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Aldys, who only used her first name, watches her children play behind their apartment, along McCray Road and North Redwood Highway, in Cloverdale on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Many live in squalid conditions to work in Sonoma County

With few options, low-income renters are forced to stay in cramped garages, sheds and trailers.

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.

Luis Lua and Susana Alfaro do the dishes at their new apartment in Cloverdale on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.  The couple lived in substandard conditions at an apartment unit along McCray Road and North Redwood Highway in Cloverdale for 10 years. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Luis Lua and Susana Alfaro do the dishes at their new apartment in Cloverdale on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. The couple lived in substandard conditions at an apartment unit along McCray Road and North Redwood Highway in Cloverdale for 10 years. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

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.”

Mold and holes in the ceiling of the kitchen in a unit of the McCray Road Apartments in Cloverdale. (Edie Sussman)
Mold and holes in the ceiling of the kitchen in a unit of the McCray Road Apartments in Cloverdale. (Edie Sussman)

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.’ “

“I always thought that in the U.S. you wouldn’t have walls that were wet and moldy.”

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.

Sewage backs up in a tub at an apartment unit at McCray Road Apartments. (Courtesy of Edie Sussman)
Sewage backs up in a tub at an apartment unit at McCray Road Apartments. (Courtesy of Edie Sussman)

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.

“Certainly it’s a delicate subject,” said Cloverdale Assistant City Manager and Community Development Manager Kevin Thompson. “Do we want to take a heavy hand and force people out of the place that they’re in versus keeping people safe?”

Still, residents’ health is often at stake if they stay, according to Sonoma County Code Enforcement Manager Tyra Harrison.

“Some of these people are really taking a chance,” she said, referring to cases where converted garages catch fire because of faulty electric wiring. “If you close the door, there can be fumes that can make people sick. It’s not safe for people to live like that.”

Often there is retaliation by the landlord if a resident reports a problem. For example, one landlord who was cited and ordered to do repairs told tenants he would keep their washer and dryer when they left.

Fear of such reprisals, in addition to the fear of eviction or even deportation, often keeps people from speaking out. Many of the people who spoke to The Press Democrat spoke on the condition that their names and photographs not be used.

A trailer on Lake Street in Cloverdale that a man paid $800 a month for that had no water or bathroom facilities. Cloverdale Mayor Marta Cruz said the owner was abusive. (Marta Cruz)
A trailer on Lake Street in Cloverdale that a man paid $800 a month for that had no water or bathroom facilities. Cloverdale Mayor Marta Cruz said the owner was abusive. (Marta Cruz)

Cruz became aware of the issue last year when COVID-19 struck, and she began delivering food to people who were out of work and stuck at home with their kids who couldn’t go to school.

“You learn a lot when you talk to people in neighborhoods,” she said. “The pandemic opened many eyes. That’s when I became aware of how people are living. Like in the old river motels. They so-call refurbished them to become efficiency, one- or two-bedroom apartments.”

‘It’s the only thing I have’

Cruz delivered meals to the Cloverdale Mobile Home and RV Park at 127 Railroad Ave., a crowded park of dilapidated mobile and modular homes and trailers that houses 62 farmworker families as well as others. She saw a litany of poor conditions there, but because mobile home parks are regulated by the state and not cities, she knew there was nothing she could do.

Ezekiel Guzman, an advocate for farmworkers in northern Sonoma County and president of Latinos Unidos, knows the place well.

“The park is hidden. Nobody know about it, but they’re there,” he said.

“If you were to close those trailers down, where would those 62 families go? So everyone turns their heads,“ he said.

The owners of the park could not be reached for comment.

Maria Ortiz, right, lives in a trailer at the Cloverdale Mobile Home and RV Park on Rockydale Lane in Cloverdale. Her mother, Maria Caldera, recently moved into the trailer with her, easing the strain of rent payments. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Maria Ortiz, right, lives in a trailer at the Cloverdale Mobile Home and RV Park on Rockydale Lane in Cloverdale. Her mother, Maria Caldera, recently moved into the trailer with her, easing the strain of rent payments. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Some residents own their mobile homes, modular homes or trailers and rent space, others rent mobile homes and the space at the park. The homes are mostly small, older and provide shelter for several people.

Maria Ortega, 72, owns a two-bedroom trailer with a deck and pays $750 per month for her space. She receives $485 in Social Security income per month and does sewing projects from home. Guzman makes sure she gets emergency rental assistance and groceries from Good Shepherd Episcopal Church of Cloverdale.

Ortega said she has had problems with sewage backing up in the past, and she had to pay a plumber to fix it. An eight-year resident of the park, she said her home “is not very nice, but it’s the only thing I have.”

Josh Kelly, 45, lives in the park in a fifth-wheel trailer with a rotted roof that was given to him. Kelly works as an assistant manager of the local Dollar Tree and said he pays $850 a month for the space, which includes cable, water and electricity.

“A lot of people got COVID here, being in such close quarters,” Kelly said, guessing that about four to seven people live in many of the mobile homes.

Josh Kelly takes measurements while working on repairs to his trailer at Cloverdale Mobile Home and RV Park on Rockydale Lane in Cloverdale on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021.  (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Josh Kelly takes measurements while working on repairs to his trailer at Cloverdale Mobile Home and RV Park on Rockydale Lane in Cloverdale on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Cruz described one man who rented a trailer parked in someone’s front yard on Lake Street for about $800 a month. He had no access to water and no toilet. For electricity, he ran a cable from an outlet at the house to his trailer, which Cruz called “an accident waiting to happen.” The man could not keep large amounts of food staples because he had to unplug the refrigerator to use the microwave, Cruz said.

”He had to knock on the door of the main house to go to the bathroom, but the landlord was abusive,“ she said, adding that he ”never complained or said anything.“

22 people in one home

On a nondescript street in a middle-class Windsor neighborhood, 22 people from five families, most of them farmworkers, live in a single tract home.

One of the residents is a Santa Rosa Junior College student named Cindy, who did not want her last name used.

“Our neighbors know a lot of people live in the house. They see a lot of people come and go.”

The garage is divided into two living spaces, with a bathroom, and there are three small wooden structures built in the backyard where people can sleep at night. There are four bedrooms with multiple people living in them, and the living room is also used to sleep in. Every bedroom has a small refrigerator.

Cindy was willing to be interviewed, but her aunt, who has owned the house for 20 years, was hesitant to allow photos. The families all pay toward the $3,000 monthly mortgage.

“Our neighbors know a lot of people live in the house,” Cindy said. “They see a lot of people come and go.”

Cindy talks about her living situation at her friend Gladis' apartment in Windsor on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. Cindy, who did not use her last name, lives in a house shared by 22 people. Gladis shares one room in a two-bedroom apartment with her parents and four siblings.  (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Cindy talks about her living situation at her friend Gladis' apartment in Windsor on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. Cindy, who did not use her last name, lives in a house shared by 22 people. Gladis shares one room in a two-bedroom apartment with her parents and four siblings. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Cindy, 21, who is originally from Mexico, moved from Los Angeles, where she had been in foster care, to be with her sister in Windsor in 2016. She said she forced herself to learn English. She has a brother who depends on her to send money home, and her sister, 16, also depends on her for clothes, food and school supplies.

Cindy works part time as a receptionist at a trucking company. Much of her paycheck goes to paying to buy or rent books, she said. She worked for a while at a restaurant, too, and managed to save enough money to buy a used car and make payments.

For free food, like apples and rice, Cindy and others go to a food distribution every Friday in Windsor. For clothes for herself and her sister, she visits garage sales where people often give her free clothes.

Cindy hopes to graduate soon with an associate degree in business administration and transfer to Sonoma State University with scholarship help. In the future, she hopes to work at a winery.

“I need to work where the money is,” she said.

Property owners can be fined

Bradley Dunn, a policy manager with Permit Sonoma, said the county code enforcement department averages 1,500 complaints a year that are handled by nine field inspectors. The county uses what it calls an abatement process. If a property owner fails to make the repairs the county requires, it can cost them up to 10 times the cost of what a permit would normally cost to rectify the issues.

“We can add additional costs if the landlord doesn’t rectify the problem,” Dunn said in an email. “If that doesn’t work, the next step is to take them to an administrative hearing.”

A look at complaints on code enforcement

Number of complaints filed: About 1,500 annually

Number of inspectors: 9

Number to call to lodge a complaint: 707-565-1992 for Spanish and English speakers

Source: Sonoma County Department of Code Enforcement

Harrison, county code enforcement manager, said, “We get a lot of cases coming in. But situations where people’s lives and safety are in danger are our priority.”

For those kinds of cases, Cruz calls in Margaret Sluyk, CEO of Healdsburg-based Reach For Home.

The organization not only works to find shelter for homeless people but also to relocate people living in deplorable conditions or help those who are close to losing their homes avoid homelessness.

She said finding people in uninhabitable conditions isn’t easy: “Part of the problem is people living in a place that really shouldn’t be an apartment are hardest to identify because we don’t know where they are. If you are precariously living in an outhouse in the back or someone’s garage, the only way we know is if someone reports it.”

The nonprofit can hook up families affected by COVID-19 with up to 18 months in rental assistance through the county. It also helps people find ways to increase their income so they can qualify for an apartment and escape cramped, unhealthy conditions.

“We’re looking to expand our eviction diversion program to get people into more stable housing,” she said.

Residents of the Cloverdale Mobile Home and RV Park relax in their family's trailer in Cloverdale on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021.  (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Residents of the Cloverdale Mobile Home and RV Park relax in their family's trailer in Cloverdale on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Sluyk was able to relocate one family into the Victory Apartments in Healdsburg, low-income housing owned by the city. Reach For Home runs the program for people who need permanent support for housing or just a place to get back on their feet. The organization helps people set budgeting goals and learn parenting skills and links them to jobs and mental health services.

Reach For Home can sometimes pay for repairs to housing that isn’t up to code, she said. The nonprofit, funded through grants and private donations, also offers financial assistance with deposits or first month’s rent just to get people started.

Guzman also works with the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Good Shepherd church and seeks private donations to help people pay utility and rental bills.

Farmworkers, in particular, have been hit by the triple whammy of wildfires, the pandemic and then the drought, he said. He calls it “cumulative economic trauma.”

“I can’t tell you the impact last year’s fire had on farmworkers who lost all their wages” during harvest, Guzman said, referring to the Walbridge fire, which burned more than 55,000 acres in northwestern Sonoma County between Aug. 17 and Oct. 2, 2020. “This is the money they use to support themselves during the winter. Where can people go? It’s $900 a month to live in a garage, $1,050 for a one-bedroom apartment.”

This fall workers who are paid by the ton are getting less money because there’s a lighter wine crop with less water in the berries as a result of the drought, he said.

“Economic disparity does not allow for good living conditions. A study showed that you need to make $24 an hour in Sonoma County to survive. The average worker makes $13-$19 per hour. So any time they work they are in poverty.”

Because no one could work during the early days of the pandemic last year, many workers had to make a choice: pay rent or pay their utility bills, he said. Now many of them who let their Pacific Gas & Electric bills wait are asking for help in the thousands of dollars, he said.

“We are getting requests of $4,000 and $5,000,” he said. “I am trying to get them help. Eighty-five percent of farmworkers are undocumented. They’re not eligible for government assistance. They can starve,” he said.

Guzman believes part of the solution is to pay essential workers, who he believes sustain the county’s economy, more money per hour.

“Economic disparity does not allow for good living conditions,” he said. “A study showed that you need to make $24 an hour in Sonoma County to survive. The average worker makes $13-$19 per hour. So any time they work they are in poverty.”

There’s another obvious solution: more affordable housing for people in the lower- and very-low income brackets.

“There is some low-income housing but not enough for the people that need it,” Guzman said. “There’s an estimated 8,000-10,000 agricultural workers here; some are seasonal. There’s another 5,000 or 6,000 hospitality workers. It’s a workforce we depend on.“

You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at kathleen.coates@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5209.

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