Susana Alfaro cries when she thinks about the 10 years she and her family lived at the McCray Road Apartments in Cloverdale.
The creeping mold, the sewage backups in the shower, the sound of rats scurrying around in the walls at night.
Although she and her husband and their two daughters, ages 17 and 8, left the apartments at 32110 McCray Road 11 months ago, she’s still haunted by memories.
Alfaro and her husband, Luis Lua, are just one of an untold number of families in Sonoma County who are caught in the pinch of substandard housing — not homeless, but priced out of the affordable housing market by low wages and skyrocketing rents.
Many are farmworkers, while others are low-wage workers in Sonoma County who live in cramped apartments with too many people, or sheds with only a chemical toilet, or tiny mobile homes with leaking roofs or backed-up sewage pipes.
While the problem of skyrocketing housing costs and increasing homelessness caused by wildfires, drought and the pandemic grab headlines, people who pay exorbitant amounts to live in a converted garage — “places that shouldn’t be apartments” — according to one nonprofit official, fly under the radar.
And it’s everywhere in the county, according to advocates, public officials and leaders of nonprofit organizations who are trying to help.
“Too many people are living in homes with inadequate service for utilities,” said Thomas Stuebner, executive director at the Santa Rosa office of California Human Development, a nonprofit organization that provides services and housing through grants for farmworkers and their families. “And rent can take most of their wages. Even crummy places cost a lot. Mom and dad are working two or three jobs. There are child care issues. That’s the way a lot of people have to live.”
For Alfaro, 40, a child care provider, home was an 80-year-old converted 12-unit motel with holes around the windows that let in moisture and caused mold on the walls. Cracks in the stucco outside allowed rats to crawl though the wall heater and nibble on the family’s food, and cockroaches somehow invaded their refrigerator.
She was constantly ill with breathing problems and itchy rashes.
“I thought she was allergic to me,” Lua joked. “But I discovered she was not.”
Alfaro said she felt she and Lua had failed as parents because they stayed. “When I think about it I want to cry,” Alfaro said. “It’s hard to move on... it’s inside of me. My older daughter used to always ask ‘Why can’t we move to another place,’ “ she said through a Spanish interpreter. ”And I told her ‘because we don’t have money.’ “
Lua, 38, grew up in Mexico and sometimes works in the vineyards, but his main job has been working with a lumber company for 16 years.
“I always thought that in the U.S. you wouldn’t have walls that were wet and moldy,” he said.
The couple took part in a rent strike after two Santa Rosa attorneys learned of their situation last year and filed suit against the property owners, which is now in the discovery phase. They had been paying over $1,000 a month.
“They live in filth and squalor and work in restaurants where we all eat,” said Edie Sussman, one of the tenants’ attorneys. “These are public health concerns.”
Property owners Joy Kane and Charles Traboulsi have denied the allegations in the suit. They declined an interview with The Press Democrat through their attorney, Robert Farrell of San Francisco. On Friday, Farrell relayed a statement from Traboulsi saying repairs ordered by county inspectors had been completed and that a pest control service treats the units every month.
A tough dilemma
County and city officials often know substandard housing exists, but it’s a sticky problem because shutting them down means putting people out on the street.
“It’s kind of a Catch-22,“ said Cloverdale Mayor Marta Cruz, who has become one of the county’s most vocal advocates for people living in substandard housing. ”If you report a problem, such as they don’t have appropriate water, or no toilets or lighting, the city can go after the owner and red tag the property. And then the people have to leave.“ Often, they have nowhere else to go.