The Vista Alta apartment complex is part of the county’s Crime Free Multi-Housing Program. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Lupe Villagrana, the manager at Ridgepoint Apartments in Vista, recalled an incident last year in which one of her tenants accidentally broke into the wrong unit while intoxicated and frightened the neighbor. In response, she said, she reached for the lease the man and his wife had signed, in which they agreed to keep their environment crime-free. She then made an ultimatum: Go to court, or leave.

“Because of the crime-free addendum I was able to scare the people off,” she said.

California placed a moratorium last year on evictions for anyone suffering financial hardship due to the pandemic, and extended it through June 2021. But “just cause” evictions are still allowed if a landlord can demonstrate that a renter engaged in criminal activity.

The crime-free lease is one of a several instruments that landlords can wield during the pandemic if they want to toss out a tenant. Officials champion crime-free programs, which have grown in popularity since the 1990s, as a way of holding absent landlords accountable while giving property managers more authority on the ground.

Tenant groups view the programs much differently. They see them as a publicly sanctioned means of creating a hypervigilant environment that gives cops more influence over the operations of an apartment complex. The language that makes its way into many of the crime-free leases was written, or at least approved, by law enforcement.

“We see it as a snitch society program,” said Rafael Bautista, the lead organizer with San Diego Tenants United.

Crime-free housing programs vary across the region and the United States, but they share a few basic characteristics. Property owners and managers go through regular training sessions. Liaisons to both the government and local police department give tips for strengthening rental agreements, screening applicants without getting sued and looking for behavior that might indicate drug use, gang activity or prostitution.

The programs put a special emphasis on the physical design of a property, encouraging property owners to trim bushes and install surveillance cameras, peepholes, LED lighting and signage, which can create a perception that people on site are being monitored at all times. As a result, multi-unit homes become defensible spaces.

In practice, these programs have not often led to evictions. In the last five years in Vista, for instance, just one person was forced out of an apartment through the courts, according to officials.

But the programs nonetheless provide leverage to landlords, who know better than most tenants that evictions can be lengthy and expensive legal challenges, and that judges prefer to only displace a resident for failing to pay rent.

The Los Angeles Times reported last year that more than a quarter of all local governments in California participate in crime-free housing programs, including nearly all the cities that have seen a rise in Black residents since 1990. The supporters of crime-free housing are adamant they don’t discriminate, and their policies explicitly state that race-based standards are illegal.

Still, criminal justice advocates argue that crime-free housing is a form of structural racism that makes it harder for people of color to find apartments and stay in them. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recommends cities repeal their crime-free housing programs to avoid violating fair housing laws. Meanwhile, California regulators have prohibited policies that mandate evictions for a broad array of criminal or nuisance behavior.

Voice of San Diego found that most cities in the region have their own crime-free housing policies, including Chula Vista, Escondido and Oceanside, or host properties that team up with the county. In the city of San Diego alone, according to public records, there are 117 crime-free apartment complexes — the vast majority of which are located in the city’s urban core. The predominantly lower-income, Black and Latino neighborhoods that stretch from downtown to southeastern San Diego have some of the highest concentrations of crime-free units.

The Sheriff’s Department oversees another 132 in the suburbs and in more rural communities like Fallbrook and Ramona.

Law enforcement officials defend these programs as a form of community policing that brings cops, property owners, managers and tenants together, and point to the fact that most sign up voluntarily. But that’s not the case everywhere.

In 2010, San Diego County passed an ordinance requiring properties with a high number of calls for service in unincorporated areas to join its crime-free housing program or face civil penalties. I couldn’t find any evidence that the county has ever filed civil action against a property owner, but the ordinance provides for fines up to $2,500 per day against those who refuse to get on board.

At the time, the Sheriff’s Department said it wanted to step up enforcement of apartment owners who consistently neglected their properties, causing a drain on resources. Officials focused their ire on a single complex in Spring Valley and were joined by residents in a symphony of dog whistles.

At one Board of Supervisors’ meeting in summer 2010, a woman complained that “thugs” and “gang bangers” who lived in the nearby apartments had burglarized her home, had sex in her driveway and stolen her mail. Another neighbor said his car had been busted up and he’d stopped letting his own kids play outside for fear that they’d get hit by a flying beer bottle.

To which then-Supervisor Pam Slater-Price responded, sarcastically: “Why aren’t they at work, I wonder.”

The only person in a position of power to push back was then-Supervisor Bill Horn, himself a landlord in San Marcos. Horn said he worried the punitive nature of the new law would have a chilling effect on the reporting of crime — property managers would be less willing to call 911 if they knew it might trigger their mandatory participation in a crime-free housing program.

Horn ultimately came around. He joined his colleagues in voting yes. In explaining her own support, Slater-Price said the courts needed to do more to help responsible property owners from turning their complexes into “breeding grounds for crime” that caused “disorder in our society.”

Six years later, the Vista City Council had a toned-down version of the same conversation, citing the success of the county’s crime-free housing program, which, Council members said, had led to a reduction in emergency calls by 49 percent.

Vista had a voluntary program on the books for years but made it mandatory for any large property that had been the subject of regular police visits. For instance, according to the equation laid out by the city, a complex with 40 units would exceed its threshold if it had 10 or more calls for service within six months.

Officials made an exception for certain types of calls, including suicide attempts, runaway kids and lost property. Assault, battery and abuse made the list of calls that would be added to the total. A staff report at the time noted that the point of the program was not to evict “a tenant or occupant who has been victimized by domestic violence.”

In passing the new rules, Vista put the justification on renters who might live in an apartment complex but feel threatened by some criminal activity in the unit next door. Then-Councilman John Aguilera said he wanted to create safe spaces for residents while “cleaning our city up” and complained that many property owners lived elsewhere.

Today, Vista has one of the highest concentrations of crime-free apartments under the Sheriff’s purview. There are 25 total, spread throughout the city, five of which were compelled to join. Since mid-2016, the city’s reported crime rate per 1,000 people has dropped 18 percent, according to FBI stats. There’s no immediate evidence to suggest crime-free housing had any effect. In fact, Vista’s reduction in reported crimes is on par with what communities across the region have experienced during the same timeframe. The history of the program is worth keeping in mind because time and again officials have argued they wanted to limit the need to get police involved in apartment life. A few years into the program, that point is open for debate.

Las Palmas apartment complex in Vista / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The emergency calls may have gone down, but nearly a dozen landlords in Vista told me they appreciated having a direct line of communication with the Sheriff’s Department these days. Maggie Quigless, the manager at Mountain View Apartments, said she’ll get regular updates on crime trends and changing rental laws as well as security tips.

“It’s useful to see through law enforcement’s eyes how it all works,” she said.

Having a criminal record isn’t necessarily a disqualifier for renting. Natasha Howell, the manager at Millcreek Apartments, said she has tenants with criminal histories and respects the fact they’ve served their time. To her, crime-free policies may provide leverage to kick people out, but they’re intended to set a tone at the door.

“We understand that everyone needs housing,” she said. “At the same time, we don’t want to be on Channel 6 news.”

In large part, though, crime-free housing programs have become a way of monitoring the homeless. Several property managers said they routinely message deputies if someone wanders on site and often get a quick response — something that bothers people who advocate for greater tenant protections.

One of those advocates, Catherine Mendonça, said she lives across the street from a crime-free apartment complex in San Diego and has lost track of the number of times police have been called in response to a homeless person spotted nearby.

“There’s this fear of unhoused people, almost like a phobia,” she said. “If they see somebody unhoused, they automatically assume this person is dangerous, this person is using.”

Notably, many of the crime-free housing programs throughout San Diego County fall back on the federal definitions of controlled substances, meaning renters are barred from merely possessing cannabis on site. Although adults in California can legally purchase and consume cannabis, Proposition 64, the 2016 ballot measure that established the state’s current regulatory system, gave a carve-out for property owners.

Apartment complexes, in other words, are free to just say no — although many seem to be flexible on this point. Several property managers said smoking is out of the question, because it might bother another tenant, but they don’t particularly care if someone wants to, say, eat an edible or rub a topical into their skin.

Training is the centerpiece of the entire program. Before the pandemic, property managers in Vista were meeting with deputies a few times a year. Villagrana, the manager at Ridgepoint Apartments, said she was once shown a video about how to spot potential terrorists. She said she’s also been shown photos of gang members in custody as the types of people to look out for during the application process.

The Sherriff’s Department declined an interview request and did not respond to questions in writing.

In 2018 and 2020, the Vista City Council reiterated its support for crime-free housing because it came with a two-year sunset.

Councilwoman Corinna Contreras, a Democrat, told me that she’d like to see a more thorough review of the program going forward, but isn’t confident her more conservative colleagues would take it up.

“The Council that I sit on, politically, really enjoys these types of programs,” she said. “It fits very well with the ideological bent that they bring to policy. I am in an extreme minority on that.”

Contreras has expressed concern that the program is unfairly pushing people out of housing. And to this point, city staff have argued that there haven’t been many evictions because of crime-free leases — which appears to be true. Last week, I pulled a dozen eviction cases stemming from crime-free apartment complexes in Vista, and each was related to nonpayment of rent. A city staff report in 2020 notes that only one person has been evicted over the last five years, for turning their unit into a methamphetamine “flop house.”

But again, evictions aren’t necessarily the goal of a crime-free housing program. Property managers see the crime-free lease as legal leverage — an informal way of getting rid of a tenant, without going through the courts.

Contreras said the city would benefit from interviewing tenants directly to see what they think of the program. At least one of her colleagues thinks that’s a good idea.

In an email, City Councilman John Franklin told me he was supportive of the city getting direct feedback from tenants. Although he expressed some early reservations over the program, arguing it might unfairly burden property owners, he considers the program a success today, in part, because of its size.

“Residents did not feel comfortable going out of their apartments and having their children play within the complex,” he said. “The city had an imperative to take action on behalf of the law-abiding residents of those developments to act to make them safer.”

Last week, I visited several of the properties and found after surveying a dozen residents that most weren’t even aware they’d signed crime-free leases when they moved in.

“It might be in there, but it’s like 30 pages. No one reads it,” said one man, who declined to give his name out of concern that it might upset his relationship with his landlord.

Others said they liked the added security features. Still others had mixed reactions. Before the pandemic, many crime-free complexes were holding meetings every so often to talk about the program, and Nani Tupuola told me that she appreciated those events as a way to get to know her neighbors. But the regular sight of deputies gave her pause.

“I see the sheriffs in here all the time,” she said. “It’s a little nerve-wracking.”

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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