Alonso Ceceñas has been unable to pay rent on the one-bedroom apartment his family shares since losing his job with a construction company due to the pandemic. Photo by Araceli Martínez Ortega

Alonso Ceceñas
City: Los Angeles, Los Angeles County
Race/Ethnicity: Latino
Occupation: Construction worker

Alonso and his wife have been unable to afford rent during the pandemic. They share a one-bedroom apartment with their four children.

For Alonso Ceceñas and his wife, Yadira Michel, March will mark a year without being able to pay the rent for a small one-bedroom apartment they share with their four children in South Los Angeles. The hardest thing is the constant harassment of the homeowner who lives next to them, separated only by a wall.

“He cut off the power, takes the power out of the outlets,” Ceceñas said. “Also, he lowers the boiler temperature to the lowest so that we cannot receive hot water in the shower. Any noise we make bothers him and has even threatened to report us to immigration.”

The couple had always paid the rent on time, but everything changed when the pandemic began in March 2020. Alfonso, who makes his living as a construction laborer, was left without a job because the company he used to work closed its doors. Now he says he works “one day I get a job, another not.”

The Mexican immigrants are parents to Geraldine, 16; Daisy, 12; Kaylie, 10; and Manuel, 3.

They pay $900 a month for a place they have called home for 10 years. The tiny apartment is part of a house the owner converted into five units, including one where the landlord lives. 

Inside, everything is too small: a mini living room, a mini kitchen, a mini bedroom and a bathroom that barely fits one person. The bedroom fits one bed for the three girls to sleep. The parents sleep in the living room with their youngest.

Ceceñas says there was friction with the landlord even before the pandemic. 

“He charged me for electricity and gas apart from the rent, but there were times when he wanted to charge me up to $400 every two months,” Ceceñas said.”It seemed too much for the small place we live in. He never wanted to show me the receipts for what he paid for electricity.”

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Tension has risen since the family stopped paying rent. Ceceñas says the owner taunts him, hoping the father will act out. Already, the landlord accused Ceceñas of pushing him and is now seeking a restraining order. 

“He, the owner, is looking for any pretext to provoke us,” Ceceñas said. “He puts himself in front of me; he wants me to confront him and have reasons to accuse me. I always try to be relaxed, because already my children are worried and scared by his screams.”

Emerio Medina, the landlord, denied being hostile toward the Ceceñas, and said the tenants are using the pandemic as an excuse for not paying rent. 

“Alonso is making money and he can prove it,” Medina said, declining further comment.

The Ceceñas family feels trapped. 

“We want to leave because we cannot live under that type of harassment all the time,” the father said, “but it is not so easy to find a place in the middle of a pandemic, much less without a job.”

The family relies on food banks but government aid has been limited. They received a one-time grant of $300 for each child. In the coming weeks, the state will be sending out stimulus aid to millions of low-income families, regardless of immigation status, under the Golden State Stimulus package. What the family most wants is to find a housing attorney to help them work out an arrangement with the landlord. 

Lupita González, a tenant advocate with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, said since the landlord got a lawyer, the Ceceñas are getting help from a pro bono law firm and hope to reach some settlement. When it rains, water gets through the kitchen window and the family says mold is growing in the apartment.

“The Ceceñas’s children,” González said, “can’t continue living in an unhealthy place.”

This project is part of California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

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