Linda Martinez had lived nearly all 29 years of her life in a small Westside duplex. Then in July, she and her four children were evicted when the landlord decided to demolish the property.
The landlord paid her $5,000 for relocation assistance, as mandated by the city of Los Angeles for families with children who are evicted when property owners raze their buildings, move into the apartments themselves or take them off the rental market.
That should have been the end of the story. But today, Linda Martinez is virtually homeless. Since her eviction, the unemployed woman and her children have moved from motel room to motel room--and even spent many nights sleeping in their old Ford sedan.
Martinez, and perhaps many more like her, are caught in a "Catch-22" between government bureaucracies.
Cut Off From Welfare
When Martinez got the $5,000 from her landlord, she found that she was cut off from welfare, an approximately $1,000 monthly stipend, for five months.
Although the city's relocation requirement is meant to cover moving costs and temporarily help pay higher rental fees, federal regulations consider such money "income" that can make recipients of public aid ineligible for benefits.
Part of her dilemma was her own doing since Martinez used the money for legal and other catastrophic bills and not for the rent deposit fees for which the money was intended. So today, she has no home, no aid, and nowhere to turn.
Officials at the city's Rent Stabilization Division say they do not know how many tenants have found themselves ineligible for public assistance after accepting the relocation money. In the last three years, close to 10,000 rent-stabilized units have either been demolished or permanently removed from the market.
"They're penalizing people for having this money, giving on one hand and taking away on the other," said Legal Aid Foundation attorney Yolanda Vera, who has been trying to help get Martinez's welfare payments reinstated by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services.
But some city officials have begun to press for changes in regulations so that relocation money will be exempted from both personal taxes and income limits for cash-assistance programs such as aid to families with dependent children, administered by the county, or supplemental income for aged, blind and disabled people, administered by the Social Security Administration.
The California Legislature passed a bill last year, introduced by Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Los Angeles), to exempt relocation funds from state income tax. A spokeswoman for his office said Friedman was seeking help from congressional representatives to get federal regulations changed.
Right now, relocation assistance is not considered income in cases involving federally funded projects, said Roy Aragon, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration in Los Angeles. But, he added, "If it's a private enterprise, it would count as income."
"All we're asking is they provide these citizens with municipally mandated relocation costs with the same rights as they would get with a federal program," said James C. Fleck, research section head of the city's Rent Stabilization Division, which administers the rent stabilization ordinance.
"They said I was ineligible until 1990," Martinez said, speaking in a cramped, chokingly hot motel room in Santa Monica that she shares with her common-law husband and her four children, who range in age from 4 to 10.
She has been living there for the last 10 days, with the cost picked up by local charities.
Martinez said she did not know where they will go after that. "I take day by day," the thin, dark-haired woman said.
The relocation money had come in two payments of $2,500 each, she explained. Out of the first payment, made in May, she said, an attorney took $1,400 as a fee for getting the landlord to pay the assistance. Martinez said she used the rest to pay bills left by her father, who had died in February, to make some repairs on her broken-down car and to put her furniture in storage.
On the day she moved last July, Martinez said, the landlord had still not made the second payment.
With nothing left from the first payment, she sought homeless assistance from the county.
When she brought her eviction notice as proof, welfare workers read on the papers that she was being paid $5,000. They then denied the homeless assistance and cut off her regular aid. Eventually, she got the second payment and used it to live in motel rooms--at $35 and $40 a night--until that money ran out, too.
"If I would have know what I know now," Martinez said, "I would have forced the landlord to find me a house and relocate me."
Roberta Kiehl, a county welfare administrator, declined to discuss Martinez's case, citing client confidentiality. She noted, however, that welfare workers would normally subtract documented relocation costs from the amount of assistance given, and consider the rest "lump sum income."
The amount of the regular monthly payment would be divided into the remaining figure, Kiehl said.
"Let's say the remaining amount was $2,000 and the person received $500 a month," Kiehl explained. "That means they would be ineligible for four months (of aid). When the four months is up, they come back and reapply and things continue on."
Martinez's problems seemed to be of her own doing, Kiehl added. "She blew the chance to help herself. We can't step into the life of a family and manage their money for them."
Fleck nevertheless said that the mandated relocation payment, which the City Council doubled two years ago, was partially intended as a "rent subsidy," not as an alternative welfare payment.
"It provides a subsidy for some period of time for the higher rent they're inevitably going to have to pay," Fleck said.
Several tenant advocates in Los Angeles, and officials in Santa Monica and New York City, which also have rent-control laws providing for relocation assistance, said loss of eligibility had not proved to be a problem.
But Penny Griffith, owner of Griffith and Associates, a Los Angeles firm which relocates hundreds of local tenants each year for private developers, believes that the problem is "a time bomb," because tenants are hiding or not reporting the funds. Many have told her as much, she added.
Landlords have to fill out federal tax forms showing what they paid and to whom, Griffith said, adding of tenants: "Eventually, they will be caught up with."