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?”
I received his answer by way of a carefully crafted attorney-type statement: “It is not uncommon for homeowners and tenants alike to become involved in landlord-tenant disputes related to ‘guests’ that have overstayed their welcome. A ‘guest’ who refuses to cooperate and leave is often protected under California law and an unlawful detainer lawsuit (i.e., eviction) is required in order for the ‘guest’ to lawfully be removed from the property.”
Several of Lang’s friends wondered why she didn’t just throw Lori and Jesse’s belongings outside and change the locks. But, as Lang says, who has what rights in these disputes is a “sticky wicket.” Gonzales says, “Changing locks and removing property without complying with the law or a specific court order is unlawful and can lead to serious consequences.” Lang did not want to risk breaking the law, mostly to protect her young ward. Even if she wanted to change the locks and thought she had legal ground to stand on, her unwanted guests had adjusted their movements so that one of them would be inside the guestroom at all times.
Hoping to avoid the drawn-out hassle of the eviction process, Lang continued to implore Lori’s mother for help. In one message, Sharon attempts an explanation, “I think Aflac tricked us and her [Lori] as we paid to get her license to sell insurance and several other fees. She has not made one cent. She also borrowed money from someone to pay rent last month.” The following day, on June 14, Sharon wrote, with finality, “I spoke with Lori this morning. She asked me to tell you to communicate with her through writing and not involve us anymore. I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful.”
The friendly terms were at an end. Lang changed the Wi-Fi password, and the women “lost their minds,” she says. “They’re addicted to World of Warcraft.” In a text to Lang, Lori wrote, “We see that you turned off access to the internet for us this morning. This is also illegal. We view your actions and conversations as hostile, please be advised that any further verbal conversation with us will be recorded via audio/video.” In a separate text, she said, “We do not want to live with you, but we will exercise our rights to the full extent of the law.” To which Lang responded, “You should be ashamed of yourself. Taking advantage of someone who was so generous to you.”
A glance at her Airbnb profile would seem to confirm Lang’s generosity. There are 22 reviews, all of them glowing, with the guests’ sentiment of being “welcomed like family” echoed throughout. In October 2014, a guest named Andrew wrote of Lang, “She went out of her way to help my girlfriend find a job.”
As if in retaliation for losing Wi-Fi, Lori and Jesse called Child Protective Services one day while Lang was at work. “They let the CPS agent into my house and opened every door that wasn’t locked. They told the agent I beat [my son] with a rolled-up newspaper. Sure, once I smacked him on the head with it when he didn’t turn in his homework, but like this.” Lang demonstrates a light tap with the flick of her wrist. “I had to pee in a cup in front of a nurse at a clinic, where they made me wait. I got dirty looks from everybody. They had to interview [my son]; he had to lift up his shirt so they could look for bruises.”
“I’m worried about Kris,” Lang’s friend Julie Peckham told me. Peckham is an educational therapist and academic coach who works closely with Lang’s son. She has met both Lori and Jesse on multiple occasions. Because she also volunteers at the LGBT Center in Hillcrest, Peckham has access to many resources, and in the first few months of their stay, she also tried to help Lori and Jesse find jobs and a place to live. She says things started to change in May, when, without explanation, the women suddenly stopped saying hello to Peckham. Now, Peckham says, “They’re nuts — they’re calling CPS, making up all these stories about how [Lang is] abusive, and they will not leave.” Peckham stresses to me that Lang is a good mother. “This kid sails, goes to theater camp, takes music lessons, piano, baseball — Kris is a damn fine mom, she busts her ass.” Regarding why Lori and Jesse would call CPS, Peckham says, “Obviously something is broken in these people — their morality or sense of reality, whatever it is. It’s broken.”
In July, Lang sought the help of attorneys, and learned representation would cost anywhere from $3000 to $5000. A friend who is an attorney agreed to help her with a phone call on July 15, during which he got Lori and Jesse to promise to vacate the premises in 30 days.
But 30 days later, when the women gave no indication of leaving, Lang sought assistance from the Legal Aid Society of San Diego. On August 17, the day we sat on the patio at Ponce’s, Lang told me, “They have until midnight tonight to vacate the premises without me going to court. I doubt they’re going to do that. I think they’re going to have to be dragged kicking and screaming from my house.” Lang had sent her son to stay with her ex-husband until the situation was resolved.
Lang’s friend Liz Rayon was particularly empathetic, as she’d had experience with squatters in Detroit a few years ago.
“It was a common problem in Detroit, because they were so bombarded with cases and so shorthanded that sometimes squatters lived in the places for over two years before you could get them out.” Rayon says houses listed for sale were targeted. “They’d see a house for sale — they were usually drug addicts — and they’d break in and move in and have mail sent there, and start stealing copper pipes. As soon as they got a piece of mail sent there, they were living there, and they had squatters rights.”
The problem became so prevalent that in September 2014, Michigan passed three new laws aimed at squatters, one of which makes squatting a crime that could land the squatter in prison for up to two years with fines up to $10,000. Rayon says it took one of her friends 15 months to get squatters out of a Detroit home the friend had been trying to sell.
On August 18, the day after the women had agreed to vacate, Lang filed a complaint. On August 21, Jesse posted a note outside the guestroom door, informing Lang that she and Lori would be moving out the following morning. Lang had to work that day (she is a stylist at a salon), so she asked Rayon to supervise the move and make sure nothing was destroyed in the process. Of Jesse, who had been collecting disability checks, Rayon says, “The one who’s supposedly disabled was carrying most of their stuff, and she’s the one who drove the U-Haul.” She said things went surprisingly well, though the women seemed uncomfortable by the presence of Rayon’s boyfriend, as evidenced by the fact that they stopped to take photos of him while he waited in the car. “As they were leaving, Lori thanked me. She said, ‘It was nice working with you, thanks very much.’ I’m, like, are you delusional? Not once did they say, ‘Sorry it turned into this.’”
A few days after the women left, Lang says, “Honestly, I’m still kind of in shock. It doesn’t quite seem real. I wake up, still afraid to talk in my house.”
When asked if she’ll ever use Airbnb again, Lang says, “Probably not. Not just because of this, so much as some of the new laws I’ve heard, like you have to have a bed-and-breakfast license now to rent through Airbnb.”
Just a few weeks before, Lang learned of a woman in an adjacent neighborhood who was fined $25,000 for operating through Airbnb without a permit.
“Will I use it to stay somewhere else? Absolutely.” Lang had contacted Airbnb directly about her squatters and she was happy with how the company had handled it from their end. “They sent me a message saying they’ve spoken to Alfred and Sharon, and they told me their new policy states that if anybody stays longer than they’re supposed to, they charge double the price.”
Lang holds Alfred and Sharon accountable for their daughter’s actions.
“In hindsight, Lori and Jesse never would have gotten into my home without the parents. They weren’t on Airbnb; their parents were. To get on Airbnb, you have to have certain criteria — a driver’s license, Facebook account, credit card. I don’t even think they have a credit card to get a hotel room.” Lang never made an agreement in writing and chides herself for being so trusting of others. “In hindsight, I’m, like, Oh, I’m so stupid. I just feel stupid.”
Numerous attempts were made to contact Lori and Jesse for comment. They did not respond.