San Diego County COVID-19 hotel guest struggles with housing

Linda McDowell had goosebumps after touring a downtown apartment just blocks from San Diego Bay. It was spacious enough for her 6-year-old pitbull named Stella, and with a park down the street, it seemed perfect. She almost couldn’t believe it would be the first place to call her own since before the pandemic.

On the way to the bank for money to hold the apartment, Linda sang aloud, “I’m gettin’ an apartment,” incorporating her own twist on the Sam Cooke classic, “We’re havin’ a party. Dancin’ to the music.”

why this matters

A San Diego County spokesperson said officials are doing everything they can to help house the remaining guests of a troubled pandemic program that has cost more than $100 million.

For more than a year, Linda and Stella have been living at a San Diego County-run hotel in Old Town, which has been used to temporarily house people with pre-existing health conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. She is one of dozens of others who still remain at the hotel as the troubled program is at risk of ending a month sooner than expected.

The remaining guests have only a few weeks to find a new place to live, or they will be sent to a homeless shelter. A county spokesperson said officials are doing everything they can to help, and pointed to the number of housing subsidies that have been provided.

Linda McDowell waits for the elevator at an apartment building in downtown San Diego, May 4, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Linda is one of 30 guests who received a Section 8 voucher, a form of government assistance that helps low-income residents pay for housing, and it gave her peace of mind knowing she’ll have financial support to cover the $2,445 monthly rent. Even so, she has come to learn how difficult it can still be to find a home in San Diego.

“It’s been a long haul,” she said.

The hotel shelter program has been winding down since the beginning of the year, and county staff and contractors are supposed to be working with guests to help them find housing. But for the past several weeks, Linda said she hasn’t been getting the help she needs, so she decided to start touring and applying for units on her own.

One sunny afternoon last week, Linda drove south in her Kia Soul on the I-5 freeway to tour an apartment near San Diego’s Seaport Village. After living and raising a family for 23 years in Point Loma Heights, she was hesitant to move into the more urban area.

But that changed as Linda turned onto the apartment building’s street.

“It’s gonna be so nice, it’s so close to the water!” Linda said, looking in every direction, trying to take it all in at once. “I could just walk outside and be on the water. Look at this! Ahhh!”

Linda was hoping to rent a one-bedroom unit with a large closet and plenty of storage space. When management gave her a tour of a model studio on the first floor, she was excited to see even the studio was spacious. Her face de ella was filled with a mixture of excitement and disbelief as she looked around.

Linda McDowell receives paperwork from the resident services office at an apartment building in downtown San Diego, May 4, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

In the resident services office, staff handed Linda an application for a 585-square-foot, one-bedroom unit on the corner of the second floor, with a courtyard view. They said they could hold it for her if she returned after 2:15 pm with the completed application and a deposit.

First, she needed cash. So she jumped into her car and drove to a nearby 7-Eleven to use an ATM. Then, sitting in the driver’s seat outside of the store, she started to fill out the application.

“Oh lord, my nerves,” Linda said with a deep sigh.

Reading aloud from the application, “Residential history,” she said, considering what to write.

“I hate applications. Residential…” she trailed off, then wrote the name of the hotel she’s been living at for more than a year.

Growing nervous by the second, she continued. But the type and number of questions on the application acted like stumbling blocks: Employer’s name? Have you ever been evicted?

Linda lives on social security and disability payments, and delivers food for DoorDash on the side. She first experienced homelessness after being evicted from her home de ella in Point Loma Heights in February 2020. She had been living and paying rent with her brother de ella, but after his death de ella in 2018, the payments started to pile up.

After the eviction, Linda lived in her car in a safe parking lot run by a nonprofit, Jewish Family Service, before qualifying for a room in the county hotel program due to her medical condition. She has a good credit score, she said, and only owes money on her car. Even so, she worried the eviction would be a problem and hoped it wouldn’t come up in the credit check.

Linda said she had already discussed these concerns with the people supposed to help her find housing — employees with Equus Workforce Solutions, the contractor that has faced scrutiny for its mishandling of the program — and they led her to believe that her Section 8 voucher would be the key to get her inside an apartment.

Linda McDowell withdraws money for apartment application fees at a 7-Eleven in downtown San Diego, May 4, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

After Linda finished the application, the next step was finding a bank for a money order. Feeling uplifted now, Linda broke into her rendition of Cooke’s “Having a party.”

“You know what song I’m singing, right?” she asked, before jumping back into tune, “We’re havin’ a party. Everybody’s dancin’. I’m getting an apartment.”

With her rental application, Linda needed $200 for the deposit and $45 for a credit check. She tried to get money orders from two different banks, but no luck. She then went to a payday loan store in the Gaslamp Quarter. It was already approaching 2:15 pm, the time Ella Linda hoped to be back at the building by. She wanted her application processed as soon as possible.

On the drive back to the leasing office, she started worrying about costs. After paying to hold the unit, a credit check, storage costs and other moving expenses, would she have enough if the utility company asked for a deposit, too? If she could move in quickly she might be able to save on storage, she said.

“That would be really great.”

She arrived an hour later than she wanted to, but the front desk still accepted her application and money orders, and she decided to take the elevator up to see the rooftop pool.

Linda McDowell expresses excitement from the rooftop deck of the building she hopes to rent an apartment in, San Diego, May 4, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“Look at that boat! Look at that water! You’ve got a view!” she said, looking over the edge. “Down that street, there’s a park for Stella.”

She took a deep breath and said, “I’m gonna cry. Not yet. I’m gonna cry when he gives me the news.”

The news came just as Linda returned to her car. Her cell phone de ella rang and it was the leasing agent. He had called while running a rental history check. It’s not the same as a credit check, I explained. Linda’s face sunk.

Linda McDowell receives a call from a leasing agent as her application for an apartment is being processed, San Diego, May 4, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“The eviction came up,” she said, referring to the Point Loma Heights apartment she had for 23 years. She still has $36,000 in rental debt with the owner.

“Now I’m really gonna cry.”

The only way she could get into that apartment, the agent said, was if she brought that debt down to zero.

“What am I gonna do? At zero balance. That’s gonna be a miracle,” she said almost in shock, repeating one word over and over: “Wow.”

“Who’s gonna rent (to me)?” she asked herself. “That means anywhere and everywhere I go to (apply).”

Deflated, Linda called her contact at the San Diego Housing Commission on her way back to her hotel in Old Town and left a message, asking if there was anything that could be done to help.

She arrived back at the hotel, walked over to a 15-foot travel trailer parked on the street and said, “You see this little gem? It’s mine.”

The inside has been intricately painted and decorated, with a small chandelier hanging over a twin bed. Something to fall back on.

Linda McDowell cries after receiving news that she may be turned down to rent an apartment she applied for in downtown San Diego, May 4, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“It’s a good thing I have this,” she said, fighting back tears. “I just don’t know what to do.”

County officials still haven’t told guests when they need to be out of the hotel, but time is running out. She said she could pay $450 a month to park the trailer at a campground, but that’s only if they accept her. And then she wondered about her stuff in storage and whether her small hatchback would be able to haul the trailer around town.

“My heart hurts.”

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