Family seeks sense of security
Editor’s note: The names of some of the people in this story have been changed.
Playing quietly near the lighted Christmas tree in the living room, 5-year-old Leticia listens only casually to her parents’ conversation.
“We’d like a yard for the children to play in,” says her mother, Carmen. A pink bicycle sits idle behind the kitchen table. “They aren’t allowed to play in the parking lot, and we are close to the school but they can’t go by themselves.”
Leticia, her sister and her parents occupy a small apartment at Chateau Bijou. The apartment is decorated brightly for the holidays. Wedding portraits of Luis and Carmen hang on one wall.
“We want a sense of security,” her father, Luis, continues. “There’s always a sense of insecurity because we don’t have wages we can count on.”
Ideally, Luis would own a home where his girls could play in their own back yard, where they would be safe and comfortable. Ideally, he says, he would have the financial stability to save some money for a down payment to buy a home.
But financial insecurity is a perpetual and vicious circle.
“If we show we have money in the bank, the rent goes up,” he says, referring to the federal subsidy program that helps pay a portion of his rent. “I work hard and earn money, but the money goes right into the rent. I feel like I’m trapped and have no way out.”
The couple came to South Lake Tahoe in the early 1990s looking for opportunity. An engineer in Mexico, Luis now works in room service at one of the Stateline casinos. His wife, formerly a secretary, is now a maid. Both say they are lucky to work more than part-time hours.
But the extra time off during the slow season gives them more time to spend with a tutor who comes every week to teach them English.
Carmen and Luis, both legal citizens, often gather with neighbors for their lessons. They’re determined to learn the language and take advantage of the job opportunities that come with it.
“If you don’t speak English you work as a maid or a dishwasher,” a neighbor says through an interpreter, and everyone in the room agrees.
But the Spanish-speaking aren’t alone in their search for affordable housing.
“If anything, there are more Anglo than minority (currently in need of housing assistance in South Lake Tahoe),” said Paula Lambdin, program coordinator for the El Dorado County Department of Community Services. “I’m looking at 14 files that I have on my desk right now and only about four are minority.”
Placing low-income families in homes they can afford has become a statewide crisis. According to Lambdin, some California counties have thousands of families awaiting assistance, and the number of houses that meet the affordable housing criteria is not increasing with demand.
“If it wasn’t for Chateau Bijou, we’d have nowhere to go,” Luis says.
Luis and Carmen have never received welfare assistance or food stamps – both are determined to provide for themselves. And besides, Luis says, someone out there might need it more.
The couple have been at the same apartment complex since they left Mexico, and while life at the apartments is less than ideal, Luis and Carmen have never considered leaving. “Financially, there’s no way we could even think about going somewhere else,” Luis says. The family is forced to live where federal subsidizing is accepted.
El Dorado County’s Section 8 Voucher Choice housing program serves anywhere from 55 to 70 families in the Tahoe Basin. The countywide waiting list is roughly 400 names long.
“There’s definitely more demand than availability (in Section 8 housing), Lambdin said. “We have overwhelming numbers.”
The waiting list for housing assistance closed in October of 1998. Lambdin couldn’t say when it will reopen.
“We haven’t been able to move people off it, and there’s no sense putting people on a waiting list if I have no hope of offering assistance,” Lambdin said.
There are multi-family housing properties, like the Chateau Bijou Apartments and Tahoe Valley Townhomes, which are popular among Section 8 recipients because they are among the few that accept the federal subsidy. Such properties also offer their own subsidy programs through federally funded programs not associated with Section 8.
Some perceived downsides to Section 8 are the inspection process – specific health and safety codes must be met every year – and the stigma attached to Section 8 renters, Lambdin said.
“There is a stigma attached, and all applicants must be screened like any other applicant,” Lambdin said.
“The upside is that (landlords) are always guaranteed part of the rent. Plus, there’s a risk involved in losing Section 8,” she said, adding that with the waiting list as long as it is, Section 8 recipients aren’t quick to jeopardize their standing in the program by not paying their portion of the rent.
Most of the property owners who rent their homes through Coldwell Banker McKinney & Associates will consider Section 8 applicants, according to one rental department employee. But Tamarack Rentals won’t consider Section 8 because property owners won’t write a year’s lease required with the subsidy.
There are no exact figures on how many property owners accept Section 8, Lambdin said, and the number changes constantly.
“Right now we have a housing crunch, and it’s not just people on Section 8,” Lambdin said. “It’s everyone.”
For the hundreds of people awaiting housing assistance in the county, there are hundreds more attempting to find affordable housing on their own.
Katie Rosick has spent the week calling every number in the real estate section of the phone book trying to locate a home for her family of eight. She’s looking for a three-bedroom for $875 or less.
“There’s nothing,” Rosick said on Wednesday. “I think the fact that we have six kids scares people, but there’s not a lot to look at.”
Rosick has been renting the three-bedroom home she lives in now for $550 a month. She received notice at the start of December that the house has sold, and that she has 30 days to get out.
“They said if I’m not out by the first of the year they’ll start eviction proceedings. I have a clean rental history, and I don’t want something like that started. I’m doing the best I can to find something I can afford,” Rosick said. “I’ll take anything at this point.”
Rosick said she’s thinking of taking a second job, in addition to her graveyard-shift job, to make ends meet.
Luis, like Rosick, is willing to take on a second job to get by, and he has in the past. His family is also frequently involved in a community money sharing program in which a few families come together to contribute to a common pot. Each family draws a number, then, depending on which number was drawn, takes what’s in the pot for the month. Everyone benefits, and that’s the idea behind it. The program, called Tanda, has helped some families to buy Christmas presents this year. Others have been able to pay off large bills that otherwise wouldn’t have been paid.
“If we all work together, and not just people in the Hispanic community, but if everyone worked together we could improve the whole community,” Luis said.
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