Walnut Creek owner tries to evict residents despite moratorium – NBC Bay Area


Dahbia Benakli quit her job as a preschool teacher when Covid struck. She had no one to watch over her children.

The Algerian immigrant and single mother turned to the odd-job economy, driving for Door Dash and taking her two young children with her.

“I don’t want to do anything like an eviction, being on the street or in the car,” Benakli said.

But despite cobbling together enough money each month to pay rent and a county moratorium banning most evictions during the pandemic, an eviction is exactly what Benakli and his neighbors now face.

In May, a company called Sekk Investments, run by Walnut Creek real estate investor Steven Pinza, purchased the building that Benakli has lived in for over a decade. The company has more than 150 units in the Bay Area, according to Property Radar.

Benakli pays $ 1,000 a month, a bargain by Bay Area standards, not to mention Walnut Creek, a town better known for seven-figure house prices than affordable apartments. That month, Pinza sent 60-day eviction notices on behalf of Sekk Investments to most of the building’s residents, according to three tenants who showed similar letters to NBC Bay Area.

Dahbia Benakli works delivering food during pandemic with her children in the back seat

“There were 15 people here, eleven have been asked to leave,” Benakli said, adding that most of the residents who received notice have already left. “There are only a few of us at the moment. I think three or four.

The May notices, signed by Pinza, stipulate that tenants must vacate their units within 60 days because his company has “learned of significant problems in the building” and is “forced to make substantial repairs to the units”.

But the moratorium on evictions from Contra Costa County, which ends after September 30e, outlaws most rent increases and “no-fault” evictions during the pandemic.

Unless the landlord takes the property off the rental market or is considering moving into one of the units themselves, they are only allowed to evict tenants for immediate health and safety concerns. But there is no requirement that they show evidence of any danger before issuing opinions.

“I don’t see any health or safety issues, no caps are falling,” Benakli said. “It’s clean, it just needs a new paint.”

“I want to keep my kids safe because they ask a lot of questions. The seven-year-old always asks, ‘Mom, are we going to be kicked out on the streets? Are we going to have to sleep in the car? “

NBC Bay Area visited Benakli’s unit, and nothing came out as a clear sign of concern.

City records show that Pinza’s company has withdrawn permits to modernize the building’s kitchens and bathrooms, but it’s unclear how serious those renovations are. NBC Bay Area has contacted Pinza on several occasions, but never received a response. No one opened the door to Sekk Investments during our in-person visit.

“These are not legal opinions,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, statewide legal director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE).

“The owner alleges that he must do a substantial rehabilitation. This eviction base is intended for situations where the roof collapses, just extreme conditions that are not safe for tenants.

Benakli and several other tenants still refuse to leave, even protesting outside Pinza’s house in Walnut Creek, accompanied by supporters and tenants’ advocates.

Dahbia Benakli addresses supporters at a protest outside her owner’s home in Walnut Creek

“Basically what he really wants to do is gentrify the neighborhood, make us move, make us homeless, then do some cosmetic work so he can get other people to move in and pay rent. higher, ”said Decher Young, another tenant of the building who says she’s not moving.

In July, tenants say Pinza sent them letters with the same offer: to move out for two months at their own expense and come back with a rent increase of $ 600.

” I can not [afford to pay that]”Said Benakli.” It will be really hard. It will be hard and I have nowhere to go for two months.

This is not the first housing controversy involving Pinza. He made headlines in 2016 when tenants at Concord protested against sharp rent increases and poor conditions in the buildings he managed.

“We all got rent increases of $ 400,” said Betty Gabaldon, former Pinza tenant in Concord. “When I got home and saw the notice on my door, I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s a lot of money.'”

With the moratorium on evictions ending after Thursday, Benakli is worried about the future. Fighting against its owner has already taken a heavy toll. She planned to visit her father in Algeria over the summer, but canceled, staying at home to fight the eviction instead.

He died in July from Covid at the age of 68.

“I couldn’t do it,” said Benakli. “I am really sorry.”

Last weekend, Benakli received a new 60-day eviction notice from his landlord. Unless city or county officials soon enact new protections for tenants, Simon-Weisberg says their ability to fight back is threatened.

“It’s an important time for Walnut Creek to realize that its failure to provide protections to tenants leads to this kind of abuse,” said Simon-Weisberg.

“Walnut Creek has very little affordable housing and the tenants who live there need protection. “

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