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Sick, Old and Facing Eviction : Dilemma Is Seen as Part of Larger Problem

September 03, 1989|TINA DAUNT | Times Staff Writer

NORWALK — It was the spring of 1975 when Gladys Jenkins moved into a small, three-bedroom home in a quiet neighborhood not far from downtown.

It was the perfect place to retire, Jenkins, then 64, told her children. She could spend her afternoons baking bread or relaxing with her friends on the porch. And the rent was reasonable: $250 a month.

But Jenkins' dreams have been shattered. She was stricken with Alzheimer's disease. And the rent and operating expenses of the little home have become too high for her fixed income.

On Sept. 20, Jenkins and her daughter, who shares the house with her mother so she can take care of her, are scheduled to be evicted.

Fighting for Home

The landlord said they have not paid rent since May. Jenkins' daughter, Faye Zamora, said they failed to pay only in June, and that they are being unfairly thrown out so the landlord can raise the rent. There has been only one rent increase--to $580--since Jenkins moved into the house 14 years ago, Zamora said.

Their story has become all too familiar, said Anthony A. Ayala, the coordinator of the Norwalk senior citizen center. He said he has seen about 40 similar cases in the past three years.

Elderly people come to him with the same problem: they are being evicted because they have fallen behind in their rent.

Ayala said the problem often starts when landlords realize that they could be getting more for their rental property. Since elderly people tend to live in one place for a long time, the rent increases often do not keep pace with the market.

"You get a situation where an elderly person may be paying $125 rent for a house," Ayala said. "Then, all of a sudden, the landlord raises the rent to $425."

Rent Increase Has Major Impact

Although $425 a month for rent is still low by Los Angeles standards, such an increase can be devastating for an elderly person who has an income of $600 a month, Ayala said.

When the elderly person misses a payment, the landlord often has no mercy, Ayala said. He evicts the tenant and increases the rent for the next one.

"It's just not right," Zamora said. She said she receives some money from the government for taking care of her mother. They live on about $1,000 a month with their incomes combined. They are barely getting by, Zamora said.

Zamora said her mother is only vaguely aware of their difficulties.

"I try to shield her from it," Zamora said. "It could be devastating to her illness."

Zamora said the problems between her and her landlord, Rick Magdaleno, started several months ago when Zamora found her mother's lease.

According to the lease, Zamora said, Magdaleno should have been paying the water bills, which Zamora says she's been paying. She said the bills mysteriously top $100 some months. Zamora said she is trying to find out why the bills are so high. When she asked Magdaleno to reimburse her about $6,000 for past water bills, Magdaleno became upset, Zamora said.

Magdaleno said during an interview that Zamora is responsible for the water bills because of a verbal agreement he made with Zamora's brother, Bill, who used to share the house with Jenkins.

"In 1983 we gave Bill a choice," Magdaleno said. "We told him he could start paying for the water bills, or we would have to raise the rent."

Bill chose to pay the water bills, Magdaleno said.

Zamora said she fell behind on the rent payments in June because she had to pay a $130 water bill.

After Zamora missed the rent payment, Magdaleno obtained eviction papers. Zamora said she tried to pay Magdaleno a portion of the overdue rent, but he would not take the payment.

"That shows me he just wants us out," she said.

Landlord's Position

Magdaleno said he is tired of looking like the bad guy. His said his father died of cancer several years ago, and he needs the rent money to support his elderly mother.

"I'm not a bank and I'm not a charitable organization," Magdaleno said. "The current market value of that house is $950 to $1,100 a month (in rent). They're paying $580, about 41% less (than what the house is worth.) We've gone above and beyond for them and they still can't pay on time."

Zamora said she plans to fight the eviction in court.

There is a 90% chance the judge will rule in favor of Magdaleno, said Lisa Korben, a staff member of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, a group that provides legal support for people fighting evictions.

"They are not going to make exceptions just because this person is old and lives on $600 a month," Korben said. Instead, the judge will probably conclude that the tenant broke a written, legally binding lease agreement, she said.

Negotiations Sought

Zamora also is trying to get Magdaleno to negotiate with her before Norwalk's landlord/tenant board, but Magdaleno says he will not negotiate.

Peter Sonnenfeld, the program coordinator for the Norwalk Consumer/Rental Negotiation Board, said mediation boards cannot force landlords to compromise.

"We have no legal power, Sonnenfeld said. As a result, he said, "the tenants fall by the wayside."

Zamora said she has looked for alternate housing but has found nothing they can afford. She refuses to place her mother in a nursing home because she believes it is her duty to take care of her.

According to Korben, government housing takes six months to a year to obtain. Low-rent senior citizen apartments usually have a long waiting list.

"I have to endure," Zamora said. "I have a life to look after."

But Zamora said she believes that they will be thrown out of the house.

Sonnenfeld said Zamora's and Jenkins' case is a perfect example of how the system breaks down for elderly people caught in the trap of high rental prices in Los Angeles.

"There's very little for us to do," Sonnenfeld said. "There's not enough affordable housing. People here live worse than they do in developing countries. Where will they go? God only knows."

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