Loatian Immigrants Demand Greater Housing Rights

  • 6/16/2004
  • Pha Lo
  • NCM Report

Laotian Immigrants Demand Greater Housing Rights

NCM Report, News Report,
Pha Lo, Jun 16, 2004

RICHMOND, Calif. -- Laotians joined other residents of this Bay Area working class city recently to demand greater protections of their rights as renters. Many say that they have been unfairly evicted for complaining about unit problems such as mold, insects and leaks. Laotians say they are particularly vulnerable because many new immigrants do not speak English well and are unable to defend their rights.

Close to 100 renters and community leaders gathered at the Grace Lutheran Church in Richmond on May 22 to demand safe, decent, and affordable housing for residents in their city. Tsan Seng Saechao, 82, dressed in her traditional Iu-Mien clothing, referring to dress of the Laotian ethnic group, stood up in front of neighbors to say through a translator, "I don't have a country to go back to, this is my country, and I want justice."

She says she has been forced to move five times throughout Richmond since arriving in 1982 from her native country. She believes that some of these were retaliatory evictions after she complained about problems in her apartment including rats, mold and high rent. Landlords in the city are not required to justify evictions.

Renters like Saechao fear that without a "fair housing ordinance," like the ones passed in neighboring Berkeley and Oakland, they can be evicted without a clearly stated reason.

Saechao also says that due to her limited English proficiency she also believed she had to move because she did not have any way access to legal advice. During one of her evictions, her 10-year-old grandchild acted as a translator.

Laotian community member Khammany Mathavongsy, who also produces Ban Lao TV, a Laotian program, leads discussions on renters' issues for the community. He believes it is important the community members have access to their housing rights in their native tongue.

Mathavongsy recently aired a half hour show on housing rights. "We don't have expertise in this area. . [so] the elderly have problems adjusting and feel isolated," he says. The show gives information on the housing issue as well as resource links to non- profit agencies like the Laotian Organizing Project (LOP).

Renters are also concerned without rent stabilization, they will no longer be able to afford soaring rent prices in the area. Rent in Richmond has increased an average of 35 percent since 1990, say organizers. Research from the LOP in Richmond, shows that 80 percent of Laotians are renters, many of whom spend more than 50 percent of their monthly incomes on rent.

Saechao, who is on a fixed income and shares a two-bedroom apartment with seven others has also been forced to move because she could no longer afford the rent. More than half of her family income goes toward paying rent.

Organizers of the town hall meeting hope to strengthen legal rights for renters by demanding clear reasons for evictions, and fair rent prices. Jorge Aguilar II, a staff attorney with the Eviction Defense Center says that without a "just cause" ordinance, tenants can be evicted as long as a landlord provides 60 days notice. Aguilar is skeptical about how receptive the city council will be in supporting this ordinance, despite that about half of Richmond's population is comprised of renters, most of whom are African American, Latino, or Asian Pacific Islander. The Eviction Defense Center notes that in Oakland, the ordinance was passed by ballot measure.

Reverend Andre Shumake says that creating a "New Richmond" will require a different strategy from the past. Shumake led the diverse crowd in the chant in English, "If you always do what you've always done, you will always get what you've always got."
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