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Liliana Lopez plays with her brother Sebastian outside Villa Serena while waiting for their other siblings to get home from school. Their family moved from the older Villa Serena apartments into the newer ones across the street last year. Photo by Laura Place
Liliana Lopez plays with her brother Sebastian outside Villa Serena while waiting for their other siblings to get home from school. Their family moved from the older Villa Serena apartments into the newer ones across the street last year. Photo by Laura Place
CitiesNewsSan MarcosSan Marcos Featured

Villa Serena residents face displacement, plead for relocation help

SAN MARCOS — The upcoming Phase 2 redevelopment of the Villa Serena apartment complex has elicited concerns from the 76 low-income residents who will be displaced come May.

Led by affordable housing developer National CORE, the planned project will replace the 1970s-era affordable complex at 339 Marcos St. with an updated 63-unit development, providing much-needed two- and three-bedroom units. 

Phase 1, completed last spring, replaced the other half of the Villa Serena property at 340 Marcos Street, just across the road, with an 85-unit development. The final 148-unit complex will be 100% affordable, with all units deed-restricted for those making 30% to 60% of the area median income, or AMI. 

“The biggest takeaway from residents is that we need bigger units, we’re under-parked, and we have utility, sewer and water issues. So that’s why we’re doing this,” said John Seymour, National CORE’s San Diego vice president of acquisition and forward planning. “Eighty percent of the units will have two and three bedrooms.”

In late December, residents living at the Phase 2 site received a 120-day notice stating they would need to vacate the property by May and that National CORE would help with the transition. Over the next month, many said that help did not materialize, and they began to panic. 

At the San Marcos City Council’s Jan. 23 meeting, dozens of residents showed up to plead with city leaders for help. The majority were monolingual Spanish speakers.

“I agree that we need to renovate the apartments, but at the same time, we need help,” said Salvador Gomez, a 13-year resident of Villa Serena, via translation. 

Residents said National CORE provided them with a list of other affordable developments in the city in December where they would supposedly be able to find housing. However, upon contacting these complexes, residents were told they have multi-year waitlists. 

Most cannot afford to live in market-rate apartments, and they said they are scared about having to leave the area where they have lived for years and where their kids attend school. 

“We were given the list, and when we show up to locations, they say there’s no availability,” said Irma Raymundo, a single mom living at Villa Serena since 2013, also through a translator. “I need help. I don’t know where to go with my kids.” 

he Villa Serena Apartments at 339 Marcos St. will be renovated starting in June, displacing the current 76 residents for around two years. Photo by Laura Place
The Villa Serena Apartments at 339 Marcos St. will be renovated starting in June, displacing the current 76 residents for around two years. Photo by Laura Place

Many residents also claimed National CORE told them in December that they would be given relocation assistance but later informed them that they were not eligible due to waivers they had signed. 

Following nearly four hours of comment and discussion, the City Council instructed National CORE to follow up with residents and provide more guidance in helping them find somewhere to go. 

In turn, city leaders said they would reach out to other developments to assist in identifying available units and make their own staff available to help National CORE. 

“I feel there needs to be more handholding here. You can feel the tension in this room of people who are scared — I don’t like that. There needs to be true coordination,” said Mayor Rebecca Jones. 

According to Community and Economic Development Director Tess Sangster, the city will also keep track of any current and upcoming vacancies in affordable developments in the coming months.

“The city has contacted all affordable development partners with direct calls, emails and virtual meetings to ensure all are aware of the relocation in progress and to inform them of priority waitlists for displaced tenants in another affordable development,” Sangster said.

Relocation assistance 

Concerns about not receiving relocation assistance came up repeatedly during the Jan. 23 meeting. Many of these same issues were also raised by residents in the Phase 1 development in 2021, causing the San Diego Tenants Union to become involved. 

Beginning in 2012, National CORE began providing new tenants to 339 Marcos Street with a “Move-in Sheet” and “Waiver of Relocation Benefits Notice,” stating that signatories waive their rights to federal Uniform Relocation Assistance (URA) and state relocation assistance, respectively.

This assistance generally includes advisory services and payments for rent and moving expenses.

Many residents said that in their one-on-one relocation meetings with National CORE staff in January, they were told they were not eligible for benefits and presented with the waivers they had signed.  

However, multiple residents said the waiver was only in English at the time they signed or was not fully explained to them, while others said they did not remember signing the waiver at all. 

“I signed a waiver, not knowing what was written on that waiver. I just came to find out that they’re pretty much kicking us out,” said resident Guadalupe Barrios via translation. 

National CORE leaders explained that the residents who were asked to sign waivers were never eligible for benefits to begin with and were not asked to give up any rights. 

Phase 1 of the reconstruction of the Villa Serena Apartments was completed last year at 340 Marcos Street, pictured. Improvements to the remainder of the Villa Serena complex across the street will begin in June. Photo by Laura Place
Phase 1 of the reconstruction of the Villa Serena Apartments was completed last year at 340 Marcos Street, pictured. Improvements to the remainder of the Villa Serena complex across the street will begin in June. Photo by Laura Place

They said that under state law, National CORE is not required to provide relocation benefits to residents if they are informed upon move-in that the development is planned for reconstruction. National CORE began pursuing the redevelopment in 2012, and all residents who moved in after that point were asked to sign waivers recognizing their ineligibility.

Of the 76 residents currently in the complex, just 17 moved in before the 2012 cutoff and are eligible for full benefits, which could amount to up to $40,000 per family. 

John Seymour, National CORE’s San Diego vice president of acquisition and forward planning, said giving this assistance to every displaced family would be infeasible, as the company would never be able to afford the redevelopment. 

“If every resident who moved in was eligible, there would be no project because it would be so over budget,” Seymour said. 

However, National CORE leaders added that they are providing ongoing guidance and smaller payments to those who are not eligible for benefits. 

“National CORE is providing $5,000 plus the return of security deposits to residents who don’t qualify for the relocation benefits. This far exceeds the requirements of federal law,” said National CORE spokesperson William Diepenbrock. “We are also offering individual counseling to all residents as we try to help them navigate the effort to find new housing, which we know can be difficult. This includes helping them connect with other developments where they will have priority and with other community benefit organizations designed to assist residents.”

Seymour also assured residents that National CORE would not allow anyone to wind up homeless. Back in 2021, Phase 1 residents who had not found housing by the move-out date were given the option of $10,000 for relocation assistance or temporary subsidized hotel accommodations at $650 per month. 

“There is a fear of becoming homeless. National CORE will not let that happen, just like we did in the first phase,” Seymour said. 

Project construction is planned to begin in June and last approximately two years. Phase 2 residents will be given priority to move back into the new development upon completion. 

Translation

The city also faced criticism for not having a professional Spanish-language interpreter at the Jan. 23 meeting, leading to things literally being lost in translation.

A Spanish language interpreter provides translation for residents at the Feb. 13 San Marcos City Council meeting. Screenshot/City of San Marcos
A Spanish language interpreter provides translation for residents at the Feb. 13 San Marcos City Council meeting. Screenshot/City of San Marcos 

While Jones said staff had been instructed to provide an interpreter, one never showed up. Instead, an individual from the audience agreed to assist in translating speakers’ comments into English for city leaders and leaders’ remarks into Spanish for the speakers. 

Despite this, many parts of the meeting where the Villa Serena project and relocation were being discussed were not translated into Spanish, leaving many attendees in the dark.

Councilwoman María Nuñez said this dynamic made it one of the most difficult council meetings she has attended. She represents District 1, where Villa Serena is located and knows some of the affected residents personally. 

“In terms of where we’ve been with language accessibility, it shows the complacency of the city,” Nuñez said. “As a city, it’s unacceptable for us not to have that basic level of service for our residents. It’s outrageous that we continue to do this.” 

Despite the lack of professional interpretation, she said it was still important that residents were able to make their voices heard at the meeting. 

An interpreter was present at the council’s Feb. 13 meeting, where several Villa Serena residents showed up again to raise concerns to the council. Sangster said Spanish interpreters will be available at City Council meetings going forward. 

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