The weary mother of three, wearing hand-me-down sweatpants and a faded T-shirt, nearly dropped the basket of clothes when she saw the notice on the aging apartment complex laundry door in Santa Ana.
The thick capital letters seemed to speak directly to her: "ALL CHILDREN WILL NO LONGER BE ALLOWED TO PLAY OUTSIDE ... "
Maria Gomez, 33, scurried back to her two-bedroom apartment and her three children, ages 7, 9 and 13, with the news. Her mind flashed back to when her last landlord evicted the family for breaking similar rules.
Gomez, like thousands of others across Southern California, lives in an apartment complex that caters to large immigrant families and bans children from playing on apartment grounds. Landlords impose fines and even evict tenants whose children play outside. Even though such punishments often violate housing laws, tenants say they feel powerless to complain for fear of losing their apartment or -- in some cases -- having their illegal immigration status exposed.
Families "are living under lockdown in many apartment complexes," said Elizabeth Pierson, president and chief executive officer of the Fair Housing Council of Orange County. "Fining families and other overly egregious acts against families is becoming more common."
Apartment managers and landlords say restrictions are needed because immigrant families often allow their children to play unsupervised. Noisy, unruly children can create liability problems for the landlords and discourage prospective tenants from moving in, they say.
Parents "shove the kid out the door and expect the manager to watch over their kids," said landlord Ray Maggi, who owns a large apartment building in Santa Ana where he made a playground for tenants.
"In the Hispanic culture, they have more children and they are more apt to let them run loose. We don't see that in many complexes where there is ... a greater cross-section of people."
Restrictions "come out of frustration," he said. "Managers don't want to overly discipline kids. But they need to respond when there's no supervision by parents."
The nonprofit Housing Rights Center in Los Angeles received 254 complaints related to landlords' bans on children's activities in 2005. In Orange County, about 50 such complaints were received by the Orange County Fair Housing Council in the fiscal year ending June 30.
The federal Fair Housing Act and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibit discrimination against families.
Landlords can't lawfully ban children from playing on the apartment grounds, legal experts say, though they can prohibit all tenants from using the outdoor space.
Yet in many cases, children are the targets of notices to tenants. In a recent letter to tenants at the Avalon Townhouse Apartments in Tustin, manager Ginny Mueller said children could no longer play outside.
"Due to all the candy wrappers, cups ... gum, trash, etc.... all children will no longer be allowed to play outside of their rental unit," Mueller wrote. "Parents, you need to teach your children to have respect for themselves and others."
Mueller and employer Sterling Property Management did not return calls seeking comment.
In other apartment complexes, children are banned from playing outside at any time or must abide by curfews. Fines can range from $25 to $150 for infractions, according to tenants at several apartment complexes. Other times, managers ask parents on month-to-month leases to leave within 30 days.
"What is going on with these kids is completely unfair," said Cristina Jose, director of family programs at Latino Health Access, a nonprofit organization in Santa Ana. "We know our kids are supposed to exercise but there is no place to do it. How are they supposed to exercise, jump on the couch?"
That's the concern of Maria Sotelo, 32, who works nights while her husband works days.
Sotelo said she was willing to risk fines and eviction for letting her children play in her Tustin apartment complex. The children play on several long concrete paths, a 16-square-foot plot of grass, as well as on communal staircases."What else can I do?" Sotelo asked. "Walk around with no sleep? Keep them indoors?"
Sotelo said it was too far for the children, ages 6 and 8, to go to the nearest park, about a mile away, by themselves.
She said she had been warned about her children playing and had been fined $75 when they damaged shrubs while playing in common areas of her complex. She said she couldn't move because she didn't have deposit money for another place.
The Apartment Assn. of Orange County attempts to show landlords and managers how to walk the fine line between control and discrimination. The association conducts fair housing classes for landlords and resident managers.
"There is an industrywide push to make sure the good landlords and managers are doing things that are not discriminatory," said Dean Zarkos, association president. "Rules and kids are one aspect of that."