It's a steamy afternoon in August, and Kristen Lang sits, frazzled and deflated, on the patio at Ponce's, hoping to cool her exasperation with a margarita.
When her husband moved out two years ago, leaving Lang (a stay-at-home mom) with no reliable income, she started renting out a room in her home through Airbnb. The experience had been positive, until now. Her most recent guests have refused to leave, and for the past two months, Lang’s life has revolved around trying to extricate the two women from her guestroom. “I don’t want to fight about money, I just want them out of my house,” she tells me. “I feel like a prisoner in my own home.”
It began back in January, when a couple whose Airbnb profile is listed as “Alfred and Sharon” contacted Lang through the online community marketplace about her room for rent. “We are signed up for Airbnb but we are looking for a month’s stay for our daughter and her girlfriend who are moving to San Diego and will be looking for jobs,” the message began. Their intention was to pay for their daughter Lori, 38, and her girlfriend Jesse, 30, to stay for one month, “to help them out.”
Lang checked out Alfred and Sharon’s profile, and saw only positive reviews from past connections made through the site. “I thought, okay, they seem like standup people.”
The guests arrived on February 7. “They seemed nice,” Lang recalls. “They were both applying for jobs, and I had two cars that were running at the time, so I loaned them my Jeep so they could drive around and find work. In exchange, I asked them to pick up my child from school every once in a while when I was working.” Lang has a 12-year-old son. She and her now ex-husband assumed guardianship of the boy when his mother — Mr. Lang’s sister — died from breast cancer.
When the originally agreed-upon month was up, Lang says, “Alfred and Sharon asked to avoid the Airbnb fees and just pay the $975 directly.” On April 7, Alfred and Sharon sent a check, along with a note that they would no longer be paying for their daughter, whose stay was already a month longer than anticipated. “May rolls around, and I get an envelope, late, with only $700 cash in it,” Lang says.
Lang says that Lori had managed to get a job as an Aflac insurance agent, but in order to do so, she’d had to hit up her parents for money to cover multiple fees (insurance license, business cards, etc.). This is why, they claimed, when it came time to pay at the beginning of June, the women were empty-handed. “They apologized profusely with their heads hung low in my living room,” Lang says. “And I’m, like, um, okay. What’s going to happen here? What are you going to do? And they say, well, ‘Jesse’s trying to get disability for her back.’” Then the women suggested what Lang considered to be a scam. They said, “If you write us an eviction notice, we’ll tell the welfare office that we’re going to be evicted, and they’ll give us money.”
Lang doesn’t own her house in South Park, and her landlord of 11 years was unaware that she’d begun subletting one of the rooms. When she told him about the situation, he did not want to get involved. “He said, ‘I’m so sorry, Kristen, but I told you to put people on the lease.’ He scolded me like a dad, but he’s worried about me, he cares about me.”
Because the women were subtenants, and the agreement was made with Lang and not her landlord, it was her situation to resolve. She was still on friendly terms with her guests, but their request for her to go through the motions of eviction for the sake of extracting money sounded a lot like fraud. Lang says that when she expressed this concern, Lori and Jesse stopped talking to her. “I would ask them what they were going to do to make up rent, and I got no response. They were hiding in their room.”
Unsure what to do next, Lang wrote to Alfred and Sharon through Airbnb. The message, dated June 13, reads, “Please call me, Lori has had some psychotic break. They won’t pay rent and want me to commit welfare fraud. Please get them help and a new place to live. I have a child in my home and can’t live with the hostility. Please convince them to leave peacefully.”
The response came from Sharon, Lori’s mother: “They have no money and I have refused to help them anymore.” In a separate message, Sharon asked for more information about the welfare request, and Lang explained: “They wanted me to sign an eviction notice so welfare will give them money. I asked if they would leave if I signed it.” Lang went on to explain that Lori and Jesse said no, they would not leave if Lang agreed to file for eviction; they would live in her home for “as long as it takes for me to have the sheriff throw them out.”
The eviction process can be costly and arduous. First, the landlord must give notice (in Lang’s case, notice would be 30 days, because the agreement was month-to-month). If notice doesn’t work, the landlord must file a complaint (which costs around $240), after which it could take up to another month to reach a trial date. Then there are two more days for a judgment, another two for the Notice to Vacate, and finally, up to an additional ten days — if things are not yet resolved — before a sheriff would visit the home to physically remove the tenants.
Lang says in the eyes of the law, her squatters were legal residents, with all the rights they hold, because they’d been at her home for over 14 days. To better understand where the lines are drawn between tenants and landlords living in the same home, I spoke with Jorge Felipe Gonzales, a South Bay attorney who volunteers at San Diego Legal Aid pro bono clinics. I asked, “If I crash on my friend’s couch for more than two weeks, could I suddenly claim that place as my home and decide not to leave?”