The Long Journey Home

From Rental Nightmare To Home Sweet Home

“Hi, this is Miss Craig,” I answered into the telephone.  It was March 13, 2014 at 3:15 p.m.  I was supervising an after school homework center in my classroom, and doing a crossword puzzle to unwind after a long day of teaching.

“Miss Craig, can you confirm that you are alive and well in a safe location?” the woman on the other end asked.  Initially thinking it was a former student playing a prank on me, I started laughing.  

“Um, yeah; I’m sitting here in my classroom just fine.  Is this some kind of joke?”

“No, Maam; this is the Santa Cruz Police Department, and this is not a prank.  Again, you can confirm that you are alive and well, in a safe location, Miss Craig?” the woman confirmed.

“Yes, yes,” I stuttered, a sudden rising pit of nerves in my stomach.  “Is everything okay?”

About Three Years Earlier…

Ron and I awoke in the middle of the night to a thunderous boom.  It sounded like a piece of furniture fell over next door.  Our unit shared a wall with our neighbors in the front house, a group of young Cabrillo College students.  They had just moved in, and their partying had made its ugly appearance.  We went outside, hearing the sound of a drunken wrestling match among the boys.  Ron knocked on the door.

“Hey; can you guys keep it down please?  We were just woken up and you guys are being really loud,” Ron stated.  This was the first time of endless times we would ask our neighbors to please keep it down.  And as we learned, sometimes you have to knock loudly to get the attention you need.

Ron and I moved in together in 2006, living in a back granny-unit of an old Westside house in The Circles neighborhood.  We lived near a market, had a cool alley behind our house, and were only about half a mile from the beach.  It was an ideal location.  Sure, the house itself was quite run down: termite rot; low, sagging ceilings; surely some lead paint.  But our rent was cheap – $800.  And for the Westside of Santa Cruz, that was a steal.

We shared a thin wall with our front-house neighbors, who initially, were quiet, nice college students.  Sometimes their juicer woke us up early in the morning, but that was nothing compared to what lay ahead.  

First, it’s important to note how much I’ve always cared about home.  Not just any home, but my own home.  Something no one could take away from me; some definite piece of land that I could claim for all my days ahead.  Having grown up in the same house until age sixteen, I definitely appreciated the steadiness and familiarity of a stable home. Having moved about eight times since then, each move reaffirmed just how very much I wanted to go home.  And I wanted that home to be mine; not my mother’s house, not a friend’s house, but my own house.  I loved admiring the houses in Santa Cruz as I’d go for runs and bike rides through town.  I remember looking at housing prices when I was waiting tables on a slow lunch shift at a restaurant in Santa Cruz.  A co-worker and I were baffled by how expensive homes were.  Our boss, a local, just laughed.  “This is one of the most expensive places to live in the whole country.  You guys know that, right?”

We sure didn’t.  At twenty-one years old, I was naively dreaming of buying our rental house in Bonny Doon – still a dream property that I would offer all-cash for if I ever had the chance.  It was this age, fresh out of college at UC Santa Cruz, when I really realized how much I wanted a home, and just how challenging it seemed to get one in this town.  

By the time I was in my late twenties, I felt a true emotional void about what “Home” meant to me.  We were renting our place for dirt-cheap, but it was small and run-down.  On a teacher’s and surf-instructor’s salary, we weren’t looking too promising for buying a house.  Until the recession of 2008.  By 2009, housing prices fell so low I actually had a chance of getting in on the market.  I found a realtor, and looked at some homes for sale in the San Lorenzo Valley, where cabins were going for as little as $200,000.  I could afford it!  I was so excited.  We made an offer on two homes, both of which were rejected.  As inventory dropped and housing prices began to rise out of our reach, we decided to just keep renting our house in Santa Cruz.  The search was over.  

We were back to the late-night drunken wrestling brigade nextdoor, up close and personal.  By Summertime, the new crew of boys had turned up the volume.  Late-night parties with thumping music, shouting, and the constant banging of moving bodies on the thin, old floor would shake our house like an earthquake.  Ron was getting far less polite with them.  I’d awake to shouting outside, with Ron screaming at them to shut the hell up, and them belligerently arguing back, posturing like intoxicated roosters.  

It was laughable if it weren’t a nightmare.  We went to our landlord to complain, since we weren’t making any progress.  He said he’d “have a talk with them”, and things quieted down for awhile – as in for about a week.  We’d awaken to puke on our walkway, beer bottles on the front steps, cigarette butts on the ground, my plants would be stepped on…and nasty loogies from Salvia smoke-clogged lungs.  It was outright rude behavior. They were avid users of “Spice”, or synthetic marijuana, and had a chronic, productive cough as a result. It was painful to listen to them hack up a lung; try enjoying dinner listening to that.   Each time I would talk to them, I got lip service about how it was always their friends and not them doing the misbehaving; that they would try harder to keep it down.  But it just got worse.

By mid-Summer that year, we had complained many times to our landlord with no success.  He would make empty promises about regulating their behavior.  Cops were called multiple times; most of the time, they were too busy to show up for at least an hour, and when they did, didn’t do anything except tell them to be quiet.  It was so frustrating.  

Being woken up in the middle of the night to loud partying doesn’t just wake you up, it makes you irritated and angry – emotions that are hard to come down from and go back to sleep.  As a teacher, I have to wake up early, and I need all the sleep I can get.  I was cranky and exhausted, not a good combination.  

By Fall, by some stroke of luck, the loudest of the crew moved out.  However, their friends moved in.  We had quieter neighbors overall, but they would still invite the old tenants over to party. There was a lot of tension.  Ron and I decided to seriously find a new rental.  Determined, we began our search.  Nothing was panning out; everything was either overpriced, too far away, or just not good enough.

By May of 2013, the partying had increased up front again.  I wrote in my journal then:

“I wish I made more money.  More money so I didn’t have to live here with the loud college boys up front.  I sometimes wonder whether I’ll ever afford a house of my own.  We have been looking for a new house to rent to no avail.  I feel like I’m being kicked out of the place I love, the town I long to set up shop and build a home in.  I want to own a home.  So badly I feel like a crying child in a grocery store, forbidden to eat any of the wonderful food around; just looking.  Stuck in this stupid situation with (our landlord), who’s really been a slumlord to us.  Want to move out so badly – if not for how prohibitively expensive it would be”.  

Followed by a poem:

Waiting

Dancing on the verge between hope and despair

One foot in, the other quaking on the edge

Waiting…infinitely waiting…

“Patience” does not surmise the voyage she takes, day after day

Holding on to fading rays of faith, a future path unfolds

The pieces lain

One giant foundation evolving

Until the critic butts in: “All is not perfect, Missy”, he scoffs with smug derision

For a few moments, he says his peace

But then she shows him the door

Proceeding forward, the only way how

The way to love.

***

I was feeling a little depressed about our housing situation by this point.  Unempowered, under a glass ceiling, just low.  Everything else in my life was going well enough, I reasoned, that I shouldn’t be so down.  But I felt so unsettled, knowing we weren’t in a good situation.  

I remember going for a run one day at Wilder Ranch.  It was cold and cloudy, dreary as I felt.  I was escaping the chaos of our housing problems, thinking about how much I would love to have my own home, where I wouldn’t have to deal with problems like these.  Home represented a cure; a relief; an end to the constant tension we were living in.  It was security, comfort, and safety, physically and emotionally.  Where that home was, I had no idea.

“I just want to go home!” I cried out loud into the vacant air, tears streaming down my face. Never had I let myself want something so much.

March 13, 2014

“Miss Craig, have you been at work all day?” the woman asked.

“Yes; I have been here since about 7:45 this morning.  What is going on?”  My anxiety about the situation was rising.  

“Ma’am, we need to put some eyes on you to be sure you’re okay.  We’ll be sending an officer to your site in a few minutes,” the woman explained.  My heart was now pounding out of my chest.  “Let me explain why.  We received a 911 call today from a man who identified himself as your neighbor.  He said he had heard you and your boyfriend fighting all morning.  Again, you’ve been gone all day?” she questioned.

“Yes”.  

“The caller reported that your boyfriend shot and killed you today, and that he was outside with a gun threatening to kill himself.”  

Have you ever had a moment where you heard something, but didn’t quite process it right away?  You hear the words being said, but there’s a disassociation from it?  Like it’s not real?  That’s exactly how I felt in this moment.  It felt like a prank from the old “Punk’d” tv show or something.

“Right now your boyfriend is being detained in front of your house.  Once we put eyes on you, you can go home.  Once you’re there, they’ll release him.”  

I sat in shock and confusion for a moment.  Your boyfriend shot and killed you, I kept hearing.  What the heck was going on?  

I told the students I was sorry but would have to leave early.  Within minutes, by coincidence, the father of one of my students showed up, a local policeman.  He was the “eyes” to verify that I was alive in the flesh, radioing in to his officers to confirm.

“Nice to see you, Officer.  This is crazy.  What is going on?” I asked worriedly.  
He was kind enough to explain what had happened.  They received a 911 call reporting a murder and possible suicide, and began an active-shooter protocol: locking down our neighborhood, calling in SWAT, and preparing for a possible standoff.  They had Ron in custody.  Clearly, I needed to hurry home.  

I drove home as quickly as I could, feeling the panic of the situation kick in.  Why was Ron being detained still?  Our neighborhood was on lockdown?  What could I expect to come home to?  

Turning on the street towards our house, I immediately noticed the fire engines, cops, and yellow tape around our circle.  Two news crew vans were parked.  A helicopter circled overhead.  It was like the armageddon had descended upon our neighborhood.  

I drove up toward the yellow tape, where an officer had blocked the road.  

“I’m Katrin Craig,” I said.  “I’m the one who was supposedly shot and killed today.”  

“Nice to see you, Katrin,” he replied.  I got out of my car, and showed him my driver’s license to once again confirm I was myself.  By that point a few officers had gathered around, and radioed that the “girl” was here.  

They escorted me under the yellow tape towards the house.  Ron was sitting in the distance on the sidewalk, hands cuffed behind his back, head down despondently.  The officers waved to each other, and uncuffed him.  By the time I’d made it to him, I hugged him tightly and cried for a moment.  The officers debriefed with us for a few minutes about the complex, bizarre drama that had just unfolded.

They had received a 911 call from the front unit.  When they arrived to investigate, they found the caller outside on the sidewalk succumbed to a grand mal seizure.  Apparently he’d been up on coke all night, and was delusional.  He was taken to the hospital, where he later made a full recovery (and was arrested for reporting a false crime).  Not knowing whether a legitimate risk still existed, they set up a perimeter around our house, including members of SWAT, and a sniper on our neighbor’s rooftop.  A team descended upon our neighborhood to deal with what was a potential crime scene.

As Ron was innocently eating a bowl of cereal on the living room couch, watching television, he heard some noises from outside the window.  When he pulled the blinds up to look out the window, he was startled to encounter three guns on him.  Ron described the fear in their eyes as they repeatedly yelled, “Let me see your hands!”.  He immediately dropped to the floor with his hands up, and they told him to crawl out the living room window.  Once outside, at this point in our neighbor’s backyard, they detained him in handcuffs.  Who was he?  I live here.  Where is Katrin Craig?  At work since this morning.  They walked Ron out to the street, where neighbors and some press had gathered.  They didn’t tell him right away what was going on.  

Next, they searched our house for my body.  Our laundry pile was picked through like a rummage sale; the bed had been moved; closet items moved.  After finding nothing and Ron repeatedly saying whatever was going on was some kind of mistake, they finally called me at work to see if he was telling the truth; they couldn’t let him go until they saw me in person.    

By the time I got home and Ron was released, it had been nearly an hour.  That hour was the impetus of a months-long battle for justice.  The scariest part of this whole story is that Ron could’ve been killed.  One wrong move in front of SWAT with guns could’ve resulted in him being shot.  You hear about it on the news often enough.  That’s what got me: I could’ve lost the man I love.  That was my breaking point, when the gloves came off.  It ended up being the swift kick into action that we needed to finally get out of our bad living situation.  Ron was at his wits end with our landlord’s negligence; we had complained for over two years about loud neighbors, only to have their friends move in and continue the trend.  It was time for action.

Newspaper Article

The First Trial

“I’m suing (our Landlord) in small claims court,” he declared.  

I was initially against the idea.  “We’ll probably lose; we can’t afford a lawyer,” I reasoned.  It seemed like a bad path to take.  

“Think of all the suffering we’ve endured: lost hours of sleep, peace, and quiet; I could’ve gotten shot; aren’t you tired of all this?  Aren’t you tired of having the same conversations about it?  It’s like Groundhog Day!” he explained.  

Yes, I was exhausted of all this.  To the point of defeat. I was stressed out and losing sleep.  All I wanted to do was go home.  To a home that was ours, a home that was peaceful.

Ron morphed into a paralegal over the next month, gathering all kinds of evidence: phone records of all the times he’d called the cops (and the landlord to complain); rental agreements; a calendar log he’d kept of every night we were woken up; a pro-rated nightly rate multiplied by all the nights disturbed totaling close to $10,000.  He cited our tenant’s rights, including sleep, and peaceful enjoyment of the property.  

He filed his papers to start the small-claims court process of suing our landlord.  I didn’t want to be involved.  The tension of our living situation was bad enough.  I told him he was on his own for the court day.  Ron was by himself, representing himself, with all the evidence he had gathered.  He and the landlord couldn’t reach a compromise, even with the landlord’s attorney.  Ron won that judgment – $4,800.  But within two weeks, our landlord had filed an appeal of that judgment.  Once I knew there would be an appeal is when I got defensive.  I was ready to go to the appeal with him and speak to the misery and headache the whole ordeal had been.  

The Appeal

He had tried to settle with us before going to trial with a paltry sum of $2,500, and to move out within 60 days, an offer we flatly rejected before entering the courtroom for our hearing.

“You’re representing yourself, Mr. Deetz?” the judge asked quizzically.  

“Yes, Your Honor,” Ron replied, standing stoically in his pressed, neat suit and tie.  

I was so proud sitting next to him, though I was nervous as a deer, at the mercy of the big lions of the court, and our landlord’s professional hired attorney.  I was intimidated by his nice suit and dismissive glances at us.  But when he had tried to settle with us pretrial with a paltry, insulting offer of $2,000 and move out in 60 days, I wasn’t so scared of him anymore.  I knew we were in the right, and what our experience had amounted to over the past few years.  I was ready to fight for us.  

Ron eloquently presented all of his evidence from the first trial, plus added material.  To refute the landlord’s lawyer’s claim that no one else complained about noise, Ron obtained a written letter from our neighbor stating he was hard of hearing, and had slept through a huge car accident recently.  He wouldn’t hear our neighbors partying even if it were a concert.  Ron presented pictures of gang tags on our front porch, made by our partying neighbors and their friends.

And then I got to speak.  I am not a good actress; I have to genuinely feel something to express it.  I had rehearsed the points I wanted to make: I was a teacher who got up early each day; how many times and ways we’d tried to resolve the problem to no avail.  I even showed him before and after pictures of how I’d landscaped the property.  I’d lived there almost 9 years at that point.  To be bullied out of our home by constant noise wasn’t right.  I looked our landlord in the eye from across the room and said, “I came to you in tears begging you to do something about the problem. You did nothing.”  It felt so good to speak my truth, from the heart.  I delivered my message.  I am not a big “vengeance” person, but I felt justified.

When our landlord’s lawyer went to present his information, he was less than composed.  He stuttered to find his forms; he kept asking me what my job was, and how if I was a teacher, wasn’t I used to noise?  

The judge keenly interrupted his train of thought.  “Where exactly are you going with this?”  

The lawyer didn’t recover well.  He changed tactics.  “They’re a couple of young punks trying to swindle an old man out of his money,” he argued.  

“Sir, I’m 44 years old, and she’s 33.  Clearly we’re not young punks,” Ron corrected.  

“Your rent is so cheap, you guys are lucky you have a place at all,” the lawyer tried.  

“It doesn’t matter what the price of the rent is; if you pay for an agreed upon service, you get it.  It’s the principle of the matter, Sir,” the judge said sternly to our landlord.

We had schooled him.  He had nothing against everything we’d presented.  As we waited for the judge to decide, I had a good feeling.  When we were called back into the courtroom, I felt butterflies in my stomach.  The judge addressed us all.

“I’ve had time to review the evidence for this case, and I have to say, this is a case of serious negligence on your part, Mr. Landlord.  You cannot ignore your tenant’s complaints when their rights are being repeatedly violated.  It’s shameful, and if you don’t change your ways, you’re going to find yourself right back in this courtroom in another six months with another judgment against you.  I am siding with Mr. Deetz, awarding him damages of $9,600, and you’ll need to pay his court filing fees.  You should learn from this experience.  It doesn’t matter how cheap the rent is, Mr. Landlord, a tenant’s rights are a tenant’s rights to enjoy.”  

My heart dropped.  He said more than that, but it was everything I wanted to hear.  I didn’t care so much about the money (though it certainly came in handy later).  The justice of the situation made me feel vindicated and free.  Ron and I nearly skipped out of that courthouse, elated by the ruling in our favor.  

Within a month of the ruling, we’d received half of our money, and an eviction notice to be out in 60 days.  This would seem obvious, surely.  You sue your landlord, you’re probably going to get kicked out.  Ron didn’t quite see it that way, his spite still flowing strong from the last trial.

“He can’t evict us; that’s retaliation,” he argued.  “Furthermore, he still hasn’t dealt with the problem.  You would think after two judgments he would learn.”  We were still being disturbed by loud partying up in the front house.  I sighed.  Was he really going to fight this?

Rents on the Westside were going for $2,500 – $3,500 for a basic two-bedroom house, or apartment even.  It was ridiculously competitive.  We’d show up at rental showings with thirty other people.  And we didn’t really have a reference for our last rental either, to say the least.  

It was Winter break from school, and I decided to look into buying a house again.  The housing market had tanked again, and my teacher salary had risen since I last looked in 2009.  If we were going to pay $2,500/month on rent, why not put it toward owning a home of our own?  

Home Sweet Home

It was a symphony of serendipity that allowed me to end up buying my own home.  I found a great realtor and loan officer, who creatively found four loans and programs to qualify me for a home loan.  I looked at homes in the San Lorenzo Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where I could barely eke into the housing market.  

It wasn’t long until I found it – a modest 800 ft² two-story house on about half an acre in Ben Lomond.  It had high ceilings with huge windows upstairs, airy and open like a cabin.  There was a small stream in the backyard, and plenty of garden space.  Its asking price of $370,000 was pretty much my loan approval limit.

By January 23, 2015, I was in escrow for that house.  I couldn’t believe it was happening.  By that point, Ron had filed another lawsuit against our landlord for wrongful eviction. I was busy enough in escrow, and said I wanted nothing to do with it.  Only a month later, he had another trial and won another $5,000, and agreed to move out by the end of March since we were moving anyway.  Ron was happy, but I just wanted to get our things and move out of there.

Escrow was a long process with many bureaucratic delays and snags, but on Friday, March 13, 2015, we officially became homeowners.  Ron and I were ecstatic.  We had also gotten engaged one month earlier on Friday, February 13.  I’m not superstitious, but I think it’s neat that both happened on Friday the 13’s.

I can’t explain the heartwarming, pure joy I felt when we got our keys.  It was real.  All the tears, years of dreaming and planning, were coming to fruition.  It wasn’t a “dream house” per se, but I didn’t care; I was just happy to get in at all.  For years I heard how hard it was to own a home as a teacher in this area.  Everyday I am grateful for this house and the future it represents; I love working on projects around the house and in the garden.   Although life is unpredictable and you never know what the future holds, I do feel more grounded and secure now being a homeowner.

I look back on our years of living on the Westside, and know that it, too, was home.  Home can be where ever you make it, as they say; where ever the heart is.  For the decade Ron and I lived there, that house served as the backdrop for countless good memories.  But we had outgrown it, and it was high time to move on to a new home.  

Home is where we are now, and it’s nice to actually own it.  

It certainly was a long journey home.  

One thought on “The Long Journey Home”

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