Dozens of tenants are being forced to vacate a South Los Angeles commercial building that was converted into now-shoddy apartments, amid complaints that the city should have acted sooner to enforce building codes and help residents relocate.
In recent years, the building was converted into dozens of apartments, some of them windowless -- prompting a complaint to the city six months ago. But when city inspectors ultimately required that the Hoover Street building be vacated, tenants were given little time to leave.
A Fire Department order said they had to leave by Friday, citing "unsafe buildings" and "structural hazards." The order, dated March 20, was not posted at the building until March 27, according to the Inner City Law Center, a legal services group that has been assisting the displaced residents.
Many tenants were scrambling Thursday to gather their possessions before news came that City Councilman Curren Price had stepped in and gotten the Fire Department to give residents a two-week extension while the city secured money to help them relocate.
"In the meantime, we are going to hold this property owner accountable for making sure his space is kept safe and clean until residents evacuate," Price wrote in a statement Thursday. A Fire Department spokesman said that the building was being checked hourly to make sure there were no fire hazards.
According to Los Angeles County property records, the building is owned by a holding company with an address in Santa Monica. Its registered agent is Ron Perlstein, a real estate broker whose firm, Danco Housing, listed the building for sale on its website in February for $895,000.
"Great investment opportunity, but not for the faint of heart," read a blog post describing the building.
Perlstein did not return calls seeking comment Thursday. Calls to a phone number on the side of the building advertising rooms for rent were not returned either.
Tenants said the building had mold and bedbugs, and that trash collection and heating had suddenly stopped; Inner City Law Center said there were only three showers for an estimated 42 residents.
Many residents suffer from physical or mental disabilities that crimp their income -- part of what drew them to the dilapidated building off Hoover Street in the first place, as the building offered rooms for $400 to $600 a month.
When she moved in, "I'd lost my job. I had no place to go," said Patricia McDowell, who had rented a room there for two and a half years.
Los Angeles tenants who are forced to move out of a rental for at least a month are eligible for up to $19,000 in relocation aid, which the city collects from the property owner, through a lien if necessary.
The Housing and Community Investment Department has a fund for emergency cases like this one. But with so many tenants involved -- most of whom are eligible for the full $19,000 -- the payout is large enough to require council approval.
Robert Aldape, assistant general manager of the Housing Department, said his agency is working with the council to push the measure through quickly. Price said he would introduce a motion Friday to allocate the relocation money.
Francisco Covarrubias, director of tenant organizing for Inner City Law Center, charged that the Department of Building and Safety had dropped the ball, letting problems at the building fester until the Fire Department had to abruptly order tenants out.
"They sat on this," Covarrubias said.
Building and Safety spokesman Luke Zamperini said that although the department had repeatedly handled complaints against the Hoover Street building, the first complaint about "its present illegal use" was received in September, triggering an order to the property owner in October and a hearing in March.
"The Department of Building and Safety Code Enforcement Bureau has given this case high priority and has been working as a team with the Fire Department, the City Attorney and the County Health Department to protect the building's occupants while maintaining the due process requirements of the law," Zamperini wrote in an email to The Times on Thursday.
On Thursday afternoon, a city housing inspector stopped by. In a makeshift living room hung with Christmas stockings, which used to be the waiting room for a medical office, he urged Yolanda Davis and Richard Goward to be patient in awaiting their relocation assistance.
"Don't get too crazy. We're trying to help," said the inspector, Felipe Hernandez. "We're trying to get that money."
In the meantime, Davis and Goward were trying to raise a little cash any way they could. In front of the Hoover building they were holding a yard sale, with more than a dozen pairs of Davis' shoes lined up on a blanket.
"What we don't sell, I guess we'll take with us," Davis said.