With 'deplorable' conditions for some renters, Long Beach debates inspections

In Long Beach, unsafe rental conditions can go undetected by inspectors for months or even years

At a faded yellow duplex on Long Beach's Orange Avenue, less than three blocks from Pacific Coast Highway, Larry Watson's apartment is suffering a different kind of drought.

There's no running water. The faucets don't flow. The shower doesn't spray. A handwritten sign in the kitchen warns "Please!! No water put in sink." Liquid poured down its plugged pipes is likely to come back up.

Watson, 61, is confined to a wheelchair after a surgery to remove infected bedsores. Interviewed on a recent morning as he recuperated in bed, he said friends and neighbors carry in water to fill the toilet. When he wants to shower, he said he checks into a motel.

The conditions faced by tenants such as Watson are part of an intensifying debate in Los Angeles County's second-largest city, where more than half the 469,000 residents are renters.

City records and interviews show that unsafe conditions can go undetected by inspectors for months or even years and that Long Beach lags behind other large municipalities that have adopted programs to more aggressively find and fix housing code violations.

On Tuesday, the City Council will consider a long-awaited plan to update its rental inspection program. The proposal developed by city staff would increase some fines and step up tenant education efforts, but falls short of what activists and some council members want.

"We have people living in horrible, deplorable situations. You would think it's a third-world country," Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez said. "People are not being protected."

Apartment owners and city administrators argue the rental industry has worked well with existing oversight.

Angela Reynolds, who leads Long Beach's rental housing regulatory effort, said her program is "the best out there."

Under rules established nearly 50 years ago, a fee charged to the city's rental property owners funds inspectors who investigate complaints. Those inspectors also periodically visit larger properties with four or more units.

If a tenant answers an inspector's knock on the door and illegal conditions are found, the landlord can be ordered to make repairs or face fines and potential criminal prosecution. When owners are cited, 90% of deficiencies are resolved within 120 days, officials said.

But if an inspector's knock goes unanswered and no additional complaint is received, years may pass before an inspector returns.

At thousands of buildings in Long Beach with fewer than four units, such as the duplex where Watson lives, inspectors only respond to complaints and no routine inspections occur.

Some of California's other cities, such as Los Angeles, San Jose, Sacramento and Santa Cruz, keep a registry of rental buildings with multiple units and mandate that, in addition to responding to complaints, inspectors periodically enter and assess each one.

L.A. and other cities have enforcement powers that can pressure owners to more quickly make repairs and protect tenants from retaliatory evictions. Some of those cities also use data gathered during inspections to increase their monitoring of owners with histories of problems, as well as target resources in neighborhoods with large numbers of buildings falling into disrepair.

"These programs are extremely successful and an enormous tool in the fight against slum housing," said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a renter organizing group. "In the other cities surrounding L.A., there is little enforcement and little protection for tenants."

Among the changes being sought by Long Beach tenant groups is an enforcement tool modeled after an L.A. program that allows officials to temporarily seize rent payments when landlords fail to make required repairs. City staff in Long Beach has said such a program would be too expensive to operate.

As one point of comparison of enforcement efforts in L.A. and Long Beach, The Times identified landlords who had been sanctioned in L.A. for failing to promptly correct violations, and then visited nearly two dozen properties they owned in Long Beach.

Tenants complained to a reporter of broken windows, faulty wiring, unreliable plumbing, pest infestations, leaking ceilings and potentially hazardous mold. Some said their landlords were slow to fix problems or pressured them to pay for repairs.

"They always want the rent on time, but they don't want to fix anything," said Maria Cavillo, a mother of four who lives in an Almond Avenue duplex east of downtown, where she said rainwater often streams down through cracks visible in the living room ceiling.

After a reporter requested inspection records for four properties — and before the documents were produced — city administrators dispatched staff to assess the buildings, according to internal emails obtained under the California Public Records Act.

"What do they know that we don't know?" Deputy City Manager Arturo Sanchez wrote, referring to the Times inquiry.

In April, city inspectors entered three of the buildings — including the duplexes where Cavillo and Watson live — and logged 40 violations of the city's municipal code. The most serious problems had not been identified in past inspections, city records show. At the fourth building, the inspector encountered a locked gate and did not examine the property.

The owner of Watson's duplex was ordered to restore water service and address 19 other violations. But five weeks after sending an initial inspection notice, Long Beach officials said they had yet to make contact with the landlord they believed owned the building, Janet Bobbitt. After The Times followed up Friday, the city issued Bobbitt the case's first fine for $100, an official said. Bobbitt did not respond to repeated telephone calls seeking comment.

Cavillo's landlord, Nazmudin Lalani, was ordered to install missing smoke detectors, repair broken windows, recaulk the bathtub, replace a deteriorated shower wall and eliminate a roach infestation, among other things, city records show. Lalani said he plans to fix the problems, which he said are largely caused by tenants crowding an extended family into the $1,300-a-month, two-bedroom apartment.

"I think the best way to police is to do bed checks," he said. "Write a letter to owners saying you have too many people. Then the landlord gets fined if they don't get them out."

Long Beach officials and landlord groups say many such problems could be resolved under the current inspection program if tenants were better informed about their rights and knew how to lodge complaints.

"Some people are just afraid to call. That's part of their own personal issue," said Johanna Cunningham, executive director of landlord group the Apartment Assn., Southern California Cities. "They don't have faith in the process, so we have to educate them."

Watson said his water supply hasn't worked since he and a roommate moved in two years ago. After relations with his landlord deteriorated and he began withholding rent, he said he considered legal action and moving to a nursing home.

But he said he never tried calling City Hall inspectors. "What good would that do?" he asked.

Renter advocates say any regulatory program that relies on complaints plays into the hands of bad landlords who can exploit vulnerable parts of the population.

"This is part of the business model: Poor, low-income immigrants who won't complain, who are in dire straits, who are one bad break away from the streets," said Fernando Gaytan, an attorney at Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

The question of whether tougher enforcement, more tenant education programs — or both — are needed to improve housing conditions for residents, particularly those at bottom of the economic ladder, falls to a newly reconstituted City Council in which a majority of members took office in the last year.

First-term Councilman Rex Richardson said he's not ready to create a major new enforcement operation with the power to take over rent collection. But the city needs to consider more frequently inspecting smaller apartment buildings to prevent serious violations from going unnoticed, he said.

"I have deep concerns about our approach. [The city] needs to make sure we have a process that is safe for people who might not report problems."

ben.welsh@latimes.com

Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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