billy’s old teachers is friends with Steinberg. Billy told her about his termination of tenancy notice. The teacher called the mayor, who called Jim Lofgren, a senior vice president with the California Apartment Association, who called Raymond.

Then, one morning, a woman from the property management company knocked on Billy’s door and asked if his family wanted more time to look for a new apartment. Billy, of course, said yes.

His family now has until September to move out. Other tenants in his building weren’t so lucky.

But here’s what Billy didn’t know: The founder of Raymond Management received his letter and decided to help before Lofgren asked. “I called my clients, the owners, and discussed the circumstances,” he told me, “and they felt compelled to help as well.”

How many landlords wouldn’t have had that kind of sympathy and would have ordered Billy and his family to leave anyway, likely dooming them to join the thousands of homeless people already on Sacramento’s streets? Too many, is my guess.

And why should any renter feel the need to resort to political back-channeling just to keep an affordable roof over his family’s head? Or, for that matter, have to be blind to have enough standing to ask?

“I realize it’s all about the money,” Billy said. “It’s cool to build more stuff, but at the same time, everybody can’t afford it. They don’t realize what people go through.”

Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, has introduced legislation, Assembly Bill 2925, that would begin to address this by requiring landlords to show “just cause” before terminating anyone’s lease. His team is still working on the language, but it would create a set of valid reasons, such as failing to pay rent, that would have to be used as justification.

It's a modest bill that, if nothing else, would add a layer of transparency to what is often a murky rental process, with tenants not understanding their rights.

Separately, the San Jose City Council voted to enact its own “just cause” – or “no cause” – eviction ordinance last year. Landlords now have to prove one of 12 conditions before kicking people out. Sacramento should do the same.

Everyone in California should have value.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, Erika_D_Smith

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