According to the Fair Housing Council of Orange County, Home Is Where the Trouble Is

Once a civil-rights giant, the Santa Ana-based council is struggling with too much work to do and not enough funding

According to the Fair Housing Council of Orange County, Home Is Where the Trouble Is
Illustration: Bill Mayer | Design: Dustin Ames

For three years, Cesar Baxin lived at Chatham Village in Tustin with no drama. It was the perfect place to raise his young family: affordable, surrounded by dozens of trees, with a playground and a pool, and just down the street from an elementary school.

"My girls are still in school, and I don't want to move them to a different one," Baxin says. "It doesn't seem right to me that a person like [the property manager] can come here and, just because he doesn't like us, try to kick us out."

"It was tranquil, calm," the the 38-year-old father of two says, speaking in Spanish. "We would hold parties, and they would let us use the benches."

But three years ago, a new property manager began working at the community. New, almost-arbitrary rules were immediately put in place. An already-existing vermin problem got worse, and tenants who had disabilities had their parking spaces revoked, residents allege. "One day, my girls were at the playground," the 38-year-old Baxin recalls of his daughters, ages 9 and 6. "My wife was standing there, and [the property manager] arrived and told them that they couldn't be there, that they had to go inside. . . . Another time, my daughter was playing with a new bicycle that we had gotten her. She was riding it in circles when the security guard came out. He told my daughter, 'You can't ride a bike here. If you want to play with your bike, go inside your apartment and play there.'"

Protest at Chatham Village
Cesar Baxin
Protest at Chatham Village
FHCOC office
Dustin Ames
FHCOC office

Baxin and his neighbors became frustrated. They wrote letters to the apartment complex's management company, Apartment Management Consultants, a Utah-based behemoth that operates thousands of apartment buildings in 16 states and the District of Columbia. Those went unanswered, and Chatham Village residents began researching their legal options. When that didn't work, they organized a protest at an intersection near the community. Dozens of tenants and former tenants attended, carrying signs in both English and Spanish. The demonstrations went on for nine weeks.

But despite their actions, Baxin says, not much changed.

"After the protests started, [the property manager] calmed down a little bit, but he still threatened us," Baxin says. "He said anyone who took part would be evicted. Little by little, that's what he did. He went around looking for a reason, any reason, before he found something.

"How he treated us stayed the same, even after the protests," Baxin concludes. "The only thing that changed was how he treated the kids. Before, he would go as far as to grab them by the arm and take them back to their apartments."

Finally, Baxin went to the Fair Housing Council of Orange County (FHCOC) for help. The organization, which has been OC's premier group dedicated to fighting housing discrimination for decades, currently has an active case file open against Chatham Village and has sent staff to take statements from tenants. In the next few weeks, they will file a civil suit against the community, alleging housing discrimination.

"My girls are still in school, and I don't want to move them to a different one," Baxin says. "It doesn't seem right to me that a person like him can come here and, just because he doesn't like us, try to kick us out."

Baxin's story is similar to many in the long, proud history of the FHCOC. Founded in 1965 after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the council is a private, nonprofit organization based in Santa Ana that investigates discrimination complaints, attempts to mediate issues between landlords and tenants, and—if necessary—brings offending landlords to court. Its work has been not only righteous, but also historic. In the 1960s, members helped to push Reitman v. Mulkey all the way to the United States Supreme Court; there, the justices struck down a California law that allowed landlords to discriminate at will, thus ending officially sanctioned housing segregation in the U.S. once and for all. In the 1970s, the FHCOC represented a group of Irvine residents who sued their newly minted town so it would include plans for affordable housing in its master plan. In the 1990s, it ran sting operations to catch discriminating property owners and legally represented 43 Latino families who went on a rent strike, demanding necessary repairs to their dilapidated apartments.

In recent years, the FHCOC has focused mostly on offering counseling and training to tenants, landlords and property managers, as well as getting justice through mediation. But it'll still use its fangs when necessary. In 2004, the council won a $185,000 settlement for a woman forced to give up her therapy dog by unsympathetic property managers, who then attempted to commit suicide after carving the dog's name into her arm. And in 2012, it won $60,000 for an African-American woman who had been denied an Orange apartment after a sting operation showed how property managers preferred whites over blacks.

But despite the FHCOC's successes, its work is winding down even as the county gets less white and more economically stratified and housing discrimination gets worse.

In 2010, the council opened 81 cases off 5,200 complaints; in 2011, 71 cases developed from 5,061 call-ins. Orange County already has a majority minority population—Orange County's largest ethnic group, whites, only accounts for 44 percent of the population—and state projections predict the number of white people will continue to shrink as the Latino and Asian populations grow. During the period between 2000 and 2007, the white population in Orange County decreased by 126,000 people while the size of the Hispanic community grew by nearly 200,000. The amount of Asian people grew by 120,000 during the same time frame.

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