Slum Conditions in San Diego

Photos: Tom Abbott

Editor’s note: Some of these photos are extremely graphic as to poor living conditions and while they might seem repetitive, they are from different angles showing the issue.

Oct 5, 2015 (San Diego) There is a crisis in San Diego with increasingly expensive rental units that are out of the reach of low wageworkers. This forces these workers to accept living in substandard units with low to non-existence maintenance. This is an issue that affects all of us, not just the people who are forced to live in these substandard conditions.

We met one of them, Maria Villegas, who lives in one of the units at 3622 Highland Ave, a building owned by Jorge A Ibarra, and according to records he is the original owner. City Heights is an area undergoing the process of gentrification, and this property has 7 units, one of which is taken by the property manager. The building was built in 1973, and may or may not suffer from lead contamination since lead paint was used back then. Whether this was mitigated or not is not something we could find in County records.

The question we must ask is how do we care of those at the lowest rungs of society? We must ask if we as a society will allow people to continue to live under harsh conditions because they are of low means, and immigrants? This also touches on the issues of affordable housing and basic human dignity.

This is a major issue in the county, and not just the city. Affordable housing for low wageworkers is especially critical since we do not have enough. The City of San Diego declared yet another emergency for the tenth year in a row since we do not have enough units.

We did the calculation and Maria’s family would earn $2880 dollars a month if both jobs her husband works at were at $9.00 \hour. They pay $800 for their monthly rent, which is well above the 30 percent that anybody should be paying for housing. This puts a strain in other aspects of family finances, without even taking into account the fact that she has to buy food daily, because of the roach and ant infestation.

Safe Housing:

This brings us to another aspect. Her home is not a safe environment under any stretch of the imagination and we will take you though a virtual tour. The first thing we need to clarify is that she cleans every day, likely more often than many of us, but the roach infestation is not something she can control with household roach poison. Simply put, there are too many of them. Nor should she use it near her dishes or the scarce food that she can afford, but she does what she can.

People have a right to safe housing. The property is not safe. There are fixtures outside that have exposed and stripped wire. There are two old stoves in the yard that prevent the children from playing and the laundry room has appliances that clean so badly that the family leaves the property to take their clothes to a Laundromat.

A Tour of Maria’s Home


Imagine living with a refrigerator that has holes. Not only it is not going to be efficient, but will also allow roaches to get in. So not even your fridge will be safe enough to keep food in.

It was obvious everywhere you looked that there was shoddy workmanship. There was also a smell of mold. This came from the water dripping out of the plumbing under the kitchen sink, which has a fix, a bucket under it. The particleboard is moldy, and it smells. Under it there was also a 5-gallon paint bucket with instructions in both English and Spanish about peeling paint and possible lead. The building was built in 1973, and back then lead paint was used. We were left with the obvious question, was the home ever mitigated?

Maria told us that her older son did come positive for lead when they lived in Pennsylvania and these days he has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. Her son also has very bad allergies, which were diagnosed in Mexico and the doctor linked his allergies directly to her living conditions.

There were ants and roaches. Some of them were even inside food, inside double and triple bagged items. Her hood over the stove not only leaks when it rains, but it has both stripped and peeled electrical wiring. They already had a minor electrical fire with the previous stove. Not only that, when it rains they have to move the food away from the water that is coming down.

The drawers are in extremely bad condition and there is some chipping paint. The tile, they went chip and they only used straight squares with no corner pieces, and the installation is shoddy and allowed insects to travel though.


We were able to detect mold, which was quite extensive. There was also poor tiling on the corner. There is also poor ventilation and there are water stains, like everywhere else, from the ceiling, where they do get water come in.


Ironically this was the only place were we found one electrical outlet with a face plate It was behind the sofa, and it is obvious that insects live there. Like everywhere else there are stains in the ceiling and paint was applied over dirty paint, so dirt comes back out. This is the only place where any kind of more permanent fix has been done with a window, which had a screen replaced after one of her sons ended up at Rady’s with a spider bite.

Living Room:

The place has an AC unit, that Maria bought 5 years ago, but it hardly runs. It also is infested with mold. Paint is chipping and the heat unit has no face plate, or adjusting dial. She uses a fork to adjust the heat. They have an old computer, which sits covered by plastic and once you look up it is clear why. The roof leaks.

The window, which has a bent screen that has not been replaced in over 5 years, also has peeling and chipping paint. This is a well known hazard for minors,

This is the laundry room


Maria is quite honestly fed up, but knows that they cannot afford better accommodations. Yet, just because hey are poor, this should not be acceptable. And this is not just because they are immigrants, or poor, or with poor English skills, There are solid reasons from a public health perspective and a home that is this badly infected, will see their neighbors be infested as well sooner or later.

This is the outside. The Owner does not even take care of the common areas:

The laundry room has appliances that do not work and the small yard has two out of order kitchen ranges, that prevent the children, not just Maria’s from playing. Young kids need to play.

So why does it matter? Well, this is what happens when you have roach and ant infestations, I guess one saving grace is we did not see rodents.

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The first thing here is that this level of a roach and ant infestations have none to do with “being clean.”

This infestation needs a professional exterminator. They are behind the walls and they come out at night to the point that her children do not want to go to the kitchen for a glass of water.

Health and safety dangers of these infestations


The saliva, droppings and decomposing bodies of cockroaches contain allergen proteins known to trigger allergies and increase the severity of asthma symptoms, especially in children. They are also capable of mechanically transmitting disease organisms, such as the bacteria that cause food poisoning, and are known to spread 33 different kinds of bacteria, six parasitic worms and at least seven other kinds of human pathogens.

“When people think of cockroaches, they definitely don’t have a pleasant association, but they may not fully realize the severity of the effects cockroaches can have on their health,” says Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for NPMA. “We want to educate consumers about what they can do to avoid and eliminate these pests before being exposed to these risks.”


And these are the risks with ants:

Risks Include:

         Bites and Allergies:

Some species of ants can inflict painful bites. Worst still is that bites of some species can cause anaphylactic reactions (similar to bees and wasps).


Ants can be vectors of disease organisms such as dysentery, smallpox and bacteria such as Salmonella.

         Ruined food and appliances:

Ants can be a real nuisance.  Not only can trailing ants be unsightly but they can cause damage and spoil products.  When their numbers increase they can get into appliances, baby bottles etc, and make life a real misery.

         Potential damage:

Depending on the species, ants may nest inside wall cavities, electrical equipment and roof voids.  Others species nest in and around gardens and under paved areas, causing soil subsidence. Ant control preserves your property’s value.

         Breeding success:

The social structure of ant colonies means that they are highly adaptable, can breed rapidly and often seem to keep coming back in ‘waves’ – just when you thought they were gone!

Exposure to poisons

Maria is using a poison to try to get rid., or control them. Maria told us that her previous pet dog, died from eating poison There are children in the house, So that is a dangerous situation. Not only can their dog die, but one of her children could accidentally ingest poison.


Food safety

There is an obvious danger to food safety and Maria shops every day for food. She cannot keep things in the house, and when she does, they have to be double and triple bagged to keep these critters out of her food. What she has at home are things like cereal, and even that is double bagged.

Exposed electrical wiring

We also noticed exposed and stripped electrical writing, for example under the hood of the stove. This is a hood that has water drip down when it rains, and as we said, there are exposed wires. Her previous stove, which took months to replace, did suffer from some kind of an electrical fire. So far, people are lucky that noting more serious has happened.

Also her heat control for the unit at the home has no control cap on it, so she is using a fork. Her electrical outlets don’t have a cover, so they are open and a 3 year old could easily get in trouble with the outlet.


There was also quite a bit of mold in the property. We asked specifically if any of her children have symptoms of asthma. This is the reason, According to the Centers for Disease Control:

In 2004 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found there was sufficient evidence to link indoor exposure to mold with upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people; with asthma symptoms in people with asthma; and with hypersensitivity pneumonitis in individuals susceptible to that immune-mediated condition. The IOM also found limited or suggestive evidence linking indoor mold exposure and respiratory illness in otherwise healthy children.

Why it matters?

At this time you might be asking, why does it matter to me? There is a societal cost when people are exposed to living conditions like this. For starters, sick and hungry kids do not pay attention in school. Also these kids will use the Emergency Room for urgent care, which ends up costing all of us.

There are other costs associated with poverty, and then there are the civil and human rights involved in this. I rarely as an editor I note what I have seen. But I was a medic for 10 years in Tijuana. and even in the worst of the slums, I hardly saw conditions like this. The city has a problem with slum lords, This is known and this is not going away. Not until the city does more than just have a special team and few resources.

We need affordable, healthy homes. This is a matter of basic respect for other human beings. In the case of Maria, they pay their rent every month. They have gotten some cosmetic fixes, such as painting over dirty and moldy paint, which will hide the problem for a couple months, and it will come back. They got a window changed, after some noise started to be made.

These are our neighbors, and if any of you drove by the building, you would never imagine the conditions inside. Imagine being a parent and your children being afraid of walking to the kitchen to get a glass of water, since the ground is crawling with roaches. Imagine, some of her neighbors do this, dressing your newborn baby for the night in white clothes, since it will be easier to find the roaches and remove them from your new born child.

An attempt was made to contact the building manager, but he never answered the door.

Update: The office of Marti Emerald, District 9, did visit the home on Friday with the Socialist Campaign as well as Reverend Shane Harris of the National Action Network. For the moment the issue will be handled for the moment by the Socialist Campaign. The owner has verbally agreed to make repairs.

The office also told us that if you feel there are violations this is what you should do:

In order to properly address this situation and any other similar situations the key is to make a Request for Investigation with Code Enforcement Department and provide as much detail as possible about the alleged violations.  Tenants have the authority to allow inspectors into their residence to inspect the premises.  Code enforcement inspectors have been trained to identify insect infestations.  Infestations will require an evaluation and treatment plan prepared by and conducted by a qualified pest control company.  This normally is included in any kind of Notice issued to the property owner.  Follow up inspections are conducted to ensure compliance.

How do I report a violation?

If you believe that there is a violation in your neighborhood or near your business, call (619) 236-5500 to file a complaint, or complete the Request for Investigation Form and submit online, or print and mail. The Request for Investigation Form in Spanish (PDF) is available in a PDF format. The form is also accessible at any City of San Diego library computer by going to the Code Enforcement website or at our office located at 1222 First Avenue, 5th Floor. Any forms submitted via regular mail should be addressed to:

Code Enforcement Division

1222 First Avenue, 5th Floor, MS 511

San Diego, CA 92101

(619) 236-5500

Be aware to file those complaints that affect you, since they city has a high demand for service at the moment.

Categories: Affordable Housing, civil rights, Human Rights, Slums

5 replies

  1. An amazing reporting and documentation. Journalism worthy of all of our support. Martin Eder


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