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

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.

"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.'"

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.

 

"Immigration has and will continue to influence Orange County's population change," reads the Orange County assessment of impediments to fair housing, a document prepared by the county and submitted to United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. "It is expected that most of the immigrants settling in Orange County will come from the same areas of the globe as those that now reside in the county: Asia and Central America. They will be younger, have lower levels of education, have higher poverty rates, and have lower levels of English proficiency. . . . The need for programs that assist immigrants in helping to provide safe and adequate housing will still persist."

Nowadays, though, everyone seemingly needs fair housing services. According to data from the Council on Community and Economic Research, Orange County is the ninth most expensive place to live in the United States. Given Southern California's long, slow return from the depths of the Great Recession, fair housing is no longer about isolated problems with solutions solved solely by the FHCOC—it's now the new normal, with no resolution in sight.

*     *     *

Despite the new challenges, funding for fair housing in general hasn't been increasing—or even staying the same. A victim of the sluggish economy and disappearance of redevelopment investments, such funds—sourced from the federal government's Community Development Block Grant program and a requirement to receive those monies—have actually been decreasing. Spending by the three largest municipalities in Orange County has either stayed the same or gone down in the past few years. In 2007, Santa Ana spent a total of $72,396 on fair housing services; in 2014, just $67,517 is budgeted. In 2010, the county spent $68,000 on fair housing, while only $47,500 in 2013. Anaheim, the largest city in the county, has spent $100,000 each year since 2007, even as the city's urban poverty has received nationwide notoriety.

"The role [of the FHCOC] should be no different in the future than in the past: to prevent discrimination," says Bob Johnson, the vice chairman of the council's board of directors. He has been involved in the cause since 1966. "It's changed a great deal. . . . In the mid-'60s, we would expect apartment owners and managers to discriminate, not only in Orange County but across the United States. . . . Now, there are more categories for discrimination—families, gays, the mentally ill. We don't expect managers to discriminate, but it happens. But at the same time, more people are willing to fight discrimination. They're not as afraid to speak up now."

If funding fair housing weren't mandated by the federal government, the FHCOC might not even have money. The council is the only nonprofit to receive money from Santa Ana's Community Development Block Grant, the last survivor of a fund that once gave grants to nearly 50 different such organizations. Today, the money, intended to fund community-development projects such as anti-poverty programs, youth services and affordable housing, is mostly used to balance the city's budget.

"I've had to lay people off," says Denise Cato, the president and CEO of the FHCOC, from her office on the southern edge of downtown Santa Ana. "I've cut back on everything I can possibly imagine."

The office itself is rarely quiet, usually hosting a cacophony of conversations spoken in the hushed tones of people who are afraid of being banished from their homes. Listen hard enough, and you may begin to differentiate the Spanish from the Vietnamese from the English.

The FHCOC building itself is a perfect, brutalistic prism: four walls joined together at right angles, with two floors and a ceiling. There's no decoration apart from some scant signage and a thin, vertical row of windows. The receptionist's desk in the lobby is staffed by a piece of paper asking visitors to ring an accompanying bell for service. The most obviously new part of the office is a gate that guards the parking lot while the office is closed. The council had it installed after the homeless began sleeping there.

Compared to 2007, the FHCOC's budget has been slashed in half, from approximately $1 million to $500,000. Its staff has been pared down from a high of 18 to a paltry 10. But despite the cutbacks, the council does as much as it can to alleviate housing discrimination. In addition to Cato's duties as CEO, she also teaches the majority of its training classes. Though it no longer holds contracts with all of the cities in Orange County, the council refuses service to no one.

 

"I would never turn people away," Cato says. "I came here to work for David Quezada [a former FHCOC executive director and current director of the Los Angeles Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity]. . . . He taught me that residents of Orange County stick together, and we're not going to turn our heads on anyone. For as long as I'm in this position, I'm not going to reject anyone who walks into our doors."

Though housing discrimination today is a far cry from the days of covenants, blockbusting (a business practice in which real-estate agents would convince homeowners to sell their houses at a loss because minorities were moving into the neighborhood) and redlining (charging residents of a specific geographic area more for services such as loans), new challenges are appearing as demographics change. "[Housing discrimination] used to be more prevalent, maybe 10 years ago," says George Smith, the director of housing at the AIDS Services Foundation Orange County. The foundation offers a full slate of social services to HIV/AIDS-positive individuals and their families, including emergency financial assistance and housing to those at risk of becoming homeless. "Landlords were well enough informed about fair housing laws that they wouldn't be direct about why they did what they were doing. Things like that still happen in families, though, especially more conservative ones. The families will throw their children out if they're gay or HIV-positive. We see between three and four of those cases a year."

Landlords are better about not discriminating against LGBT individuals now, but such residents can still be targets of harassment and hate crimes by their more homophobic neighbors, inhibiting their freedom to choose where they live. Late last year, a gay couple was forced to move from an Aliso Viejo apartment community after more than three years because of harassment from some of their neighbors.

"We visited Orange County a few years ago and completely loved the place," says one of the men, both of whom requested anonymity. "We eventually decided to make the move. Everything was fine for a few years, but about six months ago, some new tenants moved in below us.

"It was little stuff at first," he continues. "Once, when they were outside, one of their friends yelled up at us, but even then, some of them told her to quiet down. Then, out of nowhere, someone left a note on our front door. A month later, someone posted even more notes."

The couple eventually contacted the Center Orange County, who informed the Orange County Sheriff's Department. A deputy visited them, but no one got back to them after that. They ultimately decided to not pursue legal action and to leave the apartment early for their own safety, paying two separate leases for two months.

In similar cases, FHCOC has worked with apartment managers to educate and inform tenants, as well as to make sure that offenders know that LGBT harassment is grounds for eviction. The Sherrif's Department, Cato says, failed in its duties. "That's a hate crime," she says. "It's the department's duty to make sure that those people are safe, not just to take a report."

New immigrants are also susceptible to unfair housing practices because they don't understand American laws. "I came here in 1975," says Khoi Pham, a Tustin resident who currently serves on FHCOC's volunteer board of directors. "We didn't know anything about the law, about the relationship between landlords and tenants, because in Vietnam, we didn't have that kind of law."

Before the fall of Saigon, he worked as an air-traffic controller at Saigon International Airport. He was working in the control tower with an American adviser during the night of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Five minutes after he left the building, it was hit by rockets and collapsed. When Saigon fell in 1975, he was a member of the first group of Vietnamese Americans to leave the country, airlifted by C-130s to military bases in Guam and the Philippines instead of leaving by boat. He made arrangements for more than 300 people to leave the country at the same time he did.

When he arrived in the States, he volunteered at Camp Pendleton to help situate refugees in their new lives. He began working for the FHCOC in the mid-1990s.

"I volunteered to work at the Fair Housing Council because they needed a Vietnamese speaker. At the beginning, I just volunteered, but then they offered to pay me, so I said, 'That's fine,'" Pham says with a quick laugh. "Normally, people would have problems with their landlords keeping their security deposits or not making repairs. We mediated. We would call landlords to tell them what they had to do. Some were okay, but some, not so much. We had to refer them to the courts.

 

"It wasn't just the Vietnamese community," Pham continues. "Hispanic, Korean, black. All kinds of people, and they all had the same problems."

After a 20-year career at the FHCOC that saw Pham oversee tenant/landlord relations, mediation services and HUD programs, he retired in 2009. But the calls didn't stop. Pham still received requests for aid as his reputation spread throughout the community by word of mouth and name recognition. In addition to his volunteer board membership at the council, Pham is also an adviser to the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California, a collection of nearly every Vietnamese American organization in Orange County.

"I was the only Vietnamese person who could help [in 2009]," says Pham. "People heard about me from friends, and they would call me. I would refer them, but because of language difficulties or because they knew my name and who I was, they still called and asked for help. . . . It was a lot of people. In 2013, I completed helping four or five families that were really in need. In two cases, the family had a member who was mentally disabled. One lost their housing; I got them to return to the house they had already lost."

*     *     *

Despite its community service, the council's reputation isn't spotless. In 2008, FHCOC's board of directors had a very public legal spat with the nonprofit's then-executive director, D. Elizabeth Pierson. When the board requested $5,000 to hire an outside investigator to independently audit the organization's finances, Pierson refused on the advice of Ramon Diaz, a board member who supported her. Diaz made that recommendation because he believed that fair-housing funds could not be spent in that way.

Pierson's refusal prompted a lawsuit by the board, which Pierson responded to by filing a countersuit alleging the board acted in bad faith, didn't inform her of complaints against her, and should have gone to a mediator, as per her employment contract, instead of filing a lawsuit. The board eventually put her on unpaid leave, declining to renew her contract when it ended in June 2008.

"They made a decision, and did they execute it in the best way? I don't think so," Pierson told The Orange County Register at the time. "When you make decisions regarding changing management, it's better to do it openly. . . . I very much care about the viability of this organization. I don't want to see it go down."

As a result of the investigation and lawsuits, multiple cities—including San Clemente, Fullerton and Mission Viejo—ended their relationship with the council, turning instead to the Fair Housing Foundation, a Long Beach-based organization that currently works with 11 cities to provide outreach and education services, doing much of the same work the FHCOC does.

After Pierson's contract expired, the FHCOC board immediately brought in Cato to help right the ship, and she has worked hard to rebuild the organization's reputation. The council has since won consent decrees in five federal court cases on behalf of tenants in Orange, Garden Grove, Buena Park and Tustin—all cities that contract with the Fair Housing Foundation. In that same time frame, the foundation has won one.

Cato can be found during city council meetings, with a binder full of letters of recommendation, passionately addressing the dais about the effectiveness of her organization and the training of her employees in an attempt to win back the cities FHCOC lost. The letters are sourced from the federal government, other nonprofits and even property managers who were once sued by the council but now enjoy a working relationship. Speaking on behalf of the FHCOC, she nearly creates her own high-energy zeitgeist, her voice slowly growing louder and her pace gradually quickening almost to the point of apparent outburst. It was on full display at an April 8 Garden Grove City Council meeting.

"Ma'am, I'm going to have to ask you to calm down," Mayor Bruce Broadwater said from the dais. "We didn't do anything to you."

"I'm not upset," Cato replied, her speech returning to her natural, though still quick, pace. "I'm just passionate."

The vote was delayed two weeks so council members could look into the situation. During the next meeting, Cato took the stand again to push for her agency. "It's one thing if you sue someone for bad action, and then they give you a letter of recommendation because you're working with them to stop discrimination," she said. "I'm not going to argue or go on anymore because my agency is going to survive, but most people want the best for their money."

 

This time, she found herself with an uneasy ally: Councilwoman Dina Nguyen, a Republican who ran an ill-fated campaign for Supervisor some years ago with a scorched-earth campaign against Latino immigrants.

"This is very important for the Vietnamese American community," Nguyen said. "I'm not discrediting the foundation, but I'm not discrediting the council either. . . . But at the same time, I do see [the FHCOC's] work, and I've seen them work over and over again through the work of [Pham]. I know that the Vietnamese American community is being served, although in the last three years [the council has] not been getting the funding."

Nguyen went on to decry Garden Grove's housing situation, describing "homes where people were living in shacks, not even room additions, but shacks across the yard because Garden Grove has very big lots." She eventually made a motion to split Garden Grove's fair-housing funds, sending part to the foundation and part to the council.

"I know it's hard on staff, but we're here to serve the people," Nguyen concluded.

Despite her impassioned rant, Nguyen's motion died without a second aye. Garden Grove's funding instead went wholly to the foundation.

Even with the council's setbacks, Cato is still steadfast in her goals. There's work to be done, after all; the county's issues are set to be reanalyzed and its next five-year plan to be written.

"I started 24 years ago," Cato says. "I started at the very bottom, doing landlord/tenant. I worked from there up to mediation to enforcement to being director of litigation and CEO and president. The law stipulates that a person should be able to live any place they can afford to rent. We're here to enforce that."

Additional reporting by Yesenia Varela.

 

Protest at Chatham Village
Cesar Baxin

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