Three large refugee families that a local nonprofit helped resettle at an El Cajon apartment complex are being asked to move because they have too many people living in their homes.

They came forward after KPBS aired an investigation nearly two weeks ago about other refugee families who said the same resettlement agency – the International Rescue Committee in San Diego – put them into too-small apartments by encouraging them to sign leases that omitted the names of some occupants.

IRC’s national office in New York has said it’s investigating the recent claims made by refugees. In an email Tuesday, a spokesman said the office is aware of the new cases, which it is also looking into, “and is supporting our clients through their next steps.”

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This is part of an ongoing series about the struggles refugees face when they make San Diego County their home. The series is a collaboration of reporters, photographers, videographers and editors at inewsource, KPBS and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. Why this topic? Since 2009, more than 23,000 refugees have settled in the county, more than any other region in California.

The three families, who moved into their apartments last year, said they received the 30-day notices to vacate a day after KPBS’s story was published on July 27. A manager for the complex, which is under new ownership, said only five people are allowed in a two-bedroom apartment. Two of the families have eight members, while another has seven.

Lalmir Hamdard, a refugee from Afghanistan who arrived here in September, said he relied on an IRC translator to help him sign the English-language lease. A copy of the document provided to KPBS showed five names on the lease instead of all eight members of his family.

“At the time, I didn’t understand it in English – even my daughters with little English didn’t understand,” he said in Farsi through a translator. “I only understood that it said here, ‘Write this, sign here, do this.’ And I did.”

Two neighboring Syrian families who speak Arabic shared similar stories. They would have to find a three-bedroom apartment, which would be more expensive, and they’re already having trouble keeping up with rent on their two-bedroom units. However, even a larger apartment may not be big enough depending on a complex’s policy.

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“Occupancy rules are a gray area in a sense that it depends on the building, but there are general guidelines,” said Nils Rosenquest, a San Francisco attorney who focuses on housing and real estate law.

Rosenquest said an accepted standard in California is the two-plus-one policy: that’s two occupants per room plus one more person for the overall unit.

“Which means in a two-bedroom apartment it’s five people, three-bedroom apartment it is seven people,” said Rosenquest, who contributed to the 2017 edition of “The California Landlord’s Law Book.”

Saadia Hamdard speaks to her father Lalmir, while sitting alongside three of her siblings in her family’s two-bedroom apartment in El Cajon, Aug. 1, 2017. Megan Wood, inewsource

He said some federal guidelines for subsidized housing say two-plus-two is acceptable, meaning six in a two-bedroom apartment and eight in a three-bedroom unit. El Cajon’s rules are similar as long as the rooms and living spaces are of a certain size. However, the management of one complex told KPBS it would only allow six people in a three-bedroom.

“It’s up to the landlord to choose, subject to certain local limitations, but the landlord can choose anything that’s reasonable provided it’s non-discriminatory,” Rosenquest said.

When it comes to family size, what is discriminatory is decided by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Director Kevin Kish said the agency evaluates a variety of factors to determine this, from parking restrictions to the plumbing system.

“We’d also want to know things like, how old are the children? Are there infants who are likely to be sleeping in a crib that could be fit into a parents’ room?,” Kish said in a phone interview. “I mean the age of the children also plays into the analysis of how reasonable the restriction is.”

Kish said anyone can file a complaint if they feel a policy is too limiting.

The youngest member of the Hamdard family leans back on the family’s couch while his father, Lalmir, is seen in the foreground, Aug. 1, 2017. Megan Wood, inewsource

Back at the Hamdard apartment, the notice said they and the other families need to be out by the end of August. He said the family is familiar with moving around; they relocated seven times in Afghanistan after the Taliban threatened the family over his humanitarian work.

“Taliban said, ‘Don’t work with the government, don’t work with the peace program, don’t help the desperate foreign people, and don’t distribute produce materials,’” Lalmir said.

Robert Lang, vice president of CVG Properties, which now owns the complex, told KPBS the families would be allowed to stay until they find new homes.

“We’re not going to be displacing people and putting people on the street,” he said.

Laura Wingard, inewsource managing editor, contributed to the editing of this story. inewsource photojournalist Megan Wood provided photos for the story.


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[two_third_last] Falsified documents leave San Diego refugees vulnerable
Refugees say resettlement workers put them at risk of losing their homes because falsified lease documents omitted occupants.[/two_third_last]

Tarryn Mento

Tarryn Mento is the health reporter for KPBS. She has reported from three countries and in two languages. Her work has been published by The Washington Post, the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News, and El Nuevo Herald. Prior to serving as KPBS' health reporter, Tarryn was the multimedia producer...