Callous disregard from human life is on the ballot this Tuesday. The point was driven home when the president’s son appeared on Fox News to cavalierly announce that deaths from the coronavirus are “almost nothing,” despite John Hopkins University recording 228,909 COVID-19 deaths on Oct. 30, 17,574 deaths in California. What is frighteningly overlooked is how that callous disregard has apparently trickled down to private companies, including those with contracts for housing active duty military families. Brisa Toscano, whose husband is active duty military in San Diego, says she needs Prop 21, the Rental Affordability Act, because she is pregnant, asthmatic, and trapped in moldy military housing because they can’t afford anywhere else to live.
Prop 21 is the statewide ballot measure that puts limits on unfair, sky-high rent increases, reins in corporate landlord greed, and prevents homelessness. Top experts at USC, UCLA, and UC Berkeley agree that sensible rent limits are key for stabilizing California’s housing affordability crisis. That’s why Reps. Maxine Waters, Karen Bass and Barbara Lee, the California Democratic Party, the ACLU, the California Nurses Association, Veterans Voices, the California Alliance for Retired Americans, Black Lives Matter, the Los Angeles Times, LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, and a slew of LGBTQ organizations and individuals — have thrown their full support behind Prop 21.
Toscano notes that since the military transfers active duty families – the young couple has been married almost nine years — “here and there and everywhere,” she is well aware of “the difference of prices of every city or every state you go to. And the amount of places available here for a price we can afford is very little.”
Right now, Toscano, 29, her active duty husband, 32, and their two “weenie” dogs live in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house with a small backyard in the San Diego area for which they pay over $3,000. “It’s like a really tiny apartment,” she says.
But for all the patriotic rhetoric Americans express for those serving their country, the reality is that some military families are forced to live on food stamps and in housing that would make a slumlord proud.
Toscano says that they rely on the military for a rental allowance and, because of a lack of area affordability, they are generally forced to use housing provided by a private real estate and development group – Lincoln Military Housing. Theoretically, the landlord’s rent is leveraged off the local base’s Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), which is based on the city’s zip code and other cost-of-living factors for a military family, according to Veteranaid.org.
But that’s not how it appears to work in practice.
The military gives members “a search quote and you need to find a house in that amount. Usually we look for under that so we can, with that whole amount, pay bills like electricity, water, gas,” as well as the rent or mortgage, Toscano says. But “the money that they give you to rent a house is the BAH money that they take away because you’re living in their property.”
And, she adds, “it doesn’t matter what your rent is. They take it all away. Like my neighbors next door — they just got into the military and they live in the same size house and they pay like $2,000-something for the same house. We’re paying $3,000-something. That’s how they work.”
Lincoln Military Housing has different places around Camp Pendleton and Lemoore, California. “It’s a company that the government contracts with,” Toscano says. “I don’t know how it really works, but it’s certified by the military.”
While military housing could be construed as a federal issue, Toscano says the passage of Prop 21 in the state of California would impact her directly. “We wouldn’t be stuck living in military housing. We have no other option,” she says.
“We have mold issues. And like, you just move in and they tell you that the carpet is brand new. But it’s not brand new,” Toscano says. “And me with my asthma — I shouldn’t have carpet because of all the dust and everything that like the carpet gets. We asked Military Housing if they could remove it and they told us, ‘Oh, yes, we can remove it — if you pay us $1,000.”
There are possible additional out of pocket maintenance expenses upon moving out, too. “If a backyard used to be grass and when you move out, there’s a patch without grass, they charge you for that. If the sliding door has a scratch, they’ll charge you for the whole door. That is like $800,” she says. Other complaints include infestations of ants and brown spiders.
“A lot of people have been complaining, but they don’t do anything. In fact, one person went to the news and protested about it,” Toscano says, suggesting Lincoln Military Housing retaliated. “They asked them to leave. They gave them like a 30-day notice to get out of the house.”
There are other drawbacks to not being able to move to another, affordable rental. “I used to have four foster kids here,” she says. “We requested a bigger house and they said, ‘No because they’re not legally yours.’ So, we were living at two-bedroom house with four kids.”
Toscano’s husband – an E6 Petty Officer First Class in the Navy with 13 years of military service – is almost up for new orders and the only places available right now are Italy and Japan. With her asthma, the military categorized Toscano as an EFMP (Exceptional Family Member Program) for which she had to redo her papers. If she is given a high category, the military might send her husband alone to another country.
“So, I’ll be stuck somewhere around the United States at the military’s mercy,” she says. “It’s scary because my family lives in Mexico. I don’t have anyone around — so it’ll be just me. And right now, I am 14 weeks pregnant and it will be just me and the baby and the dogs – the youngest is 5, the oldest is 13. “They’re my company.”
COVID has made matters worse.
“I’m always home, 24/7. At the beginning of COVID, my husband was deployed so I had a friend’s husband do the grocery shopping for me. But I started feeling like there was a burden on them. So, I stopped asking them and I started doing it myself and I had to carry my four foster kids with me. There was not much help around. Basically, you’re screwed. You have to do things by yourself or you don’t do it,” she says. “My husband is back now, so he can go and do it. But men don’t know what we need, so I have to go do it myself.”
In addition to COVID and housing issues, Toscano has had to face discrimination at the grocery store. “I have been mistreated by people just because I’m speaking Spanish on my phone,” she says. “You have to get used to it” because of the anti-immigrant fervor near the border.
When told with callous disregard that she should go back to her own country, Toscano thinks: “I am in my land. You stole it from me.” But it would be far easier and safer if she and her family could move to an area where they can afford to live with the honor and the respect they deserve for serving their country.