Any effort to end substandard housing is worth it


Friday’s Free Lance story about substandard housing victims in
Hollister touches many people and has ramifications for us all.
Friday’s Free Lance story about substandard housing victims in Hollister touches many people and has ramifications for us all.

For more than a year, 18 people had lived in a house and its garage on East Street, and some of the 18 had lived there much longer. Seven of the residents were children between 2 and 11. The house was cluttered and was found to have many safety violations. It was condemned and its residents given 72 hours to find other places to live.

Although it seems easy to assign blame in this instance, it is much harder to arrive at answers that can prevent similar situations from arising. There is no magic wand that can be waved to dismiss the problem and it will be difficult to even alleviate it.

Some of the evicted residents did not feel the landlord had done anything wrong and were puzzled about why they were being forced to quit the premises. No matter how squalid their surroundings may seem to many of us, it represented home to them.

Almost all the evicted residents are from Mexico and most do not speak English. Their latest confrontation with authorities has made them even more distrustful of a society whose laws they must perceive as weighted against them.

If this was an isolated case it would be bad enough, but a church advocate estimated that as many as 25 percent of local residents – including unreported immigrants – are living in homes that are in violation of health and safety regulations, which is insupportable in any society.

There are some villains and even some heroes in this tragedy, but many more victims. Building Code Enforcement Officer Tim Burns said, “We’re not the bad guy in this thing. We had to do what’s necessary.” There is no argument about that because the premises were unhealthy and dangerous. Even so, Ray Proffitt, Hollister’s senior building official, and his aides were clearly uncomfortable in turning out the families.

Some landlords, those termed “slumlords,” exploit Mexican tenants because they know that most will not lodge complaints with officials. They charge exorbitant rents and are slow to make needed repairs because it would lower their profits. They deserve whatever penalty they get.

But there is a danger when righting wrongs to tar all landlords with the same brush. Some will turn their eyes aside, say, if a family of four who live in two rooms allow a cousin to stay there awhile until he finds a job to pay for a place of his own. In many cases, landlords would have had to spend thousands of dollars to bring a rental to utopian conditions but rented it without full compliance because a family sorely needed it. That is why it is vital to judge each case individually and to determine if the landlord was motivated by greed or by compassion.

Some observers shrug it off and say, “Let them go back to their own country.” Their ancestors had the same answer for the Irish, eastern Europeans, Chinese and other nationalities that sought an opportunity in the New World that they did not have in their native countries. Fortunately, no one listened to them and America profited from the infusion of new blood.

Some organizations such as LULAC and the California Rural Legal Assistance Association are looking for answers and a few private citizens are doing what they can to help the evicted residents. It is expected others learning the depth the plight will step forward.

But progress in this vast social problem will be measured by short steps rather than by long strides. It will take patience, compassion and the willingness to be resilient, and some people will have to review their assessments of “those people” learned at their grandfather’s knee.

Any effort given will be worth it. There are men, women and children out there who want to participate in their adopted country’s way of life, even as you and we and our families.

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