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Cal Poly students navigate renting and poor living conditions in SLO County

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
Randol White
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus

One February morning, Cal Poly SLO senior Elyssa Abbott woke up to find mold growing in their ceiling light. They said not long after, they found black mold on their baseboards and in their pantry.

With an asthma diagnosis, Abbott said finding mold in their home was a huge concern for them.

“I woke up one night, like in the middle of the night, and I was having an asthma attack for the first time in, like, five years, and I kind of just booked it, like, I left the apartment in the middle of the night,” Abbott said. “I knew I needed to get out of there.”

Mold growing inside the pantry of an apartment unit.
Courtesy of Elyssa Abbott
Mold growing inside the pantry of an apartment unit.

Inhaling mold can increase asthma symptoms, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Abbott reported the health hazard to their landlord, but due to the urgency of their condition, they decided to find a new space to live in as soon as possible.

This forced them to temporarily jump from couch to couch while they searched for new housing. Their goal was to find a living space for less than $1,000 a month. So they posted their inquiry on Facebook Marketplace.

“I think, like, two or three different people commented on the post. They were like ‘sweetie, like, that budget is just not going to get you what you're looking for here in SLO,’” Abbott said.

The average tenant in San Luis Obispo County spent about $1,800 a month for rent and utilities in 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Since Abbott is a full-time student at the university and works part-time for minimum wage, they said $1,000 a month is all they can afford for housing. A Living Wage calculator produced by researchers from MIT also says a single adult with no children must make more than $25 an hour to afford rent in the area.

“I've met with some people and, like, looked at places, and I found some ones that are promising, but they are a little bit more expensive, just because every year in SLO the rent goes up,” Abbott said.

And data from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office agrees with Abbott. It said statewide rent prices have increased by about 25% since 2020.

Other students, like Mia Giacinto, have to live with more than three roommates to afford the city’s cost of living. Giacinto said even with all of her roommates, she’s encountered poor living conditions like rat and cockroach infestations in lower-rent homes.

“It's not really an issue or, like, a problem that's on, like, the landlord's mind because they know that someone will take it because the college students need somewhere to live,” Giacinto said.

But according to a representative from California West, a property management company in SLO, this isn’t necessarily the case. They wrote to KCBX saying that property managers and landlords try to respond to health threats like mold and infestations as quickly as possible.

Abbott and Giacinto did not tell KCBX who their landlord or property manager is because they fear retaliation from them.

KCBX checked with multiple downtown apartment complexes and property management companies to see how a typical landlord would handle health and safety hazards in their units. Each company confirmed they deal with hazards within a week of receiving a report.

But for renters like Abbott who live with a disability, a week's wait can be too long.

“I just happened to be really sensitive and also allergic to mold,” Abbott said, “So I reacted really badly while, like, my housemates didn't as much have a big reaction — but it was unhealthy enough for me that I had to move out.”

After a long search, Abbott was able to find a house they could live in before the end of the academic year. They later discovered that Cal Poly also has an emergency grant program called Cal Poly Cares that allows students to temporarily live on campus until their living situation is resolved.

Additionally, activist organizations like the SLO Rent Coalition work to educate renters on their rights and advocate for better safety enforcement codes at city council meetings. SLO Rent Coalition holds its meetings on the second Sunday of every month inside the Gala Pride Center.

If renters are dealing with issues like Abbott’s, they are encouraged to call the county or their local city’s code enforcement office. State law requires code enforcement offices to inspect the unit and require landlords or property managers to resolve problems.

KCBX Reporter Sarina Grossi is a Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo graduate. At Cal Poly, she worked as a news anchor and reporter for KCPR Radio and as the Digital Manager for Mustang Media Group. Sarina was editor-in-chief of her community college newspaper. In her free time, she likes to read, watch movies, do arts and crafts, and go to thrift and antique stores.
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