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Brian O’Shea has made his City Heights apartment a home. A large Chargers flag covers its main wall. Framed scriptures remind him of the strength he mustered several years back to kick his drinking habit. Cowboy hats hang on the wall like plaques, commemorating his time as a bull rider at local rodeos.
But the apartment he rents with assistance from the federal government’s Section 8 program wasn’t a haven when he moved in last August. He found roaches, a gas leak, a busted oven and a lukewarm refrigerator in the unit.
The building is managed by Bankim Shah, a San Diego landlord who owns dozens of apartments and has a number of housing code complaints against them. In 2014, Shah received $507,621 from the Section 8 program, which subsidizes rent for low-income tenants. That money came despite city documents that show he’s been flagged for renting units state law would deem uninhabitable.
The San Diego Housing Commission administers the Section 8 program locally, entering into contracts with landlords to pay a portion of a tenant’s rent. O’Shea can pay about $400 a month, so the Housing Commission sends the owner of his building about $700 in public funds per month.
The commission doesn’t do background checks on landlords it enters into contracts with. In the case of O’Shea, the commission’s system for protecting tenants from unsafe and undignified living conditions failed. A Housing Commission inspection form says O’Shea’s apartment passed with flying colors before he moved in despite failing to meet standards laid out by the federal government for Section 8 rentals.
“With Section 8 housing, it should be all regulated,” said O’Shea, who’s on a fixed income because he’s disabled. “There’s supposed to be rights for us to have – to be taken care of and not have to go through all the stress.”
Azucena Valladolid manages San Diego’s Section 8 program at the Housing Commission. She said the agency does initial inspections to approve a unit and then biannual and surprise inspections to make sure it remains in good shape.
Valladolid didn’t comment on how O’Shea’s apartment made it past the first inspection, but said the Housing Commission acted quickly and appropriately when O’Shea complained about his living conditions.
O’Shea’s career as a bull rider did a number on his body. His knees are shot and he wears a neck brace because of a spinal injury. He had been living in and out of residential care facilities and a City Heights church before he got the call last fall. After waiting for more than a decade, he’d qualified for Section 8.
“I was super happy,” O’Shea said. “I went and shared it at the church. A couple of the guys even got a little jealous.”
But when he moved into his new place, the joy gave way to stress. O’Shea said the apartment was filthy. He had to hire someone to clean it because he has limited mobility.
“She worked two eight-hour days vacuuming out the drawers, washing the refrigerator in and out. The top of the refrigerator was black – dark black with grease and dirt and hair. It had never been cleaned the whole time the other people were here,” O’Shea said. “Lots and lots of cockroaches at night. You come in and turn the light on and they’re just running wild.”
O’Shea also had to have San Diego Gas & Electric come seal a gas leak in his wall heater. And he said he had to petition Shah for months to get a working oven. Shah didn’t return several requests for a formal interview, but said over the phone he responds to all repair requests. O’Shea said he hasn’t even tried to ask for a new refrigerator.
“I’ve done everything. I’ve defrosted it, I’ve cleaned it, put a hose in the back, leveled it,” O’Shea said.
The ice tray he filled up two days ago has a delicate layer of ice on top, water swishing back and forth beneath it. “I go to the food drives, three different food drives, just so I can eat a little better than I would going without,” O’Shea said. “You have to wait two hours in those lines and then when you bring it home and it goes bad, it seems like a waste of your time and effort.”
O’Shea said he’s baffled the apartment passed the Housing Commission’s inspection. A copy of the inspection form shows an inspector’s initials approving the unit in more than 60 categories. A note at the bottom says the fridge is older but in working condition.
O’Shea contacted the Housing Commission for help about three weeks after he moved in. Forms from three follow-up inspections dinged the unit for the gas leak, broken refrigerator, roaches and maggots – all conditions O’Shea said were already present when he moved in.
The unit was brought up to compliance in December, nearly four months after O’Shea moved in.
Valladolid said the Housing Commission doesn’t look into a landlord’s background other than confirming he or she owns the property being rented.
If the Housing Commission did check out the landlords it does business with, it would have found city documents detailing 62 complaints of code violations at Shah’s properties since 2001.
Yet, a review of listings on the Housing Commission’s website showed advertisements for 15 of Shah’s apartments, the majority with histories of code complaints.
Valladolid said the Housing Commission isn’t responsible for those listings.
“That’s a third-party software system where owners that participate in the Section 8 program do advertise their units to the public,” Valladolid said. “It is up to the tenants to look into the landlords and look into the units. They are the ones that ultimately decide where they’re going to live and who they’re going to lease with.”
O’Shea said he used the Housing Commission’s listings to find his apartment and said his options felt limited at the time. He needed to be close to a bus station, to be on the first floor and had to find something that cost less than $1,200.
O’Shea is still living in the apartment. Most of the issues are resolved. But O’Shea said his milk still turns sour quicker than it should. And a can of bug spray stands at the ready on his windowsill.