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Red tagged and homeless

by Michael MooreMorgan Hill Times
August 5th, 2011

The Velasquez family has lived in a van the last two weeks after the home they rented was "red-tagged" for unsafe building code violations.

The Morgan Hill family of six, which includes four boys age 10 to 18, is seeking any assistance they can find in the local high-priced rental market. They have already sold almost all their possessions they don't need, exhausted the assistance they were eligible for through the city, and now rely on the kindness of relatives and friends to gain just a temporary roof over their heads.

Earlier this week a hand-written sign on a piece of brown cardboard, tacked to a tree in the Church Street home's front yard read, "Thanks to the city of Morgan Hill we are homeless." On Wednesday the family, who has lived in the home about two years, tried to sell the last of their belongings in the latest of a series of recent moving sales. This time everything, including tools, an outdoor portable grill, clothing, furniture and two small television sets, was going for $1.

Father Antonio Velasquez, 50, said he has already sold all his tools in an effort to raise money for a new place. They have nowhere to shower or cook. They have eaten at Togo's, where both parents work, almost daily since they were forced to move into their mini-van in the backyard of the property near the intersection of San Pedro Avenue.

"I don't know what to do," said mother Evelyn Velasquez, 47. "I have to go look for a place, but the registration on my van is expired. My kids are traumatized."

Antonio Velasquez added it's essential they find a place before school starts for the sake of the four boys who attend Morgan Hill Unified schools.

The "red tag" notice on the home's front window - posted July 21 by the city's building division staff - lists a number of hazards making it unsafe to live in. "Unsanitary conditions" including a sewer leak, an illegal structural addition with substandard foundation and broken windows were listed as the reasons for the red tag.

About "two or three times a year" a building in Morgan Hill is red-tagged for unsafe or unhealthy conditions, City Manager Ed Tewes said. It's part of the city's building code, and a red tag means the building is unsafe to occupy until the violations are remedied.

"A red tag means there are serious public health or life safety matters," Tewes said, though he declined to comment on the specific facts of the Church Street case because it is still open.

The property owner is responsible for remediation, which can consist of one of three options - make repairs, fence off the unsafe structure or demolish it, said Tewes. The property owner has not yet decided how she will correct the violations.

Though the Velasquez' said they were given "30 minutes" to get their belongings out of the home when it was red-tagged, Tewes said the notice was preceded by a "yellow tag" for about two weeks. Per the city's building code, a yellow tag serves as a kind of warning, allowing residents to occupy the home only to remove their possessions.

The Velasquez' tried to do that. They also received some help from the city, which offers emergency housing assistance for residents in such situations. That includes hotel vouchers, housing counseling and other services through Project Sentinel, Tewes said.

The Velasquez' said they received a hotel voucher for only one night from the city. They can't afford to stay at area motels, which require them to rent at least two rooms because of their numbers. They have applied for rental units at apartment complexes, but those require an application fee of about $30, which adds up after multiple applications, Antonio Velasquez said. He tried to sleep in a tent in the home's front yard the first two nights they were homeless, but it quickly became occupied by spiders.

They have also tried to reach out to churches in south Santa Clara County, but they are often met with skepticism and Gilroy service agencies are not responsive to Morgan Hill residents, said Evelyn Velasquez, who is a manager at Togo's in Vineyard Town Center. Wednesday night her sister-in-law put the family up at a hotel.

The owner of the property, Lena Le, said the Velasquez' caused the building code violations. She said she has asked them to leave previously, but not through formal legal means.

"They made a mess out of my house," Le said. "I don't know what to do. Right now we are working with some lawyers to see what we can do." She added that the tenants allowed more people to live on the property than she permitted.

The tenants dispute those claims. Evelyn Velasquez said the backyard was cleaner Wednesday than when the family moved in two years ago, and the property doesn't have enough room to house anyone else.

"I have four boys, and I know I shouldn't have anybody else living here. There's only one bathroom so it would be really crowded. Would I have people take a number?" she laughed.

Antonio Velasquez added that his brother-in-law fixed the plumbing problems at the house, but the landlord refused to reimburse the tenant for the repairs.

The family has not paid this month's $1,150 rent, and by California law they might have gotten away without paying rent as soon as the building code violations became apparent.

When a rental housing structure is red-tagged and the property owner is at fault for the violations, the landlord is responsible for making repairs, according to California Apartment Association community affairs director Kirsten Carr.

The tenant does not have to pay rent until the violations are corrected, Carr added.

"A landlord has the responsibility to make sure a property or home is safe for people to live there, and it complies with all codes," Carr said.

However, she added, many cases end up in dispute between the renter and landlord, and the CAA encourages mediation in such situations.

Tenants left homeless can also seek relocation assistance from the Housing Industry Foundation, Carr said.

In the meantime, the family is upset as they try to avoid getting mired in a circle of blame.

Wednesday afternoon, as he was moving some of the family's things into the van on their way to the evening's motel room, Antonio Velasquez pointed to a corner of the back yard, tucked against the fence and equipped with a lawn chair with a sheet hanging above it for shade.

"Some days all I can do is sit there and think, 'What am I going to do?'" Velasquez said.

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