BY AARON MENDELSON
Originally published on April 24, 2020
Los Angeles officials have ordered Angelenos to stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic. But for many low-income renters, home is not a safe place to be.
Health hazards lurking in substandard housing — lead, roaches, black mold, water leaks, faulty wiring — pose serious threats even in normal times. Their impact could be intensified now.
“The challenge before us today, especially in the context of the COVID epidemic, is to make sure that these existing conditions in homes don’t produce a second wave of health problems,” said Dr. David Jacobs of the National Center for Healthy Housing, a nonprofit advocacy and research group.
None of this means people shouldn’t stay at home, Jacobs said. But the dangers disproportionately impact low-income and minority renters, and can worsen developmental problems and respiratory issues. They pose special risks to seniors and children.
‘I HAVE MY SON’S LIFE IN MY HANDS’
Patricia Macías lives in a small house in Arlington Heights with her 13-year-old son, Elijah. Board games and toys are scattered around the inside of their home. So are medical equipment and cleaning supplies.
“Since we’ve been living here, he has developed asthma, and he’s suffering right now with sleep apnea,” Macías said.
They have lived at the property for a decade, Macías said, and coped with roach infestations, rats, and lead paint.
Elijah has Down syndrome, and attends a school that caters to special needs students. He’d formed a strong bond with a teacher, who he misses now that school is shut down. Elijah also begs to visit his favorite restaurant, Chuck E. Cheese, and to see his grandparents.
“He’s crying because they are not here,” Macías said.
Instead, mother and son have been staying at home, adhering to L.A.’s Safer At Home order. But the steps that protect them from coronavirus also expose them to grave risks.
Hazardous levels of lead exist in their home, according to a report by the L.A. County Department of Public Health in 2019. Investigators detected lead in the bedroom and in an outdoor “play area.”
A test last year found lead in Elijah’s blood. Another child who lives on the property, just 2 years old, had even higher levels of lead.
The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there is no safe level of lead exposure for children. “Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.”
Macías and the neighboring family have filed a lawsuit, alleging a cockroach infestation, mold issues, chronic water leaks, and rodent problems at the property. The property’s owner, Second Avenue LLC, and manager, Lotus Property Services, denied the allegations in a court filing. Victoria Ersoff, an attorney for the owner and property management company, said her clients declined to comment.
Government inspectors have documented roaches, a broken gate, and rat feces at the property where Patricia and Elijah live.
Macías, typically mild-mannered, is furious that her landlords haven’t fixed the problems. “I have so much anger. Oh my god. Because I feel like I have my son’s life in my hands,” she said.
The roaches, in particular, are a nightmare. “There are many times that they fell on my son’s face, or on his body,” she said, adding that they have climbed into her hair. Macias sent pictures of roaches, including one shot of a trap with dozens of dead roaches on it.
Roaches and their feces can trigger respiratory issues. And asthma attacks have sent Elijah to the hospital.
His doctors have written the landlords several times. A November 2019 doctor’s letter said:
“Roaches are a known cause of asthma attacks and Elijah recently had a severe asthma attack that required steroids and multiple clinic visits. For his ongoing safety the apartment needs to be free of vermin. Please ensure the apartment is properly cleaned in a safe manner.”
Macías says things haven’t improved.
The stress of caring for her son, staying safe from coronavirus, and living in an unhealthy environment is eating at Macías. “There is a monster on top of me day and night, day and night,” she said.
Even before the pandemic, unhealthy housing was an issue across Southern California. According to 2017 data from the American Housing Survey,180,000 units of rental housing in the Los Angeles-Long Beach Metro area were moderately or severely inadequate.
That’s roughly 8% of rental units. Inadequacy can include everything from water leaks to exposed wiring to a lack of ventilation.
“In better times, housing quality is important. But if you’re exposed to indoor conditions that may cause other kinds of health effects, that’s a concern,” said Carlos Martín of the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research center.
He added that with temperatures rising, homes lacking air-conditioning — nearly 30% of rental units in Los Angeles-Long Beach don’t have A/C — could leave Angelenos in peril during heat waves.
“These are all sort of the crises that people are dealing with. Particularly renters, who may have just lost their income as well,” Martín said.
Lead, meanwhile, is an insidious and invisible threat — it has no smell and can’t be detected by the naked eye. And it’s widespread. The CDC says half a million children have dangerous levels of lead in their blood. Low-income children of color are especially at risk of lead poisoning.
The risks of lead, black mold and poor ventilation are well known to workers at St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in South Los Angeles. They say that medical issues stemming from COVID-19 go beyond the virus itself.
“We are seeing a rise in certain types of conditions, exacerbations of asthma, anxiety, and stress levels,” said Sharine Forbes, the center’s director of chronic disease management and health equity.
On top of all that, Southern California is an epicenter of overcrowding. “You have some people who are living in a two-bedroom unit, but you have eight people in that two-bedroom unit,” said Holly Martin, who helps St. John’s patients find housing. Overcrowded homes in L.A. could contribute to the spread of the virus.
NO REPAIRS, NO END IN SIGHT
Repairs have emerged as a gray area during the pandemic. Emergency maintenance is on hold at many properties. And the presence of maintenance workers could potentially spread the virus. The California Apartment Association recommends that landlords make judgement calls about what work is essential: fix overflowing toilets and broken heaters, yes, but defer paint jobs and appliance upgrades.
Still, several tenants I spoke with said they have been unable to get essential maintenance during the coronavirus.
“We don’t even have hot water over here,” said one Northeast L.A. father, who has been unable to get repairs since moving in two months ago. His daughters can’t sleep in their bedroom, due to water leaks from recent rainstorms, and mold (see video). The renter asked that his name be withheld, for fear of reprisal.
“I have been trying to get some maintenance issues in the bathroom resolved since January, with no resolution,” said Victor Nicassio, who lives in Highland Park and works at a hospital kitchen.
“The fuses in the electrical panel go off quite often because the panel is substandard and this represents a fire hazard,” El Monte renter Robert Cuadra wrote in a letter to his landlord. He said it hasn’t been fixed.
With tenants at home nearly 24 hours a day, there could be added wear and tear on buildings, the Urban Institute’s Carlos Martín said, accelerating the need for repairs.
Renter Patricia Macías said that planned maintenance at her unit was cancelled in March. In addition to keeping her son Elijah healthy and occupied while school is out, she has focused on minimizing risks around the apartment. That means steering Elijah away from areas with lead paint, setting out roach poisons, and vacuuming often.
“I do all this work because I want my son to be safe,” she said.
But there’s only so much Macías can control, as she and her son sit out the pandemic at home. A January test found lead in their living room and both bedrooms.
“We’re in the middle of COVID-19. Where am I going to go? Where am I going to take my child?” she asked. “I’m trying to keep him safe in here.”
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2020 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.