S. E. Williams
Candice is a fighter. As a single mother with Stage 4 kidney disease and two failed kidney transplants, she fights to stay alive with her illness, she fights to provide a normal life and stability for her children, and, during the last two years, she has fought for fairness.
As mentioned in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, Candice and her children were homeless after she lost her job of ten years due to her deteriorating health and could no longer pay rent where she and her family had lived for more than twenty years. She turned to the City of Riverside for assistance and eventually found temporary housing through its Rapid Rehousing Program.
What happened after Candice found and took up residence in a house paid for through the Rapid Rehousing Program, some might consider unconscionable. Candice told a story of city case managers who were non-responsive or slow to react to her concerns. She raised issues about a landlord that would allegedly show up at her home at odd times without notification, who purportedly delayed/refused to make needed repairs until she called code enforcement, and who ostensibly told untruths with abandon.
In addition, unbeknownst to Candice when she moved in, the property where the house is located borders on the former location of a former Riverside Scrap Iron & Metal. Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) documents reviewed by The Voice show the magnitude of subsurface contamination of lead and PCBs in concentrations that exceeded screening levels, and there were concerns that adjacent residential properties were also impacted—including the property that would eventually be occupied by Candice and her family beginning in March 2016. She was never informed of the potential contamination. Sadly, the contamination on the property was not confirmed until April 2017. The report showed lead and PAHs on the property.
As might be expected, Candice, city officials, and the landlord each have a story, a different perspective regarding what unfolded in this case.
Recently, Emilio Ramirez, Deputy Director for Community and Economic Development for the City of Riverside, Office of Homeless Solutions, who also serves on the statewide Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council, spoke with The Voice regarding the city’s administration of the Rapid Rehousing Program. Although he is the second city official to decline discussing specific details of this or any case, it is important to understand how the Rapid Rehousing Program should work for homeless families/individuals seeking assistance in the City of Riverside, what the landlord’s responsibilities are to the tenants under the program and, importantly, how the city allowed this family to move into a site suspected for toxic contamination.
Another key objective of the discussion was to understand how the City of Riverside housed a homeless family in a property suspected of toxic contamination. Ramirez was direct in his response. He explained how the city goes on site and does an inspection. “If there was a code violation, we would identify it,” he explained and continued, “If there was a matter of record [contamination], the home/property owner would have an obligation to disclose it.”
According to Ramirez, if the home/property owner did not disclose it and/or it was not a matter of public record, “We would not have taken soil samples to identify violations.” He added, “It [the contamination] was not conclusive. It was suspected.” He stressed, “If we knew, we would have warned them, but ‘potential contamination’ was not a part of the public record.” Again, he stressed the agency would not do that level of inspection.
Suspected contamination may not be a part of the public record but it was certainly something the city was aware of, detailed in Part 2 of this series. Ramirez’s department was also keenly aware of Candice’s vulnerable health status. Even though the property was suspected of contamination, Ramirez said it is “not a matter of standard course that that information would have flowed through to their department.”
He expounded, “If it is not a matter of public record, the homeless program inspection would not have gone to every department and asked. Had it [the property] actually been cited, it was incumbent upon the property owner to disclose it, and the city to be aware of it.” He confirmed, “The city would have been able to identify it as part of a public records search.”
Ramirez said there is nothing in the city’s process that could have prevented this scenario from happening. To a large extent, “from the perspective of the inspector, it’s [the contamination] an unknown hazard.”
When questioned about the future and whether there was a way for his agency to prevent this from happening again, at another site, he replied, “I don’t know if that is possible or how viable it would be in the future. As it is right now, I’m sure there are issues out there I would be concerned about, but I don’t know about.”
This is only one of the issues Candice and her family have faced and it seems there are no procedures in place to prevent this from happening again. When a person is ill, has lost his/her long-term employment because of the illness, falls into homelessness due to that loss of employment, and turns to their city for help, they would not expect to be placed in a toxic environment.
Preventing this from happening to the next sick homeless person who seeks assistance from the city is important, as is understanding how this was allowed to happen in the first place. The city appeared to absolve itself from accountability since the contamination was only “suspected” at the time Candice and her family moved in, but that is no comfort to Candice and her family. Critics believe she should have been warned of the potential contamination; after all, her life was at risk—exposure to heavy metals has been linked to chronic kidney disease progression.
When asked, Ramirez said his agency makes accommodations when housing disabled individuals. For example, if a person needed an accommodation because he/she was in a wheelchair, the agency would accommodate that. “So, the disability would make a difference. It would just depend on the circumstances,” he claimed.
According to some critics, perhaps there is a need for closer examination of how those with serious chronic illnesses should be accommodated when there are concerns about “potential” toxic contamination on a rental property. They question whether there should be an expectation of disclosure required for both the city and the landlord in such instances, just as exists in cases of actual contamination.
By the time the DTSC finally confirmed in April that the property was actually contaminated with both lead and PAHs, Candice’s problems with her landlord had reached a peak.
Next week, learn what happened and how the city finally resolved the conflict between them.