- The building owner said he tried to help homeless people by offering low rents with no background or credit checks.
- The city said the building, an old university dorm, was never permitted for multifamily housing.
- The 200 or so residents have at least a couple weeks to find a new place, but options are limited.
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – For the last two years, a lone two-story building in the heart of downtown San Bernardino, California, offered to many what long had been out of reach – a place to call their own.
A monthly rent of $600 and no credit or background check provided a lifeline to those who had been homeless. That was the point, according to property manager Jeffrey Young.
“The owners ask me and say ‘Hey man, what can we do,’” Young said. “I’m thinking … ‘Why don’t we open it to the public? See what we can do.’ Within two weeks it was full.”
But if 340 W. 4th Street was ever the oasis Young intended it to be – providing tenants with affordable housing in a state known for sky-high rent prices – that oasis has now dried. Its hundreds of residents, many of which are families, must leave.
The city of San Bernardino told residents on Sept. 22 they must find somewhere else to live, sending tenants into a frenzy. And the clock is ticking – residents have until at least Oct. 28 to move out.
The building, a former dormitory for a now-shuttered university, was never permitted for use as an apartment complex. And its neglected condition makes it unsafe to live in, said Jeff Kraus, a spokesperson for the city. Code infraction fines have mounted to $100,000, according to Kraus.
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Young told USA TODAY he was hired to manage the building in August 2019 when a handful of foreign students attending a local school were living there.
Then the pandemic hit in March 2020, and the students went home. He pitched the owner, Ji Li of Fox Property Holdings LLC, on converting the former university dorms into affordable housing. Three months later, a Facebook Marketplace listing went live.
“At the time it was perfect, it felt like I was living in a mansion with a million bedrooms. It was quiet and peaceful and clean,” said tenant Angel Villanueva, who spoke to USA TODAY inside a unit shared with his wife. The couple moved into a few units on the property with their six children in June 2020.
But just outside his door Wednesday, the scene was a bleak departure from the tidiness that welcomed him two years ago.
The pungent smell of cigarette smoke and mold wafted through the damp, dark hallways. Rotten wood flooring and exposed concrete stretched the long hall floors, scattered with scraps of old trash. Cockroaches scurried across the soiled walls. Orange extension cords snaked out of units plugged into the few hallway outlets with electricity.
The building received code violations from the city, but many repairs went undone, Young said.
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Young said Li had a “cash flow” problem and that he couldn’t afford repairs because many tenants stopped paying rent, which was increased to $700 a month last year.
Officials in cities across the country have shut down residential complexes deemed unsafe in the past year, many of which involved concerns of imminent collapse.
Kraus said the main safety concern at the San Bernardino building was that it was a fire hazard, citing electrical issues and a broken sprinkler system. The city hired a 24-hour security service for fires, Kraus said.
The building was also home to drug use, vandalism and violence, multiple tenants told USA TODAY. A crime mapping database linked on the city’s website showed reports of multiple assaults and robbery incidents near the property in the last several months.
Another tenant, Brenda Flanagan, said her neighbor passed away from an overdose after unknowingly ingesting fentanyl in March. She was 23.
Little to choose from
Despite the increasing turbulence, Villanueva and his family remained. A year-and-a-half-long search for a new place – long before the city began nudging tenants out – has yielded little results.
They have few options. A place that can accommodate a family of eight is simply beyond their means, Villanueva said. And applying for new housing is itself an expense.
“It’s a small fortune, trying to put in all these applications just to know that I’m going to be denied again,” Villanueva said.
It’s a story playing out throughout the roughly 200-unit building. Young families, women holding infants milled about the premises as Villanueva, a former Honda salesman who was put of work with an injury, showed USA TODAY around the property Wednesday. “I will miss this building” was scribbled in crayon on one wall.
Behind the building, some people lived in tents.
An affordable option in a state with few of them
San Bernardino, a city of 222,000 located 60 miles east of Los Angeles, encapsulates a national housing crisis, of which California is considered an epicenter.
Housing stock in the state is low, especially for its poorest. The state is short 1 million affordable rental homes for extremely low-income residents, who make up 22% of renter households, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
More than a quarter of these households spend over half of their income on housing, according to NLIHC.
A fair market monthly rent for a studio apartment in California is $1,416, according to NLIHC.
And rent prices have risen nationwide in the past year. The median asking rent price for an apartment was $2,039 in August, up 11% from the year before, according to real estate listings site Redfin.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated that 580,446 people across the country were homeless in January 2020, the last time reliable data was available, uninterrupted by the pandemic.
A new report suggests the pandemic worsened homelessness in California. The homeless population grew by at least 22,500 people over the last three years, according to CalMatters, bringing the total to 173,800.
San Bernardino enlisted the support of local homeless shelters and other providers from around the region to offer residents a temporary place to stay.
Kraus, the San Bernardino spokesperson, admitted the city doesn’t have the capacity to take on an additional 200 to 250 people in its shelters, so it tapped temporary housing providers from around the region. They set up “outreach” tables outside the building.
Sonya Gray-Hunn, the lead housing organizer at local policy nonprofit Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement, has been in touch with the tenants, trying to connect them with resources.
A headcount done by COPE found that roughly 192 units out of 200 were occupied, with families living in many of them.
Gray-Hunn knows many won’t find the help they need. Her organization is petitioning the city to build rapid housing like the “Tiny Homes” initiative in neighboring Los Angeles County.
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Villanueva fears his family will slip through the cracks.
“There’s a lot of superficial help that says ‘Hey, we got programs for this, programs for that,’ but you’ve got to qualify for them,” Villanueva said. “And unfortunately we don’t qualify for a three bedroom, four bedroom.”
Those who can line up alternative housing might see their rents double. Flanagan, 55, said a provider on-site connected her with a senior living facility. But the rent is $1,100 a month – half her income.
The city was granted a 21-day restraining order against Li, the property owner. He is not allowed to enter the property during that time. Kraus said the idea was to ensure Li wouldn’t lock people out of their rooms, buying them time to figure out their next move.
San Bernardino will also explore criminal charges against Fox Property Holdings LLC for renting out units illegally, according to Kraus.
Li told USA TODAY in a brief phone call Thursday morning that he tried to “help the homeless people,” before hanging up soon after. He did not address financial issues mentioned by Young.
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Some have accused Li of being another slumlord, but if he is to be taken at his word, then the situation is best summed up as a “good deed gone wrong,” Villanueva said.
Whether the city will vacate the building on the 28th is unclear. Kraus said the city is intent on not simply shoving people to the street, but also said “there’s a point in time that that building needs to be closed down.”
As Villanueva’s wife, Dalia Barragan, readied to pick up their children from school, he pondered his family’s next move.
After a long-spell of remote learning, their kids had just begun to settle into their new schools. They finally figured out a bus route, and started to make friends. Now that semblance of stability stands to be upended.
“It’s going to take a miracle,” Villanueva said. “And I don’t think San Bernardino has one.”