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Martinez woman struggles to find housing resources

By DONNA BETH WEILENMAN
Martinez Tribune

Sherry Lee speaks about her pending homelessness at last week’s City Council meeting.  (DONNA BETH WEILENMAN / Martinez Tribune)
Sherry Lee speaks about her pending homelessness at last week’s City Council meeting. (DONNA BETH WEILENMAN / Martinez Tribune)
MARTINEZ, Calif. – A 60-year-old Martinez resident may lose her home Saturday because her landlord is ending his Section 8 housing contracts.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) helps apartment owners offer reduced rents to low-income tenants through public housing and housing choice (Section 8) vouchers.

Landlords Lynn and Dave DeVaney have owned the Brown Street apartments where Sherry Lee has lived for more than three years, and initially informed the woman seven months ago that she would have to move.

But Lee, a former marriage and family counselor, said she hasn’t been able to obtain any help in finding new housing, and will have nowhere to go by Saturday.

Lee said she had lived in her own home for more than 20 years, but had a pulmonary embolism in 2008 and was resuscitated and put on life support. “My heart blew up; maybe it was a stroke,” she said.

That left her with memory loss. She couldn’t talk, walk, read or write for some time. She said her treatment has caused her nerve damage that resulted in partial paralysis and constant pain.

A brother came to take care of her, but she said he mortgaged her house and she lost it when no one was able to pay. She sued her brother for elder abuse, and said the settlement is a confidential agreement. She is on Supplemental Security Income, a federal program that gives the needy cash payments.

She said she has had some disagreements with DeVaney, in particular when she discovered that a neighbor’s utility bill was combined with hers. She also called Eden Council for Home and Opportunity (Echo) Fair Housing, a Hayward assistance center and fair housing agency.

When she learned that she would be losing her apartment, she said, she also called Bay Area Legal Aid, which has attorneys who work pro bono to help those facing consumer, domestic violence, health care, medical and housing challenges. It also seeks justice for youth, veterans and those with low incomes.

She said she has also described her problems to her doctors and nurses, has contacted HUD, has spoken with the legal staff of John F. Kennedy University, the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s office and local homeless shelter advocates.

During an evening walk, she decided to speak to the City Council last week as well, and the panel took her contact information.

She said some agencies and low-income housing sites won’t help her unless she actually becomes homeless; others won’t assist her until she’s 62. While she said she has received paperwork that might help her get a delay in her eviction, she said she is unable to complete it. “I’m not a lawyer,” she said.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Lee said, explaining she has always paid her bills. “I need a lawyer and I can’t get one. I need, at least, to respond appropriately to the eviction process.”

Lee said she has a son in Fairfield who has helped her pack boxes, but she said she can’t lift them. “I don’t know how to do this. It’s just too much.”

Nor does she want to leave Martinez, where she is familiar with her doctors and her community.

Bay Area Legal Aid attorney Adam Poe said that because of attorney-client rights, he could not say whether Lee had contacted his agency. He said his statements could be made only about general situations.

However, he said that someone in her position could call Bay Area Legal Aid, which has a priority to handle eviction and housing cases involving those receiving Section 8 vouchers.

Senior Legal Services wouldn’t wait until someone is 62, he said. That agency defines a “senior” as 60 and older, he said. That agency also handles cases involving evictions and housing, he said.

However, in Contra Costa County, a landlord needs no reason to evict a tenant, Poe said. Nor is a landlord required to continue accepting Section 8 vouchers.

San Francisco and Oakland offer more protection, called “just cause districts,” for tenants, and Richmond attempted to pass a similar law, but that was overturned, he said. However, if a tenant uses Section 8 vouchers, that person must have a 90-day notice of eviction rather than the customary shorter periods, he said.

A tenant who believes he or she is being evicted as a form of retaliation may be able to get a delay of the eviction.

Those who believe they are facing discrimination or have a disability also may have a case for an extension, or compensation for “fair accommodation,” or support for the difference in rent “for a reasonable time.” Those provisions are contained in the Federal Fair Housing Act, he said.

“We’re seeing a lot of cases like that,” Poe said after hearing a description of Lee’s situation. He said some landlords are evicting tenants so they can obtain fair-market rent payments.

Those who can’t afford to live elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area are moving to the East Bay. “There’s a migration to Contra Costa County,” he said.

But while rents are increasing locally, the federal government decided that “fair market value” for apartments in California and its supplemental compensation had declined, Poe said. “We were hoping it would go up by a significant amount.”

His agency was disappointed with that news, and he said area housing authorities are pushing back, asking that the slight decline would not be applied in the Bay Area.

Poe said anyone who has received an eviction notice “can avail themselves of the eviction process,” remaining in the apartment until a court order served by Contra County Sheriff’s Office deputies forces them out.

Shelter Inc. and private shelters can provide housing, but Poe said in many cases, resources are stretched to the limit.

“We’d like to see more resources, a way to get them shelter,” he said.

During the recession, Poe said, many local agencies that provide help were under pressure. Even though the economy is recovering, the need for help has not lessened significantly, he said.

As for any positive notes, Poe said, “It’s hard to say. A lot of the funding is federal.” If the recession sparked a crisis, he said in recent years there has not been a drop in demand for housing. Nor has there been a decline in evictions and the need for low-income housing. “We wish a lot of agencies could take more cases,” he said.

Lee said she has no computer, and some agencies keep urging her to check their websites.

“So much of the resources are accessible through the computer,” Poe agreed. “The assumption is you have one. That’s unfair if you have a disability. It’s problematic.” He said he had a similar discussion with a client this past week.

Poe said it is important to get an advocate to help deal with an eviction, to buy time or defeat the eviction. It is also important to get help in finding housing. A case worker can help someone find assisted living or shelter space.

“If the system is working, she won’t be on the street,” Poe said.

He said his agency provides free legal help at various sites, and one first come, first served session with a Bay Area Legal Aid attorney takes place at 9 a.m. Fridays at the Contra Costa County Courthouse in Martinez.

Lee said she has gone there, gotten papers, but never got help filling them out. She said she is so stressed now that it has aggravated her illness’s symptoms so she can’t get out of the house that early, and had no plans to meet with the free attorney today.

Meanwhile, her landlord said Lee has had seven months to plan her move. “Everybody tried to help her,” he said.

Dave DeVaney, who said he is retired and on a fixed income, said he and his wife have been landlords for 30 years and that his tenants haven’t complained. He said the couple decided to quit taking Section 8 vouchers because they don’t make up the difference in fair market prices.

He said about seven other Section 8 tenants got the same notice, but have not voiced the same complaints. He said the notices went out because the DeVaneys are planning upgrades to the apartments, which he said were built in the 1950s and need modernization.

DeVaney agreed that he and his tenant have had their differences. When he has had to have an apartment near Lee’s space repaired, he said he had to ask police for a “civil standby” while the work was done. “She gets hostile sometimes,” he said.

He said Lee has made appearances in court, has had a conservator and help from a social worker, but won’t accept their help. “She’s filed discrimination charges against us,” he said.

The situation has caused him to hire an attorney, but his legal representative is out of town until the weekend. “It’s a nightmare,” he said.

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