Tenants in building cited for housing violations settle for $2 million

Cockroaches crawled into tenants' ears and burrowed into their belongings, according to court documents

Tenants who lived in a Los Angeles apartment building that was repeatedly cited for health and housing violations have settled a negligence lawsuit with their property manager for more than $2 million.

Four days into a jury trial over dangerous living conditions, about 100 tenants reached a $2.18-million settlement Thursday with Bracha Investments LLC, according to the attorneys representing the tenants. 

"We want this settlement to be a warning to landlords," said Sharre Lotfollahi, an attorney representing the tenants. "If you mistreat people, and abuse your rights as a landlord, you’ll be held accountable."

Tenants in the 26-unit building on Maple Avenue paid $700 to $1,000 per month to live in dangerous and unsanitary conditions, dealing with exposed electrical wires, peeling lead paint and cockroaches that crawled into their ears and burrowed into their electronics, lawyers said in court documents.

Some tenants who could afford to move out did so, Lotfollahi said, but many were on low incomes and struggled to save two months' rent, plus moving expenses. Most did not own cars. 

"Vermin spawned in ... refrigerators, electronics, children's toys and beds" and left "food and possessions choked with roaches," attorneys wrote. Despite "diligent cleaning, their bathrooms, kitchens and living areas are and have been littered with roach and rat feces." Holes in walls and ceilings provided a "veritable express lane" for rats and cockroaches. 

Representatives for Bracha Investments did not return a request seeking comment. The management company sold the property in 2013, according to city records. 

During the trial, according to testimony quoted by Courthouse News Service, landlord Franco Haiem said he used a professional pest control company three to four times. Some tenants, he added, had refused to open their doors for exterminators. 

Haeim testified that the property manager had died, Lotfollahi said, but her firm found him and persuaded him to testify.  

City inspectors cited the building at least a dozen times for safety and fire violations from 2010 to mid-2013, when the lawsuit was filed, according to the civil complaint.

One child with chronic allergies crawled on a carpet that had not been replaced in 17 years, attorneys said. An elderly woman reported long-term bruising on her knees from crawling up the stairs to her bathroom because the landlord had not installed a handrail.  

In records quoted in court documents, inspectors noted "poorly maintained" apartments with cockroach infestations, as well as a "cast-off refrigerator" that children could crawl in.

Repairs, when they were made, were "slip-shod," according to court documents. Repairmen left a hole in the kitchen wall of an apartment close to a sewage line that gave off a "sulfurous, putrid odor" and made a 2-year-old child sick. 

People working for the rental company also harassed tenants, attorneys said in court documents, including pounding on tenants' doors late at night, screaming at them and stealing their rent money.

"There are a lot of people out there in Los Angeles who have used this slum business model," Lotfollahi said. "You buy a building, you put the least amount of money you can into it, and you hope that the tenants keep quiet so you can take advantage of them."

The $2.18-million settlement will be split among nearly 100 tenants based on how long they faced unsanitary and unsafe conditions, Lotfollahi said. Many still live in the building. 

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