By Gary Walker
After suffering 21 years as a battered spouse, Ana Cruz thought the worst of her troubles had ended when her husband abandoned the family last year, leaving Cruz as the sole breadwinner for their three sons.
What Cruz didn’t know was that her husband had reneged on an agreement to pay $10,000 in back rent for the family’s three-bedroom apartment in Mar Vista Gardens, leaving her holding the bag.
Now she and her children are on the brink of eviction from the public housing complex. If the family can’t come up with at least $8,000 by Sept. 8, they’re homeless.
Cruz, who has lived in Mar Vista Gardens for nine years, says anxiety about being evicted has weighed heavily on her children, especially her 10-year-old son.
“He’s my youngest and he’s had to go to therapy because he’s so worried. It’s hard for him to sleep since the day a Sheriff’s deputy came to our house,” she said.
Cruz’s husband had underreported his income to the Housing Authority of Los Angeles (HACLA) and last year agreed to make good on penalty assessments and back rent but skipped town without paying, according to Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin’s office, which is trying to intervene on Cruz’s behalf.
Cruz, now in the process of getting a divorce, said she found out about the unpaid rent bill in March.
HACLA representatives did not return multiple calls for comment.
A slight woman with deep-set expressive eyes, Cruz said she had complained about her husband’s violence to HACLA management at Mar Vista Gardens, but no one intervened.
“They told me that they couldn’t do anything because he has legal status and I don’t,” she said.
Immigration status also laid the groundwork for Cruz’s current debt predicament. Per HACLA policy, families that are a mix of undocumented and legal residents do not receive full government subsidies for their apartments. Instead, rents are calculated based on the number of family members who have legal status.
Santa Monica-based People Organized for Westside Renewal, a grassroots community organization that assists tenants in housing disputes, has petitioned HACLA to halt eviction proceedings against Cruz and her children.
“I don’t know what I would have done without them. Until I met them, I felt so alone,” Cruz said.
POWER representatives also contacted the Eviction Defense Network, which is now defending Cruz in her eviction case.
“Ms. Cruz’s children, who are U.S. citizens, are prejudiced by the [HACLA] mixed families policy and are being thrust into homelessness,” said Eviction Defense Network Executive Director Elena Popp. “This policy runs counter to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which states tenants should only pay 30% of their income in rent. Because of this policy, a mixed family can end up paying much more.”
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge in Santa Monica reduced the amount Cruz owes HACLA to $8,000 on Aug. 14, but that’s still out of reach for Cruz, who has no immediate family in the area to turn to for shelter if her family is evicted. A Go Fund Me page has been created to assist Cruz with rent payments, but as of Wednesday morning had raised only $300 since Aug. 20.
Where the courts have failed, Bonin hopes to succeed by appealing to HACLA.
“This is a city that believes in putting families first. Allowing Ana and her children to be evicted is a failure of our commitment to families,” Bonin said after an Aug. 17 public appearance in support of Cruz at Mar Vista Gardens.
“She is being victimized twice: once by the husband who abused her and again by the system that is supposed to help her,” Bonin said. “I think it’s unjust to ask her to pay for his mistakes.”
The pending eviction of Cruz and her children comes on the heels of an Aug. 25 report by the Los Angeles Homelessness Authority’s Ad Hoc Committee on Women and Homelessness that L.A. County has seen a 70% increase in homelessness among women since 2009, with domestic violence among the primary causes.
Daisy Vega, a member of POWER who also lives in Mar Vista Gardens, said Cruz’s predicament is emblematic of how HACLA policy is unfair to immigrant families.
“Ana’s a symbol of what’s happening to other families here,” Vega said. “Because she’s part of what HACLA calls a ‘mixed family,’ she’s being penalized because she does not have legal status.”
In a July 27 letter to HACLA, POWER Executive Director Bill Przylucki wrote: “In this moment, as we are in a housing crisis, when immigrants are under attack from Washington, and when the Housing Authority is updating its standard lease for public housing to include the Violence Against Women Act, we find it outrageous that the Housing Authority would pursue an eviction against a family in this situation.”
Cruz said what she hopes for now is more time.
“I’m not saying that I don’t want to pay the back rent. What I’m saying is that I would like to negotiate with HACLA to pay it over time. But HACLA wants it all at once,” Cruz said.
“I’ve been to court so many times about the rent and the domestic violence, and each time I feel like I’m dying a little more inside.”
Search gofundme.com for “Keep Ana Cruz & Her Children Housed” for fundraising updates.