By HILLARY ABRAMS | Truckee

Moving back to idyllic Truckee to live closer to my family was a no-brainer; finding housing, on the other hand, was not. I crashed with friends and slept on my sister’s couch for months, chasing down leads, scouring Facebook, and submitting applications for apartments that never materialized. A friend who had recently moved out of the Donner Trails Cabins compound suggested that I leave my contact information with the manager, and a few weeks later she called to say that a unit had become available. When I toured the converted attic apartment, there were only two windows. Later, I compared the darkness inside to the lighting in a vintage clothing store, where you don’t see the stains on the pretty white dress until you get it home and by then it is too late because they don’t accept returns. I moved in.

When the crisp fall weather necessitated that I turn my heat on, and after the first PUD bill arrived, I called to arrange a free energy audit. The inspector arrived and looked around the attic with raised eyebrows. “Your front door is actually a plywood interior door,” he said, “and I am not even sure that this place is up to code anyway.” He ducked into my bathroom and shook his head incredulously at the exposed wires above my sink. He pointed out holes in the crawl space that would suck heat all winter and asked if the water damage covered by a makeshift wood scrap had been checked for mold. I could tell he felt bad for me, and for the first time I saw my apartment through someone else’s eyes.

Why didn’t I contact my landlord? The older man who accepts only cash from all of his tenants, pulling in an approximate $15,000 a month, with no paper trail. Who refuses to pay upfront for snow removal, and instead prefers to gamble on a light winter and call the plow only when absolutely necessary, after we’ve slid down the steep driveway into oncoming traffic on Donner Pass Road. Simply, I was intimidated. My landlord is a bully who makes it clear that I am lucky to live here. With a desperate housing crisis in our community, in a sense he is right. That does not, however, make it right, or even legal, for landlords to profit from renting unsafe units that haven’t been zoned for residential living.

Other tenants at both the Donner Trail Cabins and the Donner Motel complex told me stories about clogged chimney flues, faulty smoke detectors/carbon monoxide detectors, broken stoves, mold problems, septic overflow into showers, water leaking through ceilings, unmetered electric, unannounced rent increases, and extensive electric usage in small spaces. One tenant reported that her refrigerator, stove, and space heater all feed from the same outlet.

Kerry Taber, the Town of Truckee’s code compliance officer, has no resources for Truckee tenants  to make official complaints or request repairs from landlords. Taber merely suggests “really checking out an apartment before putting any money down or agreeing on a lease” because “most landlords will tell tenants to just move somewhere else if they aren’t happy.” Why do we continue to live in unsafe conditions, under a slumlord that refuses to invest in his rental units to ensure the safety and comfort of his tenants? Because, especially for young people just starting out on their family lives or careers and trying to afford living in the area on a limited budget, we have no “somewhere else” to go. I’m moving; the search for livable housing has been fruitless and I’m now in Seattle. How long is Truckee willing to lose valuable human resources to slumlord-rented housing conditions? Taber and the town need to provide a comprehensive system for complaints about landlords and reform the rental agreement system.

~ Hillary Abrams works in nonprofit philanthropy and has lived all over the world. After serving in the Peace Corps, she moved back to Truckee to be close to family and provide support to survivors of domestic violence with the Tahoe SAFE Alliance.