“Okay,” the property manager said. “You haven’t paid rent since December, right? So December, January, February. Three months.” He explained that the new owner, who had purchased in December, was planning to renovate all four of the units.
But Mendoza had heard it before. Since the coronavirus’s arrival, three landlords have owned her apartment. The first two had tried to get her out, but she was still there.
“So then the eviction is coming?” she said, cutting to the point. As she knew, under eviction moratoriums from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the state of California, the landlord could not kick her out for not paying rent. But the policies left owners with alternatives.
“I’m not going to give you an eviction,” he said. “One option is I can give you a 60-day notice to renovate.”
“That means I have to get out?”
“In 60 days.”
“That’s the same thing” as an eviction, she said. “It’s a loophole.”
“That is legal,” the property manager replied. “Sixty days, I can get you out if he’s going to live on the property or remodel the property.” Then he said: “The other option is I will give you money to move.”
“No,” Mendoza said. “Where am I going to go?”
With a pen, he started to scratch details onto a form on a clipboard. It was Feb. 10, he explained. She would have to be out by April 10.
Tears pushed into her eyes as she thought about the past year. The 45-year-old single mother had lost her job. Watched her savings drain. Counted as months of unpaid rent piled up — like millions of Americans ambushed by the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
Across the economy, the pandemic was creating a new set of winners and losers, closing down some investment pathways, opening others. Retail and restaurants have become iffy speculations. But multifamily housing offers what some Wall Street analysts consider a smart buy; according to research firm Attom Data Solutions, property flippers in the residential real estate market notched record average gross earnings in 2020.
It hadn’t taken Mendoza long to see that her struggles were someone else’s opportunity, that the life she might lose here in this 850-square-foot apartment was part of another’s business plan. And she was the only thing between it and her two children, Alejandra, 18, and Erik, 10.
It was a fact that once again hit Mendoza as she turned around, noticing for the first time that her daughter was only a few steps behind her, filming the encounter on her phone, silently crying.
‘Do I pay the rent or do I feed my kids?’
It wasn’t easy before the pandemic, either. Mendoza and the kids had been living in the apartment for three years before the virus arrived. It was a tidy two-bedroom, one of four rentals in a small building in a town south of San Diego where the median household income is $51,838.
The family ground along well below that average. Mendoza worked as a driver transporting medical patients in non-emergency situations. The job paid about $2,000 a month. The rent was $1,500. “So I wouldn’t cash three of my weekly checks to save for the rent,” she said.
When the pandemic hit, Mendoza’s workplace closed down. On April 8, 2020, she made her first attempt at filing for unemployment benefits. But California’s system was being deluged with claims. Mendoza wouldn’t see her first unemployment check until late June. The only money coming in was child support payments from her ex — $455 per month.
The situation seemed to set fire to her deepest convictions. Mendoza had always worked, as far back as when she was 6, sitting on the back of a flatbed truck selling eggs while her father circled the neighborhood. The family had come from Tijuana when Mendoza was a newborn. Her father worked in construction.
“He always used to tell us that people would see us as illegal immigrants, they’ll always see us just as that, but we won’t ask anybody for help because we came here to do better than that,” she said. “That was my dad.” Even after becoming a U.S. citizen as a teenager, she measured herself against her father’s words.
But now out of work, waiting for help and facing desperate choices, she felt paralyzed, she said.
“How the hell am I going to pay the rent?” she would think again and again. “How am I going to put food on the table if I don’t have enough money to pay the rent? Do I pay the rent or do I feed my kids?” She began taking more showers each day. The water and blaring bathroom radio swallowed up the sound of her crying. She didn’t want the kids to hear.
The little money she had went to utilities and food. As the unpaid rent accumulated after April and May, a representative of Mendoza’s landlord, Nancy Russell Property Management, began sending her emails. The messages noted that government action had temporarily stopped evictions, but that once the clock ran out on these policies, Mendoza and her family would be out. (Nancy Russell Property Management did not respond to a request for comment.)
“Yes while evictions are on hold, our attorney tells us that the rent will be due in full before July 1. After that we will be proceeding with evictions,” the property manager wrote that month. “Do you have a move out date?”
Mendoza had never gone through an eviction before, and had no idea about the process. Every time she heard the gate leading back to the apartments squeak open, she now assumed the sheriff had come to run her out.
In follow-up messages throughout the summer, the landlord continued to press her to leave. The property also was put up for sale. “I need to know if you will be paying any past rent at all before I send the rent roll to the agent’s selling the property?” the landlord wrote in June.
In September, the property was sold for $1.1 million, more than 2½ times what the seller had paid nine years earlier. Later that month, Mendoza’s new landlord, M&S Homes, made contact through a letter.
“I would like to take this opportunity to introduce myself as the new Landlord of your leased Premises,” the note began. “I regret to inform you that in connection with this letter, you will be receiving a 60 DAY Lease Termination Notice which will effectively terminate your month-to-month lease."
In the early days of the pandemic, as Mendoza twisted with uncertainty about making payments, the phone rang. On the other end was an organizer with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). Mendoza had to fish around in her memory: Months before the pandemic, she had attended a meeting about rent control. Now, the activist asked how she was holding up.
For the next year, Mendoza would never miss a weekly call or digital seminar about tenants’ rights. “I saw other people’s tears, and it gave me more strength,” she said.
Her conversations with ACCE volunteers also placed her own troubles in a larger context. The size of the social problems triggered by the pandemic has outmatched policy responses. An estimated 9.5 million jobs have been lost since March 2020. One out of seven renters say they are behind on payments, and the amount of back-owed rent may be as much as $52.6 billion. Two massive stimulus packages passed by two administrations have boosted only some parts of the economy. The CDC’s eviction moratorium has kept millions of renters in place. Yet evictions continue as a result of loopholes and lax enforcement, and on Wednesday, a federal judge knocked down the federal protection, sowing confusion. The Biden administration plans to appeal the ruling and to ask the court to keep it from taking effect until the appeal is heard. Experts say that the pandemic not only created economic problems but exacerbated deep-rooted inequalities, particularly in housing.
“Things were pretty desperate before the pandemic,” said Dianne Enriquez of the Center for Popular Democracy, a left-leaning advocacy group. “Millions of households were paying more than two-thirds of their income for rent, families were having to double up in their homes, rents were increasing at the whims of corporate landlords. The CDC moratoriums and the state-level protections have been good and important, but they are very flimsy band-aids."
As important as those eviction protections have been, one day they’ll be gone. Preparing for that eventuality, grass-roots housing organizations such as ACCE have used the pandemic as an opportunity to school tenants on basic housing rights and to push local leaders for permanent renter-friendly policies.
“If you don’t have access to legal defense and you don’t know what your protections are, you just end up being evicted,” said Grace Martinez, ACCE’s interim director in San Diego.
Mendoza’s jumbled feelings about her situation crystallized when she realized that others were making money while families like hers were left vulnerable. Where was the rent relief? Why did her unemployment benefits take three months to begin? Why did those checks decrease from about $1,200 to $53 in early September? She came to believe that the help she was expecting from the government wasn’t the handout her father had warned her about, but her right as a taxpaying American citizen.
“We’re the first ones to get hit and the last to get help,” she said. “Why is it? It’s not fair. We deserve better. Is this not a natural disaster? If there was a big earthquake, wouldn’t we rebuild equally?”
Mendoza did interviews with television stations, quickly becoming the face of the local movement. She found confidence in going public with her struggle.
One person following Mendoza’s interviews was Sheila Wong, who owns M&S Homes. “I’m in the exact same place she is. I’m a single mother. I have zero help here,” Wong said. “I started my business when my ex-husband and I separated, leaving me with a 3-year-old and little money to my name. I’m trying to make a living as well.”
According to Wong, she purchased the property to flip. “I was told the roof was falling in and there was mold,” she said. “That was the premise for why I was evicting all the tenants.” She said she offered to help tenants find new housing and pay their moving costs, as well as write a letter for future landlords saying they didn’t owe her anything.
“I’m not here to take advantage of anyone,” Wong said.
But a frightened Mendoza stopped communicating. “She was not willing to cooperate,” Wong said. “I’m not a rich mogul by any means who can afford to have tenants who don’t want to pay their rents.”
Through ACCE, Mendoza was put in contact with a lawyer from a local Legal Aid organization to fight the 60-day notice she received from Wong in September. Also, with the help of her attorney, Mendoza was able to access $3,700 in rent relief for her missed payments in September, October and November. But the property changed hands again in December, selling for more than $250,000 above what it had sold for three months earlier. Wong said she sold partly out of frustration. “I won’t be pursuing properties in the future with tenants,” she said.
By the time the new owner, Gustavo Verdin, sent a property manager to her door in February, Mendoza had hoped the landlord would work with her more. Under a statewide program funded by California’s $1.4 billion share of the Biden administration’s rental relief funding, the landlord could earn 80 percent of what Mendoza owed if he forgave the remaining 20 percent.
But the new property manager wasn’t interested. (Verdin did not respond to a request for comment.) As Mendoza turned back from her daughter filming their exchange, he handed her the paperwork.
“Sixty days,” he said before leaving.
A rocky senior year
Alejandra had watched the scene unfold between her mother and the property manager, her red eyes bouncing from the doorway to her recording phone. The teenager’s head was a mash-up of fear and anxiety and — strangely — relief. She had been waiting for this. Every time the gate outside clanged, she, too, expected it would be someone ordering them out. Now it was happening.
Her response was also strategic, something she had picked up over the past uncertain year.
“Judges usually believe the landlord over the tenant,” Alejandra explained later. “My first instinct was that if something happens, I’ll have this recording to show the judge. Then it won’t just be that person’s word against my mom.”
That’s how it had been since last year, around the time their second landlord wanted them out, when she realized that the family’s troubles weren’t just a speed bump but possibly critical and that her senior year of high school might end with her family living in a shelter or worse.
Since then, Alejandra’s whole life has coiled around their housing situation.
“It’s in the back of my head all the time,” she said. “I just want to focus on school and on graduating and doing all the senior-year-type things.”
She would look up from her homework at the kitchen table and see her mother crying on the couch, or struggling to put together a speech for her event. “I’m always thinking: Should I help my mom or should I do this assignment?”
For a teenager, the spotlight of her mother’s activism was uncomfortable. She wasn’t happy about opening her life to television cameras. She imagined the pity gushing from strangers: Oh, look at their small apartment, look at how poor they are, look how much help they need. “That’s still in the back of my head, too,” she said.
Another 60 days
Mendoza, meanwhile, confronted the reality of the April 10 deadline.
“I’m going to end up living inside my van with my children,” she thought. “Then someone is going to call CPS on me because there are kids living in a car,” she added, referring to Child Protective Services.
The Friday before the deadline, Mendoza and her children filled up that same van with some of their possessions. The plan was to drive over the border into Mexico to spend the weekend with Mendoza’s mother, both to get some distance from the stress of waiting and to begin the moving-out process.
Mendoza’s legal aid attorney challenged the legality of her 60-day notice, teeing up a potential eviction trial months later. He told her not to worry for the time being, but that another 60-day notice probably would come soon. A new ordinance passed by the county would eventually provide her some measure of protection while the pandemic continued, but the law wouldn’t keep her in her home indefinitely.
Before the trip, Alejandra persuaded her mom to use what money they had to buy a camera for the apartment that they could access on their phones. In Mexico, every time the teenager’s cellphone buzzed, Alejandra opened the camera app expecting to see strangers in the apartment removing her family’s belongings.
April 10 slipped by. The family returned home the next week. The kids resumed digital school. Mendoza was back on her weekly tenants’ rights Zoom calls. Any day, Mendoza expected another 60-day notice. The whole family stops every time they hear the gate clang.
Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Carrie Camillo. Design by J.C. Reed.