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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Village Voice: Residentes Unidos spokesperson Nena Ruiz says Dolphin and Lee apartment residents want a housing plan--just not the one the city has on the table.

Lock Out

Dolphin and Lee tenants say they want low-income housing. But they worry the city's plan may leave them homeless.

By Jessica Lyons

'I THINK THAT we all want new apartments," says Maria Gandara, inviting me into her home at 136 Leibrandt St. "But we want to know that everybody will have apartments to return to. We want guarantees."

The Spanish-speaking mother of four lives in a one-bedroom apartment in the Dolphin apartment complex in Beach Flats. City officials want to buy the Dolphin property, along with the Lee apartments next door and the currently vacant Rex Court apartments across the street, and build a child-care facility, a community center and 48 new low-income apartments, ranging from studios to four-bedroom units, housing 278 people.

The city's plan matches the number of existing Dolphin and Lee apartments, and more than doubles the number of existing bedrooms.

Tenants, however, say it's not enough. They fear some members of their tight-knit community--which they number at closer to 400 people--will end up homeless. And so far, the city hasn't done much to ease their worries, leaving the door open for opportunistic activists looking for a fight.

City officials say they want to buy the land and maintain low-income housing in perpetuity. But when they failed to bring Spanish-speaking tenants into the discussion, homeless activists and apartment management willingly picked up the slack. In the process, tenants have become convinced that the city wants them on the streets.

"The city is just making promises," says Dolphin property manager Maria Gutierrez, who stands to lose her manager's salary if the city buys the property. "I know a lot of the people will be homeless. They say no criminal checks, but they are going to look into everyone's past. Politicians are politicians. They never speak the truth. They can promise you a lot of stuff but they can never make it happen."

Gandara says she has no complaints about her apartment, but she admits it's a tight fit. Her family of six lives in the one-bedroom space, which is common in both the Dolphin and the Lee.

Apparently, so are code violations. Conditions are bad, and management has not made things better. According to a Jan. 31 letter of complaint signed by 14 Dolphin residents, Gutierrez arbitrarily raises the rent, illegally charges late fees if rent is not paid exactly on the first of the month, and refuses to fix heaters, leaky pipes, rotten floors and clogged toilets.

According to another tenant, Gutierrez verbally gave her family three days' notice to leave because they "complained too much."

But convincing the residents that the city's plan is in their best interest has been difficult, to say the least. According to the city's draft replacement housing plan--recently tabled by the Relocation Advisory Committee, composed largely of Dolphin and Lee tenants--immigration status, credit history and criminal investigation won't be a part of the application process. The only requirement will be low-income status.

The draft also says current Dolphin and Lee tenants will receive priority for the new housing--or at least until the 48 units are filled.

But with most of the tenants undocumented, "La Migra," as the Immigration and Naturalization Service is known, is a very real threat. While the City Council has tried to reassure them, the tenants have been told by management and by some activists that their immigration status will keep them out of the new apartments when they are finished. Several have poor or nonexistent credit histories, making rental applications problematic. They don't know their rights, they don't trust decision makers and they don't want to lose their homes. They want legal guarantees--in the form of a council-approved resolution--that they will have a roof over their heads regardless of immigration status, prior convictions and credit history.

State relocation law guarantees each household money to assist with moving expenses and rental assistance for up to 42 months while the new complex is being built, or a lump-sum payment to be used for a down payment toward the purchase of a house.

But if and when the new apartments are built, will the Dolphin and Lee tenants have homes to return to?

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Letter of the Law

THE RESIDENTS HAVE repeatedly asked the council to approve such guarantees. They also want to nix Mercy Charities, the city's low-income housing manager, from the project, and choose their own.

Most important, Dolphin and Lee tenants say they want enough units to keep the Latino community as it now stands intact. They won't move until the City Council guarantees them that between 70 and 100 new units will be built to accommodate the same number of families they say live in the 48 existing studios and one-bedroom units, sometimes crammed 15 to a room. It's crammed and it's illegal, but it's a place to sleep--often times in shifts. More important, splitting the rent several ways is affordable, allowing some men to send money to their families in Mexico.

City-managed housing, on the other hand, would have rules determining how many people can live in any given unit.

"The rule of thumb on how to calculate occupancy standards for the state and for HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] is two people per bedroom plus one," says Elisabeth Vogel, Mercy Charities Housing's associate director of housing development. "For example, in a two-bedroom apartment, you could have five people."

In other words, while rent would be based on income, people would not be allowed to live in the cramped conditions which now permit the kind of savings on rent that they depend on to save money--unless a resident-controlled manager looked the other way.

A three-story height prohibits the current project from holding 70 to 100 new apartments. Officials say they don't have the money to buy land needed to build extra low-income units.

Council members say the tenant count may be inflated by activists and residents themselves, and they insist on doing an independent count prior to granting residents guarantees. The city needs to know who it will be providing guarantees to, says Councilmember Tim Fitzmaurice.

"We need to know exactly how many people are in these apartments now, and we are being blocked," he says. The situation has become a chicken-or-egg story, with tenants saying they won't allow city officials to take a head count until they pass a resolution approving the tenant guarantees.

"They cannot come on the property to inspect or count people until we have gotten guarantees," says Nena Ruiz, spokesperson for the tenant group Residentes Unidos. Ruiz says there's only one reason city officials want to know who lives in each unit.

"The reason they want to do that is so they can set up a plan and proceed like they did before with the [Beach Flats Replacement Housing Plan]." The tenants want to be involved in the plan, she explains. They worry once the city takes a head-count, they will have the information needed to push the plan through council against residents' wishes.

Indeed, even after the Relocation Advisory Committee voted to table the proposed Replacement Housing Plan, the plan showed up on the June 13 council agenda anyway. The council didn't approve it, but legally they could have--without tenant approval.

Fitzmaurice worries that more delays will mean no low-income housing.

"There is a commitment to the future of this area, and permanent affordability is not without difficulties and challenges," he says. "But delay doesn't benefit the tenants. Delay is a way of stopping the project."

While council members pushed a plan through the process, tenants began to feel ignored--and not without cause. Tenants, activists and city officials agree that the city neglected to involve the tenants from the start. When tenants first began attending relocation meetings, they were in English only, according to the monolingual Latino tenants. Fliers and information packets were printed in English.

It wasn't until March that Spanish translators appeared, and bilingual documents were provided.

Then, on June 13, the council voted to wait until June 27 to decide whether to buy the property, but also not to approve any guarantees. Ruiz was incredulous.

"They are still not letting the residents have a say," she complained the next day. "They should have given us our guarantees last night--I am so angry about that."

After the meeting, Sugar said he will try again at the June 27 meeting.

"I'm going to have another opportunity at the next City Council meeting to fight for those guarantees," he says, adding: "I think the priority number one has to be to stop and work on improving communications because the tenants are talking and feeling like they are not being heard."

Us Versus Them

ON A RECENT Monday evening, Sugar attended his second Residentes Unidos meeting to discuss guarantees with the tenants. Homeless activist Robert Kahn, who goes by the pseudonym Robert Norse, was there, too, tape recorder in hand, telling Sugar to "sit down" and "let us talk." Sugar reminded Norse, "You're not them."

In a later email, Norse criticized the city for ignoring the residents.

"As an advocate for civil rights for homeless people who has observed the sorry record of the city council over the last decade or more, I brought my experience to RU."

He wants to see more real affordable housing and tenant empowerment, he says, but some question his motives. Many Dolphin/Lee proponents blame Norse and others for contributing to the disintegration of plans that had taken years to form over upgrading the housing--claiming that he is not interested in real solutions, just in control.

"An adversarial feeling has been created to the detriment of those who will be most affected--the residents," says Tony Madrigal, youth development coordinator of Kids and Teens Exploring Nature. Many of Madrigal's kids live in the two buildings. "If those people who were mobilizing them really cared about the residents, they wouldn't go around scaring them."

To the activists' credit, the tenants have been mobilized and brought into the discussion, Madrigal adds. But he questions their sincerity.

"They hold out little tape recorders, they ask the residents, 'What do you think of the project?' and they make the residents feel important--that their opinions are valid. But the city could have done the same thing. They could have reached out to the community and formed alliances. That, coupled with the fact that they rarely come down here, gives tenants the feelings that the decision makers really don't care. It's misplaced fear and mistrust--those are the reasons behind this."

Even some tenants are quick to point out that Norse's opinions don't always reflect those of the group.

"He has helped people understand the laws, the council meetings and the process," Ruiz says. "But most of the things he says are his opinions--we don't always go with it. I listen to the activists for the legal advice, but when they get confrontational--that's just activists. They all do it. For them, maybe it's just a battle. But this is our homes."

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From the June 21-28, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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