ALHAMBRA — A family is facing eviction after their house on Lemon Street caught fire and sustained damage during the Fourth of July holiday.
The Perez family is in danger of losing the home after a stray firework landed on the house and caused a fire that damaged the back exterior corner and porch. After firefighters responded and turned off their utilities, Sandra and Raul Perez, who live in the house with two of their daughters, discovered the breaker box and water heater are not up to code, leaving them without electricity or hot water.
The landlord, Paul Wondries, who owns several car dealerships in Alhambra, refused to make repairs until the Perez family vacated the property. While he offered a relocation fee waiver in accordance with the law, he only gave them seven days to leave, according to Sandra Perez.
This is a common issue for Los Angeles County renters, who are protected under the state of California’s rent control law AB 1482, enacted in January as California Civil Code 1946.2 to protect tenants from annual rent increases above 5% and evictions without “just cause.”
A landlord can evict a tenant if the dwelling is uninhabitable, but must offer relocation assistance equal to one month’s rent or waive the last month’s rent. Under California Civil Code 1946.1, the landlord also must give the tenant 60 days’ notice if a tenant has lived there for more than a year.
The Perez family said they have nowhere else to go if they leave, and cannot afford another place at current market rates. Both Sandra and her husband Raul are disabled and cannot work, but they have paid rent for 18 years with the help of their older children and some government assistance.
Wondries told a reporter the Perezes have paid below-market rent for the past 18 years without a lease, and that after the fire, the house is no longer inhabitable.
“I have no problem with them coming back to rent after the repairs, but this isn’t going to happen overnight,” he said. “It’s going to take more than a year.”
Issues with the house did not just start with the fire, according to the Perezes. The family said it has made and paid for repairs throughout their tenancy, in order to avoid bothering Wondries.
When the city of Alhambra asked that the house be painted as part of neighborhood beautification efforts, the Perezes were only provided with enough paint to paint the front. They had to paint the rest themselves.
“We were still kids, but I remember, we brought over a bunch of our friends and had painting parties to get it done,” said Manuel Perez, one of the sons who helps pay the rent. “We grew up here and our parents were the ones that made this a habitable home, that made it safe.”
They also kept the roof of the house’s back porch from falling with patch jobs and even patched a hole in the floor after the eldest daughter stepped through it.
Landlords are required to provide and maintain a habitable property under California Civil Code 1942.3. Yet, many tenants avoid contacting their landlord to make essential repairs for fear that their rent will increase, or they will be forced out.
Allison Henry, a spokesperson for the Pasadena Tenant Justice Coalition, who is not involved in this case, called the situation an eviction by renovation.
“Landlords push people out of a property and drag their feet for repairs to discourage tenants from returning,” she said.
Sandra Perez said she and her family kept quiet about past issues for this reason.
“We’ve always known about the problems with the house but have remained quiet out of fear of losing our home,” she said. “Yeah, he owns it, but it’s our home. We’re the ones who’ve tried to keep it from falling apart.”
Wondries, the landlord, said the family and first responders are responsible for what happened to the house.
“I understand that it’s been their home, but they haven’t taken care of it,” he said. “I went to see the house. The firefighters made holes in the roof when they responded to the fire. It’s just in bad shape and not safe to live in.”
Perez said they would take on these repairs as well, if they did not have to leave.
“We’ve offered to pay for repairs, like we have all these years, if we could stay,” he said. “All we ask for is help with the electrical box or we can’t get our power back.”
Sandra Perez said she notified the city of Alhambra’s code enforcement division about the issues after the fire, but was told that their officers only visit properties at the landlord’s request, and that utilities need to be discussed between tenant and landlord.
She contacted the Housing Rights Center, which is under contract with the city of Alhambra to provide legal advice to both landlords and tenants, and the tenant’s advocacy group Inquilinos Unidos, for help.
Both told her to contact an attorney as soon as possible and gather all the documentation she has to prove they’ve paid rent and for other expenses involving the house.
The city of Alhambra declined to comment on the situation, and instead pointed a reporter to resources from the Housing Rights Center.
In its online literature, the Housing Rights Center said a landlord must get court approval before evicting a tenant, and that an enforcement agency like the health department should determine if a home is still livable after a fire, as well as how long repairs should take.
Because California declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19 in March, courts were closed and only began to resume normal operations in late June. The Perez family hasn’t been presented with a formal eviction notice and neither party can take legal action at this time.
In the meantime, the Perez family paid July’s rent while scrambling to figure out what to do next. They charge their phones at neighbors’ houses and are currently relying on external batteries to keep the lights on.
“My husband struggles with dementia, and he doesn’t fully understand that we might not be able to go back to normal,” Sandra Perez said. “I’m just grateful for the help we have gotten.”
By Jose Ivan Cazares