Alex Yang, 23, was finishing his last year at UC Berkeley when his mother rented out a room in their San Mateo home. On her own as a single mother of two and a cook at a local Chinese restaurant, Yang said she needed help paying her mortgage.
“My mom was born in China. She came here and she just wanted us to have a good life,” he said.
A New Roommate
Yang said his mother met a woman named Baiting Jiang in an online chatroom in August 2019. The two verbally agreed Jiang would rent a room in their single-family house on Norfolk Street. Everyone, including Yang’s 12-year-old sister, lived under the same roof.
But it didn’t take long for the relationship to fall apart.
What started as concerns over Jiang having strange visitors, the family said, turned into hostile verbal arguments and harassment claims by both sides.
In November, the family had their attorney serve Jiang a 30-day notice to leave, but Yang said Jiang ignored the notice and threatened them. According to court documents filed in the homeowner’s civil harassment case against Jiang, she wrote, “[Jiang] wanted all my family members to die … Jiang claimed herself as a lawyer assistant, and she threatened me that she would see me in court.”
“I remember she talked [to] my mom about [how] ‘she can live [in our house] forever,’” Yang told NBC Bay Area.
Police: It’s “a civil issue”
When Jiang refused to leave, the family said they tried to get police involved, calling San Mateo police on dozens of occasions. But the family said they were constantly told “it’s a civil issue” and officers couldn’t do anything.
By December, Yang family filed for an eviction.
The family may have been able to avoid a lengthy eviction process, according California civil code, since they’re renting out a room in their own house. But the family didn’t know that, they said, and officers never suggested it.
Because the San Mateo Police Department and San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office declined interview requests, NBC Bay Area reached out to Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly for a law enforcement perspective.
“It’s not that simple. In an era where we have zero bail and we’re being asked to de-incarcerate for much more serious crimes than a trespass-type crime, there’s not a lot of equity there,” he said. “I would imagine there’s probably hundreds of these scenarios [in the Bay Area] … Law enforcement doesn’t really want to touch some of these civil housing issues.”
In an e-mail, San Mateo County Sheriff’s public information officer said, “Although there are many laws governing different situations, in this case the owner and the courts now recognize the situation as an eviction and we must adhere to the law.”
The eviction case had a trial date set for March 2020; then COVID-19 hit, halting their case and others. As a result of the pandemic, courts throughout California delayed eviction cases to protect vulnerable tenants from being unhoused. However, most Bay Area courts allowed cases to continue if there was a health and safety concern.
Our Investigative Unit found most Bay Area courts have the health and safety exemption written in their orders on evictions cases. But San Mateo Superior Court, where the family’s case is located, does not. NBC Bay Area asked Neal Taniguchi, the county’s court executive officer, why that is.
“Our order doesn’t specifically deal with health and safety exceptions,” Taniguchi said. “However, our regular practice in San Mateo County, if you have an immediate emergency that needs to be dealt with, you can always bring it to the ex parte process.” Ex parte processes are typically temporary orders that need a formal hearing or an emergency request to continue.
Taniguchi acknowledged the court might include such a health and safety exemption if they had to re-write the order.
“If we had to do this for another several months, it’s probable we’d re-write the order to include that,” Taniguchi said. “We can always stand to improve.”
Fights, restraining orders and property damage
With no resolution, the fighting between the family and Jiang worsened resulting in a judge granting restraining orders against both Jiang and the homeowner.
"The goal was to keep them away from each other," said the family's attorney Cary Kletter.
According to police incident reports obtained by the Investigative Unit, San Mateo police responded to the home 31 times in the past 13 months.
In one report, the family alleges Jiang ran “the water in her bathroom for hours.” In another, they say she had the shower on “since yesterday.” The excess water resulted in tens of thousands of dollars-worth of water damage to the home’s foundation, the family said. Over the phone, Jiang denied the allegations to NBC Bay Area.
The family hired general contractor David Melchner to fix the water problem. After multiple visits and conversations with the renter, Melchner believes the damage was not accidental.
“The tenant tried to say that the toilet was leaking. And that is when I had a final conclusion that this was done intentionally,” he said. A report by a plumber supports his suspicions and in court filings the family wrote, “[Jiang] wasted water for 40 hours … ”
Force out of their own home, family says
Fearing for their mental health and safety, the family said they were pushed out of their own home. In addition to trying to pay their mortgage, they now pay rent for a room about two miles away. Yang sleep in his car across the street because the unit only fits two.
As of October 2020, Jiang continued to live in their home.
“As long as my sister is safe, I am fine,” Yang said. “I’m scared of [the renter].”
NBC Bay Area reached out to Jiang multiple time asking for an on-camera interview but she never agreed to one. Over the phone, she said the family is lying and they harassed her. She said she is looking for another place to live, but the search isn’t easy because of the pandemic. When asked for additional details, Jiang texted NBC Bay Area last Tuesday, “Please stop contact[ing] me in any way.”
Yang and his family feel they’ve fallen through the cracks of the legal system, which has already been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
San Mateo Superior Court’s moratorium on eviction cases ended October 2nd and the family’s case will resume. But the financial damage has been done, they said.
They could lose their home.
“My mom is [experiencing] a mental breakdown and, to be honest, I feel one too,” Yang said.
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Candice Nguyen is an investigative reporter for NBC Bay Area. To reach out to her about this story or others, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.