When Maria got an eviction notice telling her she had to be out of her Redwood City apartment by late February, she thought something seemed fishy.
She contacted housing attorneys, who confirmed to her landlord that the notice was not served legally and she didn’t have to move out right away.
Her landlord responded with a text message threatening to call immigration authorities on Maria if she didn’t comply, saying it was a “duty” to report anyone who is undocumented.
A second text from the landlord referenced Maria’s attorney, Daniel Saver, who works for an East Palo Alto nonprofit law firm.
The landlord warned of reporting Saver to the State Bar of California “for helping his clients who illegally live in the United States of America,” according to text message correspondence Saver sent to a legislative committee in March.
The text continued: “I believe the State Bar of California will be interested (in) my complaint, under the new leadership of our president.”
“This has gotten pretty pervasive,” said Saver, a lawyer at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto.
Even before Donald Trump’s presidency, landlords across California were capitalizing on the state’s tight housing market by jacking up rent, delaying costly health and safety repairs and evicting tenants to move in higher-income renters, housing attorneys say. But since Trump took office, they say, tenant harassment, intimidation and discrimination have gotten worse – especially in immigrant communities throughout California, from Los Angeles and the Central Valley to the Bay Area and Sacramento.
“It isn’t anything new that immigrant tenants are threatened by landlords, or that they’re fearful about complaining about unhealthy conditions or asserting their rights,” Saver said. “What has changed now is the tenor of those threats and the brazenness of landlords who make those threats. That has shifted in the Trump era. This is not anything we’ve ever seen before.”
Backing up lawyers’ reports with specific data is difficult. No agencies track data on the reasons people are evicted or loss of housing due to someone’s immigration status. And immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, are reluctant to come forward out of heightened concern that they, or their family members, will face repercussions. The Sacramento Bee agreed to use the pseudonym Maria, which Saver used in his testimony, because she is fearful of being identified by immigration authorities.
State and federal fair housing laws, however, cover undocumented immigrants and make it illegal to discriminate against someone based on their race, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, disability and more. Still, some state lawmakers say California must strengthen tenant protections.
Estimates show California is home to roughly 2.5 million undocumented immigrants.
“Most of them are renters, and landlords almost always known the immigration status of their tenants. They are even more vulnerable than other low-income tenants because they have this fear of being deported or their landlord reporting them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” said Jith Meganathan, an attorney and policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
“We’d like to think this is happening in the dusty corners of the San Joaquin Valley, where there are more farmworkers, but it’s happening everywhere – Silicon Valley, Oakland, throughout Los Angeles, on the Peninsula and in the East Bay,” Meganathan said. “It’s all since November, with the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from this new administration. Many more of these threats are being made, often times with invocations of Trump.”
Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, said something must be done to to help tenants facing extreme rent increases, evictions and deportation threats. He has proposed legislation that seeks to prevent landlords from threatening to report tenants to immigration authorities or disclosing their immigration status themselves.
“Since Election Day last year, it has not been an easy time to be an immigrant in our country. For immigrant tenants, in particular, it has been a frightening time,” Chiu said. “We don’t think anyone should live in fear.”
State and federal fair housing laws prohibit discrimination based on race or national origin, disability status, sexual orientation and gender. Assembly Bill 291 from Chiu would strengthen those laws by:
▪ Prohibiting landlords from threatening to report tenants to immigration authorities, either in retaliation for asserting their rights or to evict them.
▪ Bar landlords from disclosing a tenant’s immigration status.
▪ Allow tenants to sue landlords who disclose their immigration status to law enforcement.
▪ Prohibit questions about a tenant’s immigration status during a trial.
▪ Prohibit attorneys from reporting or threatening to report the immigration status of people involved in housing cases.
The California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation is a co-sponsor of the bill along with the Western Center on Law and Poverty.