Thursday, April 19, 2001
-- A Series on the Crisis in the Cost of Living
Twenty-six years ago, Jean Elwood fled a bad marriage in Philadelphia, moved to Monterey with her two daughters and settled her family into a spacious two-bedroom, two-bath townhouse in the Del Monte Beach neighborhood. From her large bay windows Jean could look out onto the ocean, and the scent of salty sea air that permeated her house became the comforting smell of home. For a quarter century, her townhouse served as safe harbor in the sometimes stormy lives of her and her children.
In 1974, Elwood paid $250 a month in rent. Naturally that figure slowly increased through the years. But in 1988, her sympathetic landlord, knowing she was a single mother raising two children on an editorial assistant''s modest income, raised her rent for the last time to $625.
Eventually her landlord passed away, and his son sold the building last year to Stephen Meyer, a Peninsula developer who planned to renovate the 1960s structure. As it was, Meyer could have easily commanded $1,000-1,200 per month for the townhouse nestled in the desirable beach community. With some repairs and remodeling, he would be able to charge hundreds of dollars more.
Last July, Elwood received a 30-day notice to vacate her home of 26 years so her new landlord could gut the building and update its insides. Meyer says the building sorely needed the repairs. In fact, he would have preferred to tear the place down and start over, but under city of Monterey regulations, he wouldn''t have been able to rebuild the same number of units. He has since gutted the building, replaced old plumbing and wiring, and put on a new roof.
Devastated and afraid, Elwood surveyed her choices. Moving in with one of her daughters, both of whom live with their partners in small apartments, was not an option for her. "I wouldn''t dare live with my children," she says. "It just ruins marriages."
She could have moved into an apartment that accepts Section 8 vouchers, rent subsidies provided by the Monterey County Housing Authority. But finding one of the few landlords who still accept the vouchers would be difficult, and could conceivably land her in an unfamiliar neighborhood far away from her friends, her doctors and her daughters. Plus, chances were good that she''d get stuck on the voucher waiting list, which is currently about 3,000 families long.
In the end, Meyer extended Elwood''s notice and helped her find a new place to live. And when she rented a place in October just blocks away on Casa Verde, he physically moved her there in his truck. "I tried to create as soft a landing for Jean as I could," Meyer says.
Nevertheless, the change traumatized the 76-year-old Elwood and sent her spiraling into depression. "The move, it affected my whole life," she says. "My enthusiasm, it''s just dead."
She moved into a dark one-bedroom apartment half the size of her former home and with none of the charm, yet she pays $100 more per month than she used to. She has little storage space, nowhere to put her collection of 1,100 books, which she likes to keep out in plain sight, and her unit backs up to the noisy laundry room.
"I''m paying more for less of everything," she laments. "It''s such a letdown. Living here, I might as well be back in Philly. If I was younger and I had the money, I''d leave."
She was barely scraping by before. Now Elwood pays a staggering 73 percent of her meager pension and Social Security income on her rent. She''s already sold off her modest cache of family jewelry and prized Persian rugs to make ends meet.
Beyond her financial difficulties, Elwood is having difficulty adjusting to her new space. Her one small living room window looks out onto a broken fence and the stark walls of the adjacent apartment building, a far cry from her old ocean view. She feels so out of place she hasn''t even unpacked half her boxes from her move six months ago, and she can''t find anything.
Worst of all, she''s no longer within walking distance of her beloved beach, and she doesn''t drive. "I was so happy there. I''ve always lived by the beach," she says. "I''m so terribly homesick for the beach."
The Poor House
Elwood doesn''t blame Meyer or her new landlord or anybody else for her current situation. She takes full responsibility for her financial position.
"I feel that I had opportunities and I had choices and I messed up on them or didn''t take them," she says.
But Elwood can''t take responsibility for the many other seniors like her who are slipping into poverty as rents in Monterey County sky rocket beyond what normal people, much less those on a fixed income, can afford. Just about everyone, beyond the fabulously wealthy and those who purchased their homes years ago, are suffering--young families, teachers, government employees, hospitality workers, and alternative newspaper reporters alike must struggle to keep a roof over their heads.
For senior citizens, the situation is more critical. Younger people can take on a second job or pick up and move away if things get too tough. But senior citizens who depend on Social Security or slim pensions don''t have that kind of flexibility. As the housing crisis escalates, these seniors are being forced out of their rented homes and away from their towns as landlords and an apparently uncaring community stand by and watch.
"We''re seeing, in the last couple of years, more and more calls about rent increases, but a landlord can raise rent as much as he wants with 30 days'' notice," says Velma Hollingsworth, an advocate with Legal Services for Seniors. "There''s not a legal argument to be made. Sometimes we try to reason with the landlords, try to negotiate with them, and occasionally it''s successful. More recently, it''s not."
Uprooted seniors often cannot adjust to new surroundings, and a move can lead to debilitating depression and failing physical health. When they''re forced to move out of the communities where they spent a lifetime working, going to church and raising their children, the sense of isolation diminishes their will to live. Some are forced prematurely to give up their independence by moving into retirement homes or into the homes of family members before they''re ready.
"Some try to do a shared housing program," Hollingsworth says, "which sounds good, but it''s really hard at that age to adapt oneself to someone else."
Others seniors scrape by but don''t dare make waves, careful not to complain about rising rents or repairs left undone for fear of eviction or more rent increases.
Nancy, 61, has lived in her Pacific Grove apartment building for four years. In the beginning she paid $500 for a studio, then she moved to a one-bedroom for the same price to get away from the rock band next door that kept her up at night. She was happy for the larger space at the same price, but her landlord failed to clean (much less paint or make repairs to) the apartment before she moved in. Her carpet is soiled with beer stains, which she covers with a throw rug. A space between her bathroom wall and floor admits a perpetual current of insects. When she complained, the property manager told her to buy a tube of caulk at the hardware store.
Some rotting wood planks forced the manager to finally repair Nancy''s kitchen floor, but he did it on the cheap, covering the new floor section with non-matching linoleum. Backed-up sewage in her shower was ignored until a visit from the health department convinced the property owner to replace the corroded plumbing.
Each time a repair is made, Nancy, who doesn''t want her last name used because she fears she''ll be evicted, sees her rent creep up in $50 increments. The last last raise, in March, ratcheted her rent up to $700. She is refusing to recognize it because she was not given 30 days'' written notice.
Nancy is unable to work, thanks to four ruptured discs that put her under the knife six times and landed two brass plates in her back. She gets by on long-term disability, but if her landlord insists on the rent increase, she''ll be left with $32 a month with which to feed and clothe herself.
Despite her rising rent, Nancy doesn''t want to leave her home. She''s comfortable there, and she''s near the bus stop and her son, who also lives in Pacific Grove. "Sometimes I think of it as my little nest," she says.
She''s looked into Section 8 and senior housing, but she''s having a hard time finding a landlord that will take her two cats, which keep her company, and it''s hard to get around to look at places because she doesn''t drive.
Moving out of the area doesn''t make sense either. Nancy moved to Carmel when she was 14, and although she''s moved around since then, the Peninsula has always been home. "I feel like a native," she says. "All my kids and my grandchildren were born here."
No Cash, No Trash
At least, Nancy reasons, she has a roof over her head. "Jerry," a 61-year-old former resident of Seaside, is not so lucky. He lives in his car.
When Jerry, who is African-American, was 7 years old, he moved with his mother and aunt to Seaside from Louisiana to escape the racial oppression of the Deep South. In California, Jerry found the freedom to flex his political muscles. He marched in protests during the Civil Rights Movement and took part in the Proposition 13 campaign to ensure his mother wouldn''t be forced from her home by rising property taxes.
In 1974, Jerry''s mother bought a house in Seaside for $17,800. Jerry worked for 30 years at various jobs in San Jose, including stints at Lockheed and Honeywell, and sent money home to his mother to pay her mortgage. He always considered Seaside home.
When his mother fell ill with cancer of the esophagus in the early ''90s, she took out a second mortgage to help pay for the expensive respiratory equipment required by her illness. When her condition worsened, Jerry quit his job and moved back in to take care of her and his aunt, who suffered from Alzheimer''s. His mother died in 1997 and willed the house to him, but Jerry was unable to return to work because of his own health problems. When he fell behind on the house payments in 1999, the bank repossessed his home.
Subsisting on $981 a month in disability, Jerry couldn''t scrape together enough money to pay a deposit on an apartment, nor could he qualify for one anyway with his paltry income. He applied for Section 8 vouchers, but was denied because he lacked the proper documentation (Legal Services for Seniors is helping him re-apply). For a while, he stayed with a friend in Marina, but when the police told him the woman was dealing crack, he moved into his 20-year-old Chevy Caprice Classic.
Jerry, an articulate and politically savvy gentleman who exudes an air of confident dignity despite his circumstances, is remarkably cavalier about his homelessness.
"We''re living in an upper-middle class and wealthy community," he says matter-of-factly. Property owners, he says, are "just taking advantage of the market. Whether that''s wrong, that''s philosophical. What''s wrong to me may not be wrong to you."
Seaside has disappointed Jerry. As his home community gentrifies, Seaside, he says, is turning its back on its seniors. But you won''t hear him complaining at City Council meetings. That would be a waste of time, he says, because Peninsula politicians operate on what he calls the "No Cash, No Trash" theory--if you don''t have any money, nobody wants to hear you bitch. That''s just reality, he says. "Wealthy people in this community really don''t give a damn," he says. "It''s not their problem."
Nevertheless, Jerry hopes to make Seaside home again someday, when his Section 8 comes through and he can move out of his car. "Where else am I gonna go?" he says. "I''m sure not going back to the South. I''ll struggle it out here."
Rear View Mirror
On the other hand, seniors who have the resources are leaving the area by the droves. When seniors leave the area, they aren''t the only ones who lose out. The community misses out, too. A collective memory recalling years of local history disappears along with valuable citizens who volunteer in community organizations, patronize local businesses, and baby-sit the neighbors''--or their own children''s--kids.
Marilouise Feusi and her husband Joseph plan on leaving the area this summer, and they won''t look back. The couple, both in their 70s, plan on moving to Rio Rancho, a sprawling suburb of Albuquerque, NM, where they can purchase their own two-bedroom condo for no money down and $600 a month. The fact that their son lives there further sweetens the deal.
"I''m so disappointed in California. I don''t want to live here any longer," says Marilouise, a native Californian. "I don''t like the way California is taking care of its seniors."
The Feusis moved to Monterey in 1948 when the city was nothing more than a malodorous fishing village, and they rented their first apartment for $175 and $75 down. They both got jobs working for AT&T, Joseph as a cable splicer and Marilouise as an operator, and later, a manager. They raised their two youngest children here. For years the couple supplemented their income by managing the apartments where they lived and seeing to repairs (which, incidentally, they say are left undone under the new management).
Today, the retired couple pays $860 for the two-bedroom unit they''ve rented for the past 30 years. Late last year, the couple was presented with a $125 rent increase during the much-publicized rent hike imposed upon tenants of the Olympia apartment complexes in Monterey and Pacific Grove. The increase put them over the edge.
Fiscally speaking, the Feusis aren''t as bad off as some seniors. Their pensions from AT&T and their Social Security checks net them $3,422 a month.
"That''s not bad--unless you''re living in a place like Monterey," Feusi says. "We''d like to buy a new bed, we need a new car, and we''d like to have a little quality of life left over."
But between rent, the energy crisis and medical bills--they both suffer from health problems--that quality of life eludes the Feusis. Now, after calling the Monterey Peninsula home for 53 years, the couple will pack up a lifetime of memories and attempt to carve out a new life elsewhere.
"I have people here that I dearly love," Feusi says. "I have friends that I''ve worked with for many years. I feel so resentful over what has happened here.
"They''re calling this paradise," she adds. "This isn''t paradise anymore."
Don''t talk to Feusi about fair market value. "What the hell is that?" she spits. "That term just makes me see red."
As someone who grew up in an era when neighbors helped out neighbors and communities took care of their own, Feusi believes responsibility for inflated rents rests solely with greedy property owners. Her own landlord, Buena Vista Land Company, turned around and ponied up $28 million for the posh Sun Bay complex on the former Fort Ord after jacking up rents.
But in Feusi''s judgment, Monterey County landlords'' karmic clock is ticking.
"I don''t understand these landlords. I really don''t. You can only drive one car at a time," she says. "One day the bottom is going to fall out of the ''fair market'' and they are going to be sitting there with their knickers in a knot."