Latinos endure, shivering in silence
Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series on affordable housing. The real names and addresses for today’s stories have been changed to preserve anonymity. All interviews were conducted on site and were done with the assistance of a translator.
The Latino community represents a quarter of the population in South Lake Tahoe, according to 2000 census figures. What might be an even more staggering figure is 80 percent are under 18 years of age.
They are a key demographic for the South Shore work force and many are subjected to substandard living conditions.
Many only speak a little bit of English or none at all and are very distrustful of non-Latinos.
The Latino Affairs Commission has made housing its No. 1 priority.
None of these apartments are the highly publicized Mosswood Apartments and all are in South Lake Tahoe.
In South Lake Tahoe, Carmen lives with her boyfriend Eduardo and their 1-year-old daughter in a laundry room, which was converted into a studio apartment.
There is no heat except for a tiny space heater, which is kept in the bathroom when it is warm, but is moved into the bedroom at night when the temperature drops. They try to insulate the drafty bedroom window with blankets and pile others on top of their bodies. They sleep with the baby and try to stay warm. But the air inside gets so cold in the winter, they can see their breath.
Carmen stands in the kitchen and cuddles her daughter, Rosita, who smiles and laughs at a multicolored stuffed animal she has just been given. Eduardo is working at a car dealership where he washes cars. Neither of them have a car.
Carmen would complain about the stove burner that doesn’t work, or the broken oven, or the missing linoleum, which exposes the cement floor. But she doesn’t speak English very well and is afraid the landlord will raise her rent or kick her out.
She has good reason to be afraid. When her neighbor complained the landlord raised the rent. Carmen was forced out of her last apartment for reasons she does not understand, given just two days to vacate the property. They just moved into their apartment a couple of months ago after spending the last nine months living with a relative.
She would like to move, but housing is hard to find and finances are tight. Carmen works as a maid in one of the Stateline casinos and makes $7.28 an hour. She was working full time, but as the tourists dwindle so do her hours. She had four days off last week.
Eduardo doesn’t do any better. He only makes $6.25 and hour and his last two week paycheck only netted $277.
There is no ventilation in the kitchen and the front door is drafty. Carmen stuffs blankets in the crack to try and keep out the cold.
She has done what she can to control the cockroaches, but she can’t stop them entirely.
“Babies get cockroaches in their ears and that can be very damaging,” said Gabriela Inigo, health education coordinator for the El Dorado County Health Department and a member of the Latino Affairs Commission. “That happens a lot.”
Inigo has been criticized by apartment management companies for getting involved with housing issues, but she argues housing issues are health issues.
“If you don’t address housing everything else will collapse, your health, your education, your self-esteem,” she said. “It’s everything.”
Latinos being afraid to complain about substandard living conditions is not uncommon. It is the norm.
Maria lives in South Lake Tahoe in a three-bedroom apartment with her husband and her five children, ages 20, 17, 14, 10 and 6.
Overcrowding is a problem many South Shore employees have, not just Latinos. But since 80 percent of Latinos in South Lake Tahoe are under 18 years old, families, like Maria’s, are often cramped into apartments too small to meet their needs.
Maria’s husband, makes $1,600 a month at a South Lake Tahoe business. Her 20-year-old son makes $960 a month at a fast food restaurant and her 17 -year-old son makes $800 a month working with his brother. He still goes to school and is a necessary contributor to his family’s income. The carpet is covered with stains that were there before Maria and her family began renting the apartment five years ago. The railing on the tiny balcony is unstable and electrical tape covers a light switch with exposed wires. Air comes right in through the sliding glass door, the oven does not work; and no matter how hard she cleans, she has cockroaches.
She cannot afford to move into a better apartment, and is afraid if she complains, the landlord will raise the rent or evict her. She pays $675 a month for rent and does not have the money to move into a new apartment.
Inigo said it is a difficult situation, because if an apartment building is closed down for repairs, the people who live in them have nowhere to go and often cannot afford to pay the initial costs of moving into a different apartment.
When Inigo confronted one landlord about the poor conditions his tenants were living in, he said: “I will open the doors and show you what pigs these people are,” Inigo said.
Inigo disagrees and said many of these people care very much about their living conditions.
Rosa has a nicer apartment than others, but she still has problems the landlord will not fix. She lives with her four children ages 20, 18, 15, 13, and two grandchildren, 4 years old and 10 months.
They are a closely knit family, but they also share a small space. The three daughters and baby sleep in one room. The two sons in another. Rosa sleeps on the couch in the living room. Their rent is $650 a month.
Rosa is a maid at one of the Stateline casinos and makes $1,100 a month. Her oldest daughter, a mother of two children, Maria dropped out of high school a couple of years ago and now works in guest services at one of the casinos. She earns $850 a month. The rest of the children attend school in South Lake Tahoe.
Water from their bathroom drips though their neighbor’s ceiling. There is mold in the bathroom which the landlord painted over, but it keeps growing through the paint. The windows in the living room and kitchen are too small for the frame and let cold air into the apartment. When the wind blows the windows sometimes fall in, causing glass to shatter on the floor. Rosa shoves cardboard and cloth between the windows and the frame to help alleviate the problem, but the landlord will not fix anything. He simply replaces broken windows with the same size windows, which can also break. Rosa, too, is afraid of the landlord.
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