Parashat Tazria Drash / March 28, 2014
By: Rabbi Heather Miller
For some reason, this week, I have been meeting a lot of people with ties to Boston. I had some very fond memories of Boston– I lived there just after college when I worked at Harvard Business School. Or shall I say– Hahhvahhd.
During that time, fresh out of school and conscientious about repaying my loans, I rented a modest apartment with three other people. But I began to get sick. My asthma was out of control. My chest was always tight, and when we investigated my lungs via x-ray and CT scan, my pulmonologist found that my right middle lobe had collapsed! I was diagnosed with ABPA– allergic broncho-pulmonary aspergillosis. What is it? It is a condition that occurs when the mold aspergillus colonizes the lungs. Upon further research, I found that aspergillus is one of the types of mold that lives on Sick Buildings and gives people Sick Building Syndrome. Have you heard of this? It is a term used to describe any of a variety of illnesses linked to occupancy in a building that manifests contaminants- such as molds, aerotoxins, and exhaust. A couple of years ago remember that craze where people were buying home mold test kits and swabbing their door jams? That.
Well, during that time and since that time, I have thought a lot about that experience. Mostly my thoughts center on two themes: 1) gratitude for the support of my good friends who supported me through my doctor visits and my bronchoscopy, and 2) those typical deep practical, medical and theological questions of “WHY?!” Why did this have to happen to me? Why did it become so serious medically? And, what I’d like to focus on tonight, why didn’t I see the problem before I moved in?
The Torah, in this week’s portion called Tazria, describes the role of the Aaron and his sons, the priests, as tasked with the responsibility to painstakingly check for “tzara’at” – abscesses on the Israelites’ skin. Next week, the Torah portion Metzora expands their role to also carefully checking building walls and homes for signs of “tzara’at”– a plague-like affliction like mold or mildew.
37 If, when he [the High Priest] examines the plague, the plague in the walls of the house is found to consist of greenish or reddish streaks that appear to go deep into the wall, 38 the priest shall come out of the house to the entrance of the house, and close up the house for seven days. 39 On the seventh day the priest shall return. If he sees that the plague has spread on the walls of the house, 40 the priest shall order the stones with the plague in them to be pulled out and cast outside the city into an unclean place. 41 The house shall be scraped inside all around, and the coating that is scraped off shall be dumped outside the city in an unclean place. 42 They shall take other stones and replace those stones with them, and take other coating and plaster the house.1
If only I had had the high priest check my apartment prior to moving in, perhaps I could have avoided the lung collapse and everything surrounding it!
So, when Melissa and I recently went looking to rent a new apartment, I had a mental checklist of what to avoid. We would avoid obvious signs of water damage leading to mold. We would avoid asbestos and car exhaust because of my delicate lungs. We
would avoid shoddy construction because we both lived through the 1994 6.7 Northridge earthquake. We would avoid lead paint and vinyl siding because of the harm it can do to the environment. These are seemingly basic requirements– to live in a structurally, environmentally and chemically safe dwelling. But I was amazed at how many homes had to be rejected because of these requirements.
We were settled on one possibility that we thought would be perfect– it was a two bedroom, it had light, it had an office with its own door. Great location. But, on the day we met with the owner, curious, I asked, “What’s with the ceiling? That isn’t asbestos, is it?”
“I won’t lie to you,” he replied. I braced myself as he followed with, “yes it is.”
Eventually, we found a different apartment that met our needs, but it wasn’t easy.
I wondered about all of the other Angelenos who faced these challenges. No one should have to choose between going hungry and living in a space free of asbestos or any other contaminant.
Some startling statistics about housing in L.A.:
• A family of four with two parents earning minimum wage can only afford $700 per month in rent according to the ration that is suggested by the state.2
• The average rent for a two bedroom apartment in L.A. is $1,523– over twice what the average family can afford!3
• So, of course, 56% of Californians are currently paying above the recommended monthly rent to income ratio towards housing. We trail only Florida for the highest rate in the country.4
Think about the stress this puts on the family, on individuals, on adults and children. No wonder close to 250,000 students enrolled in CA public schools were homeless during the 2011-2012 school year! Where could they possibly live that is both affordable and will not cause them bodily harm?
Jewish founded organizations like Bet Tzedek (the “House of Justice”) have been working with Jews and non-Jews for years on these issues by providing free legal advice to low-income residents of Los Angeles. One of their current class-action cases involves a building management company who fails to maintain its properties, “leaving tenants with roaches, leaking plumbing, defective wiring, and a plethora of other unsafe conditions. Requests for repairs are often ignored for months, and sometimes years. When repairs are made, the complaint alleges, they are merely cosmetic and fail to address the health and safety issues.”5
One resident, Catalina Mendoza, who has lived at one of the properties for 7 years, shares, “For years, [they] refused to fix bad conditions in our home. We need the court’s help so that this landlord makes our homes safe and healthy places to live.”6
As Bet Tzedek and others are working to get current problems with existing housing fixed, perhaps we can also address the issue by building new, more affordable housing for people in our city. After all, California state spending on housing is less than 1% of total spending.7
Soon, lawmakers will look to introduce a bill, called SB391, to create a fund for safe, affordable housing. I am personally curious about this bill and what we can do to help address housing inequality in our city. If you would like to join me in the upcoming months to learn about these injustices, to see what we can do to address them, and to join others who are also getting involved, please see me after services (or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Perhaps, in this way, like the kohanim over 2,000 years ago, we can help the checkers of the houses, and the ones who ensure that people have safe places to live. Then may all be able to truly say the Birkat HaBayit– the blessing for the home: Let no sadness come through this gate. Let no trouble come into this dwelling. Let no fear come through this door. Let no conflict be in this place. Let this home be filled with the blessing of joy and peace. Keyn Yehi Ratzon.
1 Leviticus 14. JPS Tanakh, 1985.
2 California Planning Roundtable; California Department of Housing & Community Development. Myth and Facts about Affordable & High Density Housing. http://hcd.ca.gov/hpd/mythsnfacts.pdf
3 Homelessness in California Homes. http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/ homelessness_in_california_homes_in_the_city_not_on_the_streets
4 Walters, Dan. The Sacramento Bee. New Report Details High Cost for Renters in California, 11 December, 2013. http://blogs.sacbee.com/capitolalertlatest/2013/12/the-census-bureau-reportedrecently.html
5 Bet Tzedek Helps Tenants. http://www.bettzedek.org/2014/01/10/bet-tzedek-helps-tenants-bringclass-action-lawsuit-against-central-valleys-biggest-slumlord/
7 California Planning Roundtable; California Department of Housing & Community Development. Myth and Facts about Affordable & High Density Housing. http://hcd.ca.gov/hpd/mythsnfacts.pdf