Richmond renter sues former landlord amid pandemic-era spike in harassment
on November 5, 2021
These days Clara Realageno sleeps in her car.
In the morning she packs up her things — a pillow, blankets, a suitcase and some toiletries — and drops them off at a friend’s house so they don’t get stolen while she’s at work.
It’s been five months since Realageno’s landlord evicted her by changing the locks to her studio in Richmond. With nowhere else to go, Realageno now spends most nights in her backseat.
In September, Realageno sued her former landlords, Gabriel and Ibeth Lopez, in Contra Costa County Superior Court, alleging the lock-out was the culmination of months of harassment, threats and intimidation.
“Honestly, this is shocking that somebody thinks that they can get away with it,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, one of Realageno’s attorneys. “It’s absolutely 100%, [in] every context, illegal for them to go in and change locks.”
In an interview, Gabriel Lopez admitted to breaking in and changing the locks of Realageno’s unit. He disputed her other claims about threats and intimidation.
Realageno has joined a growing chorus of tenants across the East Bay who contend their landlords have harassed them during the pandemic.
Between March 2020 and June 2021, the Oakland-based Centro Legal de la Raza saw a 70% increase in tenants reaching out to report landlord harassment. In Concord, the number of tenants calling advocacy group Monument Impact tripled between June 2020 and June 2021.
In Richmond, landlord harassment doesn’t appear to be on the rise but is a chronic complaint, according to Nicolas Traylor, executive director of the city’s Rent Program.
Of the 450 or so counseling cases the program handles each month, a third to a half involve tenant harassment, according to a July 2021 memo by City Council members Gayle McLaughlin and Melvin Willis. Traylor said that’s on par with pre-pandemic cases.
While the eviction moratorium that California put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic expired in September, Richmond’s own moratorium continues to shield renters against eviction for many reasons, although not for missing future rent payments.
For Realageno, her first priority has always been supporting her family. She sends money to her mother and 9-year-old son in El Salvador that she earns as a housecleaner, a job she’s had for six years.
In August 2017, Realageno moved into a small studio in the Richmond house where the
Lopezes also lived.
“Everything was fine,” she said in an interview, through a translator. “I had no issues up until 2020.”
But when the pandemic started, Realageno watched many of her cleaning jobs dry up. She says her income plunged to 20% of what it was before the pandemic.
In her court complaint, Realageno said she shared this information with her landlords. But that November, she said, Gabriel Lopez asked her for an additional $150 per month. Realageno told him that she couldn’t pay the increase.
“They didn’t seem to care,” Realageno said. “If I was staying there, they wanted me to pay more.”
Last spring, she said, the Lopezes tried to raise the rent again, this time by $200.
After speaking with the Richmond Rent Program, Realageno said she told Gabriel Lopez that she would not pay the increased rent. She also reduced her payment to 25% — the minimum required of tenants under California’s eviction moratorium to avoid eviction for nonpayment of rent.
On May 1, the Lopezes gave Realageno a 30-day eviction notice.
“You’re being aggressive and being disrespectful and very difficult to talk to,” they wrote in the notice, which is included in court documents.
The letter did not state a legal cause for eviction — which is required in eviction notices — or explain why the notice would be exempt from state or local eviction moratoriums.
According to the complaint, the Lopezes also did not file the required notice of termination of tenancy with the Richmond Rent Board.
They did threaten to call the police, Realageno said.
The Lopezes had not yet filed a response to the lawsuit Thursday. But Gabriel Lopez said in a recent interview that he did not tell Realageno that she would have to move out if she couldn’t pay more rent. And he said he never threatened her with the police.
“Things were heated at this point. I was very scared.”Clara Realageno
In the 30 days after the Lopezes issued the eviction notice, the complaint alleges that Gabriel Lopez tore up one of Realageno’s rent checks, changed the locks on her mailbox, yelled and swore at her as he pulled his vehicle into the driveway, and banged on the wall of her unit. Realageno said she was so worried that she installed security cameras inside her apartment.
“Things were very heated at this point,” she said. “I was very scared.”
In the interview, Lopez disputed allegations that he tore up Realageno’s checks, threatened to call the police, yelled at her or banged on her walls.
On May 30, Realageno was at work when she got notification that her cameras had picked up movement. She checked the monitor on her phone and saw that it was Gabriel Lopez. He entered her unit and changed the locks on her door.
Realageno called Edith Pastrano, a Contra Costa County organizer with the tenants’ rights group the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. They called the police. But when officers showed up, Pastrano said they advised Realageno to leave for her safety.
That night, Realageno slept in her car. All of her possessions were still locked in her apartment.
“I didn’t have toothpaste, I didn’t have my stuff, I didn’t have anything,” she said.
Lopez said he and his wife should have taken more time to learn about city and state housing laws before locking Realageno out of her unit.
“Not getting knowledge legally, you know, like not informing ourselves,” he said, “that was our mistake.”
“Of course, she’s the victim. She’s the tenant, and I’m the landlord.”Gabriel Lopez
But Lopez stands by most of his actions.
“When I changed the lock, I thought she was going to come and knock on my door and would, you know, come to the conclusion,” he said. “We would talk and everything would have been fine.”
“Of course, she’s the victim,” Lopez added. “She’s the tenant, and I’m the landlord.”
Richmond and other cities have moved to strengthen protections for tenants. In July, a 6-1 majority of the Richmond City Council approved the Tenant Anti-Harassment Ordinance. The law, introduced by McLaughlin and Willis, defines a range of harassing behaviors and bars landlords from doing any of them “in bad faith.”
“Your landlord should not be displacing you,” McLaughlin said at a news conference held by Realageno’s attorneys in September. “That ends up with more homelessness. That ends up with people in dire straits, with more problems than they already have.”
Richmond’s ordinance follows similar laws in Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco and Santa Monica, which all prohibit various forms of landlord harassment.
Realageno’s lawsuit is scheduled to start with a conference in January. In the meantime, life continues.
She wakes up in the morning, packs up her belongings, drops them off at her friend’s house in San Pablo and heads to work. On Sundays, she goes to church. And now she’s looking into taking classes for cosmetology.
Realageno talks to her son every day. She left El Salvador when he was just 18 months old and has watched him grow up over video and phone calls.
“He knows me, he knows that I’m his mom,” Realageno said. “But I just haven’t been able to be there in real life.”
Sometimes she wonders if it’s all been worth it.
“It’s very difficult, you know, but you do it for the love,” Realageno said. “That’s what keeps you going.”
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