Dahbia Benakli with her 7-year-old daughter, Leah, in her Walnut Creek apartment on Nov. 6, 2021. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)
The past few years have been long and stressful for Dahbia Benakli.
At the end of 2019, she got divorced. With no one to help take care of her two young daughters, she was forced to quit her job as a preschool teacher. Her father helped her buy a car so she could drive for Uber and DoorDash to make rent.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and ride-hailing work dried up. Together with unemployment insurance, Benakli was making just over $2,000 a month — almost half of which she was using to pay the rent for the one-bedroom Walnut Creek apartment she’s lived in for the last 10 years.
In May 2021, as officials began easing COVID-19 restrictions, Benakli began planning a trip to visit her parents in Algeria, where she grew up. She hadn’t been back in five years, and she couldn’t wait to return, with her daughters in tow.
But that's also when Benakli says the new landlord and owner of her building began harassing her and other tenants in an effort to push them out, even though she insists she had consistently paid her rent on time and had not in any way violated her lease.
The new owner — a local real estate investor named Steven Pinza, president of the Pinza Group — sent Benakli a letter, ordering her to move out by July 31, under the pretense of having to conduct major building repairs.
“While we wish these repairs were not necessary or could be done without you moving out, it is not possible,” he wrote. “We have received multiple opinions, including from our insurance representatives, which state that these must be remediated.”
Pinza sent these notices to tenants in 11 of the building’s 18 units. Many of those tenants, Benakli said, were people of color.
Pinza gave them the option to temporarily relocate for two months at their own expense “while renovations are made,” then pay an additional $600 per month when they returned — a proposition she could not afford.
Upon receiving the letters, most of the tenants moved out. But, as the July 31 deadline approached, Benakli and two of her neighbors decided not to leave.
She said Pinza refused to accept her July rent payments, removed the tables and chairs in the courtyard, and informed her and her neighbors that anything left outside — like toys and bikes — would be thrown away. And a sudden barrage of loud construction work began just outside their doors.
“My 7-year-old was like, ‘Mom, is he going to kick us to the street? Mom, what's going to happen?’” said Benakli. “It's horrible for her to hear.”
Pinza did not respond to requests for comment, despite multiple attempts to reach him by phone and email.
A growing number of California cities are moving to deter property owners from harassing their renters. Tenants' advocates across the state say the frequency of reports of owner harassment has spiked during the pandemic — particularly after the enactment of federal and local eviction moratoriums.
In Oakland, for instance, Centro Legal de la Raza, a nonprofit immigrant and tenants' rights group, reported a 70% jump in owner harassment complaints between March 2020 and June 2021. And the Concord-based nonprofit Monument Impact said the number of calls it received from renters roughly tripled during that same period.
In response, a spate of cities throughout California — including Oakland, Los Angeles and Richmond — recently have implemented stronger tenant anti-harassment laws. Richmond’s ordinance, for example, bans property owners from refusing lawful rent payments or using “coercion, fraud or intimidation” to push tenants out.
Without being able to lean on any similar ordinance in Walnut Creek, Benakli and her neighbors sought help from the local chapter of a tenants’ rights group called Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), and held a small protest outside Pinza’s home in Walnut Creek.
ACCE Legal Director Leah Simon-Weisberg says Pinza has been on her group’s radar for some time, having a reputation for buying apartment buildings in the area and evicting tenants to remodel them and raise rents.
“He tends to just make money by pushing people out,” she said.
Benakli says she decided to stay in her apartment and face potential eviction proceedings in court because she and her kids didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Fearing that Pinza would empty out her apartment if she left for any length of time, Benakli decided to cancel her trip to Algeria.
“I was really afraid that if we go, he comes and leaves our stuff [on] the street,” she said. “He was so harassing, he was so rude.”
The following month she found out both of her parents had contracted COVID-19. And while her mother eventually recovered, her father died in July. A framed photo of him now hangs in her kitchen.
Today, Benakli and her daughters, along with their two neighbors, are still holding out in their apartments, waiting for Pinza to take them to court.
She says they haven’t heard anything from him since the end of July, and haven’t paid rent since then either, despite being willing to do so.
It's unclear why Pinza hasn't moved forward with eviction proceedings, although advocates at ACCE say it may be out of concern that he doesn't have the legal grounds to evict them and could lose in court.
“If he becomes human and, you know, come and talk to us and give us some more time and we'll work it out,” Benakli said.
Regardless, she said she’s ready for whatever comes next.
Despite the uncertainty of her living situation, Benakli says things feels a bit more stable now. In September, she found a new preschool teaching job that offers child care at work.
“It is quite a relief,” she said.
Benakli says she dreams of soon being able to move into a house where her daughters can have their own rooms and a backyard to play in. She hopes she’ll also be able to save enough money to visit Algeria again, and bring her mom back to the U.S. to live with them.
“We'll leave one day when we can,” she said.
Kori Suzuki is pursuing his master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.