Richmond tenant sues former landlord amid peak of harassment in pandemic era

These days Clara Realageno sleeps in her car.

In the morning, she packs her things – a pillow, blankets, a suitcase and 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 the owner of Realageno kicked her out by changing the locks on her studio in Richmond. With nowhere to go, Realageno now spends most nights in his backseat.

In September, Realageno sued its former owners, Gabriel and Ibeth Lopez, in Contra Costa County Superior Court, alleging the lockout was the culmination of months of harassment, threats and intimidation.

“Honestly, it’s shocking that someone thinks they can get away with this,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, one of Realageno’s attorneys. “It’s absolutely 100%, [in] in all contexts, it is illegal for them to enter and change locks.

Clara Realageno is suing her owner, after being evicted and forced to sleep in her car. (Kori Suzuki)

In an interview, Gabriel Lopez admitted to breaking into and changing the locks on Realageno’s unit. He disputed his other allegations regarding threats and intimidation.

Realageno has joined a growing chorus of tenants across East Bay who claim their landlords harassed them during the pandemic.

Between March 2020 and June 2021, the Oakland-based Centro Legal de la Raza saw a 70% increase in the number of tenants reaching out to report landlord harassment. In Concord, the number of tenants calling the Monument Impact advocacy group tripled between June 2020 and June 2021.

In Richmond, landlord harassment does not 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 approximately 450 counseling cases the program processes each month, one-third to one-half involve harassment of tenants, according to a July 2021 memo from city council members Gayle McLaughlin and Melvin Willis. Traylor said it was on par with pre-pandemic cases.

While the moratorium on evictions that California put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic expired in September, Richmond’s own moratorium continues to protect tenants from evictions for many reasons, but not for lack of future rent payments.

For Realageno, his first priority has always been to support his family. She sends money to her mother and 9-year-old son in El Salvador, which she earns as a housekeeper, a job she has held for six years.

In August 2017, Realageno moved into a small studio in the Richmond home where the
Lopezes also lived.

“Everything was fine,” she said in an interview, through a translator. “I had no problem until 2020.”

Harassment of owners
Clara Realageno, her lawyers and tenant advocates outside the George D. Carroll courthouse in Richmond. (Kori Suzuki)

But when the pandemic began, Realageno saw a lot of its cleanup work dry up. She says her income has plunged to 20% of what it was before the pandemic.

In its court complaint, Realageno said it shared this information with its owners. But in November, she said, Gabriel Lopez asked her an additional $ 150 per month. Realageno told her that she could not afford the increase.

“They didn’t seem to care,” Realageno said. “If I stayed there they wanted me to pay more. “

Last spring, she said, the Lopezes attempted 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 rent increase. She also reduced her payment to 25% – the minimum required of tenants under California’s eviction moratorium to avoid eviction for non-payment of rent.

On May 1, the Lopezes gave Realageno 30 days’ notice of eviction.

“You are aggressive and disrespectful and it is very difficult to speak,” they wrote in the notice, which is included in the court documents.

The letter did not state a legal cause for eviction – which is required in eviction notices – nor did it explain why the notice would be exempt from state or local eviction moratoria.

According to the complaint, the Lopezs also failed to file the required tenancy termination notice with the Richmond Rent Board.

They threatened to call the police, Realageno said.

The Lopezs had yet to file a response to the lawsuit Thursday. But Gabriel Lopez said in a recent interview that he didn’t 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 have been heated at this point. I was very scared. “

Clara Realageno

Within 30 days of the Lopez’s issuance of the eviction notice, the complaint alleges Gabriel Lopez tore up one of Realageno’s rent checks, changed his mailbox locks, yelled and cursed as he pulled his vehicle into the driveway and hit the wall of his unit. Realageno said she was so worried that she installed security cameras inside her apartment.

“Things were very hot 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 him or hit his walls.

On May 30, Realageno was at work when she was told her cameras had detected movement. She checked her phone screen and saw that it was Gabriel Lopez. He entered his unit and changed the locks on his door.

Realageno called Edith Pastrano, a Contra Costa County organizer with the tenant rights group Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. They called the police. But when officers showed up, Pastrano said he advised Realageno to leave for his safety.

That night, Realageno slept in his car. All his belongings were still locked up in his apartment.

“I didn’t have toothpaste, I didn’t have my things, 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 excluding Realageno from his unit.

“Not getting knowledge legally, you know, like not informing us,” he said, “that was our mistake”.

“Of course, she is the victim. She is a tenant and I am the owner.

Gabriel Lopez

But Lopez maintains most of his stock.

“When I changed the lock, I thought she was going to come knocking on my door and come to, you know, the conclusion,” he said. “We were talking and everything would be fine. “

“Of course she is the victim,” Lopez added. “She is the tenant and I am the owner.

Prohibition of harassment

Richmond and other cities have decided to strengthen tenant protections. In July, a 6-1 majority in Richmond City Council approved the tenant harassment ordinance. The law, introduced by McLaughlin and Willis, defines a range of harassing behaviors and prohibits owners from engaging in them “in bad faith.”

“Your landlord shouldn’t come to you,” McLaughlin said at a press conference held by lawyers for Realageno in September. “This translates into more homelessness. This ends up with people in dire straits, with more problems than they already have. “

The Richmond ordinance follows similar laws in Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Santa Monica, which all prohibit various forms of harassment of landlords.

Realageno’s trial is set to begin with a conference in January. In the meantime, life goes on.

She wakes up in the morning, packs her bags, drops them off at her friend’s in San Pablo and goes to work. On Sundays, she goes to church. And now she plans to take cosmetology classes.

Realageno talks to his son every day. She left El Salvador when he was only 18 months old and watched him grow up through video and phone calls.

“He knows me, he knows I’m his mother,” Realageno said. “But I just haven’t been able to be there in real life.”

Sometimes she wonders if it was all worth it.

“It’s very difficult, you know, but you do it for love,” Realageno said. “That’s what keeps you going. “

Harassment of owners
Clara Realageno in the car she has been living in since her eviction. (Kori Suzuki)

About Ian Crawford

Check Also

My family owns a house shared between my father and his three siblings. He spent $100,000 on renovations and wants to buy out his siblings. What can he do?

There has been a property in our family for decades. It was actually divided into …