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Unpermitted living quarters a hazard in Coachella, but are fueled by lack of affordable housing

January 6, 2017

Anna Rumer , The Desert Sun Published 12:07 p.m. PT Jan. 6, 2017 | Updated 3:02 p.m. PT Jan. 6, 2017

 

The last person in Tony Montano's Coachella home to shower gets the "rancho" experience, he jokes -- cold, short and generally unpleasant. So he, his brother and the tenant they found online have a rotating bathing schedule to make the experience equitable.

The three-bedroom, two-bath home the trio lives in on Calle Mendoza belongs to Montano's mother, who used to rent the home out before it burnt down a few years ago. After rebuilding, the brothers moved in, but needed a third person to fill the remaining gap, both spatially and financially. Montano and his brother are heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration technicians, a profession that just over a decade ago would have allowed them to live alone in separate houses, but now requires their less-than-ideal arrangement.

"The housing pricing is just beyond my reach, no matter what I do," he said. "You can't get nothing for $90,000, there's not a house in the valley for that. If I can get one, it's gonna be a place where the roof is falling in."

Montano charges his tenant $450 a month for a bedroom and bathroom, a purposely low price after he himself rented a small bedroom and shared a bathroom for the "crazy" price of $500 a month before moving into his mother's house. The rent money might not be much, but it will go toward helping him and his brother buy their own homes one day, Montano hopes.

"That's our goal, to find our own house, but it's really hard," he said. "That extra money from the renter definitely helps me, because I can throw a little money into savings each paycheck."

The cold showers and cramped quarters might not be ideal, but many in the Eastern Coachella Valley are worse off than Montano, cramming two or more families into one home or converting areas such as the garage into additional rooms due to a lack of affordable housing. At the least, operating beyond the city's building codes open people up to fines and legal action by the cities in which they live, but there is always the possibility of things ending much more tragically, like when a fire ripped through a converted Oakland warehouse on Dec. 2, killing 36 people. While Coachella officials work to understand the housing needs of their largely low-income population, they also must balance fears for their residents' safety. READ MORE: Oakland fire puts spotlight on lack of affordable spaces for artists

Coachella is easily one of the poorest cities in the Coachella Valley -- the U.S. Census estimates that its median household income is just over $39,200 a year -- and thousands of migrant agricultural workers stream into the city every year to work for a minimal wage. In Nov. 2015, real estate tracker Trulia.com estimated that the median price of a home within Coachella was $240,000 and the median rent was $1,700 a month. Moving to somewhere more affordable like Cabazon, which has a median home price of $127,000 and $1,162 a month rent, can suck up almost as much money when you add in commuting to work in the west valley.

"You have desperate people who need a place to live," said Julie Bornstein, executive director of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition. "They can fall prey to unscrupulous landlords who have substandard housing and will pack too many people into a home."

Bornstein and her colleagues at the housing coalition help low-income people across Riverside and Imperial counties move from unsafe or unstable housing into affordable rental complexes or take the steps needed to build or buy their own homes. So far, the organization has built more than 4,000 multi and single-family residences, including almost 2,500 rental units and a 128-bed migrant farm worker community in Mecca, making it one of the largest providers of affordable housing across both counties.

A lack of housing for low-income families isn't new, Bornstein said. Even pre-recession, she remembers seeing developers advertising for 11-bedroom houses.

One of the problems the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition frequently sees is a high number of people crammed into a small home. The Coachella Valley Housing Coalition works to get people out of unsafe and out-of-compliance housing and into an affordable home. (Photo: Courtesy of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition)

"That's not because the American family is getting bigger, it's because they were going to put two families in that house despite the fact it was zoned single-family," she said. "If everything is market rate and people are desperate, they're putting two families in a one family house or they convert a garage (into a bedroom) and get rental income to afford their mortgage payment." These small deviations from city code may seem minor, but can add up to something that could cause a real fire hazard, said CalFire Battalion Chief Scott McLean, like in the instance of the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, which had been the subject of a blight investigation prior to the fire and was not zoned for housing.

"The codes are in place to make it into a safe situation," McLean said. "This is all a thought-out process; this is all investigated. If you don't meet those guidelines, of course (safety procedures) aren't going to do what they need to do."

In the example of a garage-turned-bedroom, McLean said he can think of a number of problems off the top of his head, including an inadequate number of exits or fire suppression and detection units. There's also the issue of possibly exposed electrical wiring, improperly hooked-up gas connections or structural supports, according to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

For years, Coachella City Council has worked to combat these unpermitted and unsafe structures, even passing an ordinance that would allow homeowners in certain areas of the city to come into compliance with the city's building code without facing costly fines or potential demolition orders. READ MORE: Education boosts eastern Coachella Valley

Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez said his concern comes from the potential safety and health problems that can come with violating city codes. Not only is there concern over fire, but also for first responders unaware of the home's unusual layout and the people living in a place that might not be checked by emergency personnel in case of a fire.

Hernandez said the council didn't want to be "naive" in denying that these structures and living situations exist, but also didn't want to unnecessarily punish its constituents who are trying to get by while dealing with poverty and a lack of accessible and affordable housing. Through the city's program, residents who have already built something without a permit are given a time extension and administrative assistance in order to comply with building codes so as not to face the possible thousands of dollars in fines. While Hernandez said he does think people know about the program, barriers to completion such as money for additional construction and a lack of suitable parking have made it an underutilized option.

"This does become a housing problem, which is pretty well-documented in the Coachella Valley," Hernandez said. "We haven't had a discussion about affordable housing in the desert ... and when you look at the valley, we really are spatially mismatched."

Coachella officials are working to encourage developments within the city, with affordable units in the Coachella Valley Apartments scheduled for construction soon, but pushing for housing opportunities for low-income people has to be a priority all the way up to the county level, Hernandez said. "I understand we can't fix everything in one day ... but I'm a big believer that public policy, when done right, can address these problems," he said. "At the end of the day, public policy matters and housing policy matters."

The Coachella Valley Housing Coalition works to get people out of unsafe and out-of-compliance housing and into an affordable home. (Photo: Courtesy of the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition)

Anna Rumer is a reporter covering the Eastern Coachella Valley for The Desert Sun. She can be reached at (760) 285-5490, anna.rumer@desertsun.com or on Twitter @AnnaRumer.

 




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