Chicken salad and tostadas are the first things you smell stepping into the Lopez family apartment. Several people are sitting around a coffee table sharing a meal. Each of the tiny studio apartments houses one family. With 24 families in the building, the space is at full capacity. In the Lopez apartment, food is in the kitchen, on a makeshift table on wheels.
The Lopez family has lived in this studio apartment for thirteen years. The family moved here from Mexico. Edgar Lopez and his two brothers grew up in this apartment.
Edgar says the kids had a lot of fun playing in the parking lot: “hide and go seek under the cars, play cops and robbers, all that” he says, “Right there, where the bike is, is where we used to go and hang out. We used to get on top of here and go through the roof and just jump down.”
He’s pointing to a garbage dumpster with a small square of dirt next to it. Now it’s covered in broken wood. When Edgar was young, the kids would climb down from the outdoor stairwell, onto the railing, and then jump onto the mess.
“There used to be buckets of trash that we'd land on and we'd just played around in there,” he says.
Edgar says he and his friends were pretty free to roam the apartment building. They could make noise and mischief and play outside in the neighborhood.
“When we were young there used to be no silence. We used to be out at nine here. Yeah, before it got bad,” he says.
It got bad. Crime around the apartment increased dramatically.
“When it started getting more dangerous, just random people would just come in with beer or alcohol, cigars all that and start smoking and drinking inside here” says Edgar.
Suddenly all the kids had a curfew. Besides loitering, Edgar talks of a spike in prostitution about six years ago that the neighborhood is now notorious for. Edgar says when things started getting “bad” outside, he had to play inside.
Edgar’s mother, Evangelina Lopez, is not happy that her son is holed up inside, in front of a screen so much.
“As a mother I get worried because I know it’s not a positive environment,” she says. “But at the same time I’m afraid when he goes out in the streets because something could happen to him, so I’m between a rock and a hard place.”
That hard place she’s referring to is the reality of the crime happening around their neighborhood. Their apartment faces International Boulevard, where Edgar can see and hear it all. He says, at first, it was shocking to see fights in the street, but over time, he just got used to it.
“I think there's a lot worser places to live in Oakland I pretty much just say I better live here then over there,” he says.
And the violence isn’t just out on the street – sometimes it happens right inside the building.
“I think two years ago, there was an African American lady that was supposedly claiming that she was pregnant from one guy. She said she was Cuban and think she was a prostitute, but she came literally she punched one of the neighbors. The guys had to restrain her and the police came and the ambulance came and she threw a couple punches too, so people got hit,” says Edgar.
Teresa Salazar has lived in the building for nearly two decades. Like the Lopez family, Salazar says the conditions here are deteriorating. She came home from shopping in the middle of the day two years ago to find two people having sex in the stairwell. Salazar told the apartment manager, but he said there was nothing he could do about it.
Salazar went all the way to city council. Council President and representative for the San Antonio district Pat Kernighan’s aide Mandalyn Mendoza recalls, “There were so many people, so many complaints about it.”
Mendoza says Salazar wasn’t the first to raise the alarm about that same building. Many people, especially those in low-income areas, don’t know how to navigate the city bureaucracy, or they’re intimidated. Many don’t trust the government very much.
“A lot of people are very scared that they'll get deported, things like that,” says Mendoza.
Therefore, a lot of these types of problems go unreported. But in the case of this apartment complex, people did complain. And the city is taking action.
“OPD is involved and the neighborhood services coordinators are also involved and they know all about the situation, so they make regular stops,” says Mandalyn.
That’s pretty much the most the city can do. The problems of the apartment complex aren’t explicitly stated in California’s renter’s rights, so there’s no clear regulation about how to proceed. Instead, the city has to “give the manager a fair chance to correct the problem” says Mendoza.
She’s optimistic that it will work out, though.
“I think that there is hope. It all starts with speaking up and stating that there is a problem. I believe in this situation, we are going to correct it,” she says.
But for the residents of the apartment complex, the question is whether that will happen soon enough. Evangelina Lopez has noticed a change out on the streets. But Edgar’s Mom, Evangelina Lopez, has noticed a change for the worse out on the streets.
“The crime and prostitution have been getting worse all the time. Crime, like robberies, has increased. I feel unsafe and that’s why at around five or six, people are inside their homes because of fear, fear of being attacked,” says Evangelina. She says it makes her angry that she’s starting to get used to these living conditions, as if they’re obligatory.
So the Lopez family feels stuck. Rent is relatively cheap in this area of Oakland – studios go for about $600 per month – much less than most parts of the city. Although Evangelina would like to move out of her neighborhood, she and Edgar will have to make do at the apartment on International Boulevard.
City officials are working to find other options for people like the Lopez family. But, they say that reform is slow and progress takes a lot longer than anyone would like.