On Aug. 18, 2020, Sheena Haskin heard four loud pops outside of her unit at the Phoenix Park Apartments in Sacramento. She thought they were fireworks.
Then, she got a FaceTime call from her son, 19-year-old Tivon Briggs, who is disabled. He had left the apartment three minutes earlier to go for a walk.
“Mom, come help,” he said. “I’ve been shot.”
Briggs had been shot four times as he stood in an alleyway. Bullets went through his chest and both of his lungs were lacerated. A police report on the incident says paramedics transported the man to a local hospital, where he survived his injuries. Briggs told authorities that he didn’t see who shot him.
“I don’t have any enemies,” he told a Sacramento police officer from his hospital bed. “I don’t know who could’ve done this.”
Three days later, Haskin found a three-day quit notice on her door. The notice listed several lease violations and accused her son of being a “nuisance to the community” in relation to the shooting.
Haskin and her family are part of Section 8, or the Housing Choice Voucher Program. The program was established by the government to help low-income families and individuals afford housing when they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. People who have Section 8 vouchers pay a third of their income in rent, and the federal government foots the rest of the bill.
The Biden administration has planned to grant $5 billion in housing vouchers to low income families as part of a COVID-19 relief bill – housing was greatly affected in numerous ways as the pandemic raged on in the United States.
Throughout 2020, Haskin and her family were given a slew of lease violations by The John Stewart Co., which owns the Phoenix Park Apartments – for what she says are falsified offenses.
On one occasion, the apartment complex said, a member of her household was observed “urinating in a common area.” Haskin says this was a homeless person urinating near the complex garbage dumpster – her unit was nearby.
Another time, complex management said her son, Briggs, was loitering in the parking lot.
“He wasn’t loitering,” she said. “He was actually getting his clothes and stuff out of my nephew’s car. It was just every other day I was getting lease violations, and some of them didn’t even pertain to me or my household.”
The quit notice accused Briggs of discharging a firearm and went even further to allege he was a member of a gang – the Oak Park Bloods, a local set founded in the early ‘80s by gang members from Los Angeles who moved to Northern California as crack cocaine ravaged communities of color.
A copy of the police report for the August shooting involving Briggs lists him as the sole victim and makes no mention of any gang affiliation. Authorities found no weapons near Briggs and a court records search under his name returned no results.
“Even the detective who was working the case said my son, his background is squeaky clean,” Haskin said. “He likes to play his video games. He’s a homebody.”
The Phoenix Park Apartments said the Sacramento Police Department informed them of Briggs’ alleged gang involvement, but Haskin says a detective working the case told her the department wouldn’t have discussed anything of that nature with them because the investigation was still open.
After Haskin found the three-day notice, she wrote the Phoenix Park Apartments a cease-and-desist letter and dropped it off. Cease-and-desist notices request that an individual or organization stop a specified action and refrain from doing it again in the future, with the threat of legal action otherwise.
After Haskin dropped the letter off, she was contacted by a woman working for a local community organization who worked with the complex. The woman told Haskin that complex management was giving her two weeks to move. Haskin wouldn’t do it. Her son was still in the hospital, and she needed her Section 8 voucher to relocate anywhere else.
“Shortly thereafter, I got an unlawful detainer – an eviction notice,” Haskin said. An unlawful detainer is a legal way for a landlord to evict a tenant who has failed to pay rent or violated their lease.
She desperately tried to contact complex management to resolve the dispute. After Haskin left several messages, they told her she could get her Section 8 voucher by signing a notice to terminate tenancy – that’s when she decided to get a lawyer involved. She didn’t want to sign anything without legal advice.
Haskin’s lawyer quickly reached out to the legal counsel for the Phoenix Park Apartments. The two parties came to an agreement. Instead of a termination of tenancy, Haskin would be given a stipulation for an extension. The complex gave her until Jan. 31 to move out.
The process of getting a lawyer wasn’t cheap for Haskin. The dues and court fees stacked up as more documents were filed, with some costing as much as $1,500. Since attorneys charge for their time, the costs to ensure Haskin got a fair shake in California’s robust legal system were very steep, slimming her already tight budget.
With 30 days to find a new place, Haskin began putting in applications to numerous complexes across Sacramento. Haskin initially found a new landlord who accepted her voucher, but the local housing authority didn’t want to help pay after the rent went up in January.
“I had an inspection date. I had a move-in date. They said that they wanted to negotiate with the apartment complex. The apartment complex did not want to negotiate, and I had to start all over,” Haskin told NPR’s Morning Edition in May.
Later in February, Haskin was approved again to move into another apartment. This time, the housing authority was willing to help pay. However, this time, the alleged falsified lease violations came into play. The Phoenix Park Apartments had given a negative reference to the new complex during the tenancy screening process. The new complex gave Haskin her deposit check back – she would not be moving in.
On Feb. 28, Haskin moved out of the Phoenix Park Apartments and became homeless. Complex management used her deposit to cover repair costs for various damages to the apartment that were “beyond normal wear and tear” including dry rot, cracks and mold. Haskin says the apartment was already like that when she moved in and contested over $1,000 in damages. She admitted that she and her children caused some, such as paint chipping and damage to blinds, but was adamant that damages to the foundation and carpet were already there.
She eventually paid for the damages despite contesting them because she didn’t want her credit score to be jeopardized. She had worked too long to build it up. With a respectable credit score, citizens can make numerous serious purchases with relative ease – including home and car payments. With a bad credit score, however, the opposite is true. Banks won’t give out loans to individuals with poor credit, and businesses including credit card companies will turn them away. It’s also harder for them to get rental applications approved.
“A bad credit score can be compared to a bad grade in school, a failing grade on a driving test, or getting bad results for any other type of assessment that uses a numerical ranking to judge performance,” Experian, an Anglo-Irish multinational credit reporting company, said on their website. “Having bad credit presents serious problems with your personal finances.”
Right now, Haskin lives in a hotel. She’s been denied for several apartments due to negative references from her old complex and isn’t sure where to turn next.
“I’ve never been through this type of stuff before,” she said. “Sometimes I wake up in this hotel room like ‘Why am I here?’ It’s depressing.”
Haskins’ sentiment of frustration surrounding housing during the pandemic is the latest of many. Communities of color are routinely hit hard by housing instability due to disparities brought about by well-established policies that have led to discriminatory practice.
Discriminating against tenants was made illegal in the late 1960s, but that didn’t stop both subtle and mask-off racial discrimination from occurring in regard to housing. Over 28,000 fair housing complaints were filed for alleged discrimination in 2019 – likely a severe undercount of the true number.
“It is common for victims of discrimination to feel that nothing can or will be done about the discrimination they experience and to fear retaliation by their housing provider, landlord or even neighbors,” the National Fair Housing Alliance said last year.
Activists say that without some sort of action to stomp out disparities and unfair treatment in housing, especially based on race, the inequality will continue. In Tulsa earlier this month, President Biden announced several new steps to address racial discrimination in the housing market. He spoke at an event commemorating the 100th anniversary of the bloody race massacre that left the Greenwood community, also known as Black Wall Street, in ruin.
Biden has gathered around a dozen agencies, spearheaded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Marcia Fudge, to consider implementing new lending regulation, tougher enforcement of fair-housing laws, and new standards for appraising homes.
If changes are made, it will be a huge weight off the shoulders of Haskin and others.
This story originally ran in the SF Bay View National Black Newspaper.