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Tenants Wonder When Evictions Will Resume As Their Landlord Faces Rebuke

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Naveah, Elijah, Alsessa, and Jakob with their mom Kara Gomez outside of their mobile home in Pomona. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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The California Trailer Grove, off Foothill Boulevard in Pomona, doesn't look different in a pandemic -- there's still the retro sign, barking dogs, dusty lots and rows of tightly packed mobile homes and RVs.

But inside the 86-unit park, tenants are missing rent payments and wondering when evictions will resume.

Outside her family's mobile home, longtime resident Kara Gomez said she hasn't seen an eviction notice in months. That's a surprise, since they usually go up like clockwork on the third. (Gomez's own mother-in-law was evicted from the park in 2018.)

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Recent months have been hectic for Gomez and her family. "Life doesn't stop when you have six kids," she said. Her 1-year-old has Down syndrome, which means regular medical appointments, in addition to picking up food at her son's school and trying to keep her five other kids' education on track.

Remote learning has been hard on her oldest, a high school senior who expected to be playing football this fall. His season keeps getting pushed back, which the family fears is jeopardizing his chances of securing a college scholarship.

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The sign at the California Trailer Grove mobile home park in Pomona. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Meanwhile, the younger kids have struggled to understand why their playdates were canceled. The family of eight share a double-wide trailer near the back of the park, "so there's a lot of us all the time. It's pretty cramped," Gomez said.

Her husband Martin saw his construction work dry up earlier in the pandemic, and the family fell behind on rent by about $3,000. They applied to a county rent relief program, and were accepted, but Gomez says the landlord has been slow to sign the paperwork. "It's all really up in the air."

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The California Trailer Grove was the site of a typhus outbreak in 2015 -- at the time, the first in Los Angeles County in six years. Recently, cockroaches and rats have kept residents under siege. The rats climb trees and feast on the fruit, and scurry on top of mobile homes, driving residents and their dogs crazy. Gomez's family chopped down their guava tree to cut off the rats' food supply, but she's still found the rodents eating her dog's food and even crawling around in her truck's glove compartment.

"What do we do? Start shooting them with pellet guns?" Gomez asked. "They're health hazards."

TENANTS ON THE BRINK

Eviction looms over tenants unable to pay rent across California.

The state's renters are $1.7 billion in debt to their landlords, according to an estimate by the Philadelphia Fed.

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"People are experiencing housing insecurity because they have this huge debt," said Elena Popp of the Eviction Defense Network. She said she's seen an uptick in cases of landlord harassment and illegal lockouts in recent months, as the pandemic grinds on. Her advice to tenants: "Don't self-evict." (She suggests tenants consult Stay Housed LA, a county website offering information about evictions and renter issues.)

Popp criticized eviction protections enacted by California lawmakers as being "a safety net with a bunch of holes in it." But she and other tenant advocates see the safeguards as critical, and are urging legislators to extend them beyond January 31, when they're set to expire.

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California Trailer Grove, an 86-unit park in Pomona. The property is owned by Mobile Home Group I, part of a sprawling empire of low-income housing. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Not all states have limited evictions, and researchers have determined that COVID-19 cases surged when eviction restrictions were lifted. They estimate that nationally, evictions caused 433,700 additional cases and 10,700 excess deaths from the coronavirus, between March and September.

"We will never get this [pandemic] under control if we continue displacing people," Popp said.

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Overcrowded housing -- which is common in poor areas -- poses another risk. Crowding has been linked to greater rates of the coronavirus across the state.

California's current law, passed in August, prohibits evictions connected to non-payment of rent. It requires tenants to pay at least 25% of their rent for the months between September and January, by the end of next month. All remaining rent converts to civil debt. Tenants are still on the hook for that debt, but cannot be evicted over it.

The compromise thrilled neither tenants nor landlords. A proposal to extend that law through 2021 drew fire from the powerful California Apartment Association, which has argued for a shorter extension as coronavirus vaccines begin to be distributed.

"Small landlords can't wait that long," CAA president Carlton told KQED of the 11-month extension. "Unless the state or federal government provides some dollars for rent payments, it'll be a real problem to go into 2021."

The uncertainty leaves tenants in a precarious situation. An August report estimated as many as 5.4 million Californians could be staring down eviction.

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Presley Wilson and her 4-year-old son, Raiden, outside of her mobile home in Pomona's California Trailer Grove. (Courtesy of Presley Wilson)

California Trailer Grove resident Presley Wilson was facing eviction back in March. Wilson had to stop driving for Lyft in February for health reasons, and found a "three day notice to pay rent or quit" on her door the next month.

After LAist published a story about Wilson, a reader offered to pay her back rent. That helped. So did expanded federal unemployment benefits funded by the CARES Act.

"For someone like me who's super low income, that was essentially a windfall," she said. "It was like being able to live like a normal person for the first time in a long time."

The funding helped her make car payments, buy food for her dog, and get clothes for her son, Raiden, who started kindergarten virtually this fall. When she was feeling well, they watched goofy YouTube shows together, and Wilson passed time plowing through over 50 books on her e-reader.

But the additional unemployment money, first $600 per week from the federal government, then $300 per week, dried up. Wilson hasn't paid rent in three months.

"There's a lot of people that are in my situation here," she said in late November.

Earlier this month, as case counts were soaring across Southern California, Wilson contracted COVID-19. "It's far and away the worst I've ever felt," she said in a text. "It's like the flu on massive amounts of steroids."

A REBUKE FOR LANDLORD

California Trailer Grove residents said they have heard little from their landlord in recent months.

Their park is owned by Mobile Home Group I, a cog in a sprawling real estate empire built by mega-landlords Mike Nijjar and PAMA Management. An LAist investigation into the enterprise earlier this year found it spanned an estimated 16,000 units and over $1.3 billion in real estate across California -- with a long track record of providing dirty, dangerous and even deadly rental housing.

(PAMA was the property manager at the California Trailer Grove, but management was recently turned over to a corporate sibling, Mobile Management Services.)

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The swimming pool at California Trailer Grove. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Regulators have blasted PAMA Management for years, but a fire at a property outside of Oildale, California led to unprecedented scrutiny for the business. That fire killed a 5-month-old girl, Jenica Okianna Lozano.

After her death, state officials determined that Nijjar Realty broke real estate law in several ways in renting out her family's unit. An investigator's report was blunt: Nijjar Realty "owed the buyers every consumer protection outlined in the law." Instead, officials wrote, PAMA's unlicensed agent sold mobile homes "in dilapidated condition" without basic disclosures.

The unit also had no carbon monoxide detectors, as required by law.

PAMA, the state investigator concluded, showed "a total disregard for the law."

That led to a December 2018 hearing, in which a judge revoked the real estate broker's licenses of Nijjar Realty, Incorporated, and Everet Miller, a longtime PAMA executive who was the corporation's broker of record. The licenses were formally revoked in February 2019, but Miller and Nijjar Realty quickly appealed, citing procedural issues.

A hearing on their claims was scheduled for April 2020, but delayed due to the pandemic. It finally happened on December 8, with attorneys and Miller appearing remotely.

That morning, Judge Mary H. Strobel issued her ruling: Revoking Nijjar Realty and Everet Miller's licenses "was warranted because [they] did not accept responsibility for their actions and did not demonstrate a commitment to ensure public safety," she wrote.

"The Real Estate violations at issue, including employing an unlicensed individual to sell the mobilehomes, were serious ... The penalty was reasonable," Judge Strobel said in her decision.
At the hearing, the attorney for Miller and Nijjar Realty, James Klinkert, argued that his clients were unaware of the unpermitted unit. Mike Nijjar and Klinkert both did not respond to requests for comment.

The ruling is a significant rebuke: Nijjar Realty has been in business since 1979, and faced no previous discipline over its license.

But while the corporation's license was revoked, Mike Nijjar has retained his own broker's license, as has PAMA Management, Incorporated. The judge's decision is unlikely to change life for the thousands of tenants living at properties including California Trailer Grove, and the hundreds of other rentals spread across Nijjar and PAMA Management's empire.

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