Rent spike of 43 percent prompts low-income seniors to sue San Diego

Residents of City Heights subsidized complex say they can no longer afford basic necessities

Eight low-income senior citizens are suing San Diego for allowing the rent to increase last September by more than 43 percent at their subsidized apartment complex in City Heights.

The seniors, who receive the bulk of their income from Social Security, say in the lawsuit that the new rents are so excessive that they can no longer pay for necessities such as food, utilities and transportation.

While only eight of the tenants in the Olivewood Gardens are listed as plaintiffs, the outcome of the litigation could affect every tenant in the 60-unit complex in the Oak Park neighborhood of City Heights.

The rent increases were triggered by a decision in May by the city’s Housing Commission that the operators could charge up to $1,229 per month for the complex’s one-bedroom apartments.

The operators, Olivewood Housing Partners, chose to raise the monthly rents from $575 to $825 on Sept. 1, a spike of more than 43 percent, after many years with no increases.

The tenants, who each live in 438-square-foot units, initially protested the increases. But the lawsuit says they eventually decided to pay the higher rents to avoid eviction and homelessness.

Last month, downtown San Diego attorney Catherine Rodman filed the lawsuit on behalf of the eight tenants. Rodman has a long history of advocating for low-income tenants and subsidized housing.

The lawsuit says the increases mean that rent and utilities amount to 90 percent of the income of many of the tenants, which is triple the ratio of 30 percent required by city regulations.

For example, tenant Jacquelyn Blake now pays out $880 — $825 rent plus $55 utilities — of her monthly Social Security check of $972. That means nearly 91 percent of her income is being spent on rent and utilities.

Tenant Bonnie Breckenridge gets $1,565 a month from Social Security, so she is spending about 56 percent of that on rent and utilities.

The lawsuit says city regulations require that rents in the complex, combined with utilities, be a maximum of 30 percent of a tenant’s income. For such calculations, the city estimates each tenant pays $55 for utilities instead of using the actual amount they pay.

The complex was built in 1980 as part of an agreement with the city. The 55-year deal required the tenants to make no more than 60 percent of the San Diego region’s median income and that the operator charge low rents based on income.

In 2015, the lease was extended 21 years, from 2035 to 2056, and a new owner agreed to renovate the complex in return for changes to some of the regulations.

City officials have expressed increasing concern in recent years that rent restrictions on many complexes across San Diego will soon expire, potentially increasing homelessness by forcing tenants in those complexes onto the streets.

That’s why the city is typically enthusiastic about opportunities to extend such lease agreements.

Despite the amended lease, the lawsuit says, last fall’s rent spike was still illegal. Income forms submitted by the developer to the Housing Commission contain errors, the suit says.

“The forms show mathematical errors and methodological inconsistencies in the calculation of incomes,” the suit says.

In addition to a rent rollback, the suit seeks a temporary injunction to prevent further rent increases while the litigation is handled by the courts.

The case has been assigned to Superior Court Judge Ronald Styn. No hearings have been scheduled.

Colin Rice, an official with Olivewood Housing Partners, did not return a phone call seeking comment on Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for City Attorney Mara Elliott declined to comment on the case, other than to say Elliott’s staff is reviewing the lawsuit and will confer with other city officials.