City Seeks Legal Tool to Combat Crowding in Housing

Times Staff Writer

'If you blow the whistle on them, you're going to take the roof off their heads and put them out on the streets.'

Blythe Street is a block with a brutal reputation. In a Van Nuys neighborhood known for its soaring crime and jammed apartment buildings, the 14600 block of Blythe is the center of both innocent and illicit commerce.

On a recent weekday, young entrepreneurs stood nonchalantly on the sidewalk peddling packets of drugs to passing motorists, not far from a woman and her young child selling fruit and vegetables from their parked truck.

Nearby, a car with flattened tires and no license plates sat abandoned outside a scarred apartment house where a cautious manager greeted a visitor with a shotgun leaning against the wall and a large, serrated knife jammed along the edge of the front door.

"This is a dangerous neighborhood," he said. In his third week on the job, the manager already had been threatened by a street gang, had discovered a "shooting gallery" for drug addicts in his laundry room and--the crux of his problem--had found as many as 20 people sharing one of his two-bedroom apartments.

Across the street, another apartment manager, Larry Estrada, pointed to a graffiti-splattered building that his boss had recently purchased. On his first visit there, Estrada said, he found 14 people, who slept in shifts, occupying the same one-bedroom apartment. Another 18 family members lived in a two-bedroom apartment where they slept on the floor and relied on a single bathroom. "There is destruction of property, (unsanitary) conditions. . . . This overcrowding is where you have the problems," said a frustrated Estrada. "The city should do something about it."

Some key officials at City Hall agree. Members of the Los Angeles City Council previously have pondered the problem of overcrowding in apartments and rented houses. They have heard the concerns over fire and health hazards and crime in and around the dilapidated housing where tenants are packed in.

Aware of the rising tide of complaints from Blythe Street and elsewhere, the council this week is expected to renew discussions and possibly vote on a proposed ordinance that would limit the number of tenants based on the size of "sleeping rooms" in apartments and rented houses.

Specifically, the ordinance would amend the city's Building Code to require in rented quarters a minimum of 70 square feet in rooms where two people sleep. The house or apartment would have to have another 50 square feet of sleeping area for each additional person.

In an effort to crack down on landlords who are packing in tenants and charging extra rent, the council is also considering a proposal directing the city's Rent Adjustment Commission to prohibit rental rates based on the number of occupants, the so-called "head charge" added on at some apartments and houses.

The principal aims of the ordinance are supported by the city's rent control administrators, building and safety officials and a large group of apartment owners. It also has the backing of such council members as Ernani Bernardi, who represents the Blythe Street area.

"We cannot let this overcrowding go on. It is a matter of public health and safety," said Bernardi, who blamed much of the local problems on an influx of illegal aliens desperate for cheap housing and easy prey for greedy landlords. The ordinance, which was approved by the council last April and then overturned, has encountered strong opposition from tenant groups, legal aid lawyers and council members representing districts with large minority populations or immigrant groups.

"This ordinance is like motherhood. No one is against health and safety, but the impact would be harmful on those with large families and little income," Councilman Richard Alatorre said. "They live in these place because they cannot afford to go elsewhere."

Alatorre said families in his Eastside district would be split and evictions multiplied if the ordinance is passed. "It does nothing to protect people or help out those who live under these overcrowded conditions," he said. "What they need is more housing, and the city doesn't provide that."

Daniel Marquez, a housing attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation, warned that the ordinance--which would be enforced by the city Building and Safety Department on the basis of complaints--could encourage unscrupulous or panicky landlords to force tenants out of their homes.

"We think what's going to happen is musical apartments," said Marquez, who added that areas such as the Pico-Union district, where a large number of recent immigrants live, would be particularly hard hit.

One public health official, who works closely with tenants to combat communicable diseases, said she has seen 15 family members sharing a single apartment and a lone bathroom and found herself torn over the issue.

"The question is which is the lesser of two evils. . . . If you blow the whistle on them, you're going to take the roof off their heads and put them out on the streets," said the official who asked not to be identified.

While some City Council members representing black areas of the city also expressed concern for their constituents, the amendment's effect would not be limited to minority areas or poorer sections of the city.

Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the affluent Westside, said he was undecided how to vote on the proposal because certain pockets of his district include elderly tenants who have moved in with each other and who may find themselves in violation of the city code.

"It would be an eye-opener to 90% of the people who live on these streets that those buildings could be illegal or overcrowded . . . and a surprising percentage of households are going to be affected," he said. "It is a dilemma."

During a recent debate, Councilman Marvin Braude, who chairs the Building and Safety Committee, said that the actual number of overcrowding cases would be relatively few. "This is not a far-reaching proposal. All we are saying is that the gross concerns of public safety ought to be adhered to," he said.

The move to alleviate overcrowding began as a simple effort to restore language in the city building code that had been mistakenly dropped from the city's books when the code was updated in 1985.

"We found that we were left without the tools to combat overcrowding" said Robert Steinbach, chief of inspection in the conservation bureau of the city Building and Safety Department.

However, in reviewing the proposed ordinance, spokesman Ted Goldstein of the city attorney's office said lawyers were concerned about difficulties in enforcement and prosecution.

"The vision of building and safety inspectors pounding on apartment corridors asking: 'How many are in there?' sets a bad precedent for city employees," said Goldstein, who added that city attorneys were also worried about the safety risks to inspectors.

Building and safety inspectors may now cite landlords for maintenance violations such as holes in the wall, broken windows or lack of heat in a building, but officials say they lack workable guidelines to prevent overcrowding.

The city relies on a county Health Code that establishes a "minimum cubic air space for sleeping rooms" to control the number of people in residential buildings. But as a practical matter, officials of both the county and city have found that measurement difficult to enforce.

The new proposal, city officials said, would still allow up to 10 people to occupy a moderately sized, two-bedroom apartment.

The proposal originally was aimed only at apartments but council backers later recommended adding single family houses.

If the proposed ordinance change passes and is signed by the mayor, Steinbach said, city inspectors will respond to individual complaints about overcrowding--which now make up only a small portion of the 26,000 complaints his department received last year. Rent control officials said they also would try to minimize disruptions to families by trying to persuade landlords to help tenants find other housing if the tenants are forced to move.

Councilman Hal Bernson, who favors the ordinance, said the code change is needed to preserve the city's housing stock from deteriorating into slum conditions.

That argument is echoed by the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, whose membership of 23,000 includes landlords and managers. Craig Mordoh, the organization's legal affairs director, said the code change would help both tenants and apartment owners.

"We think it's the simplest solution toward creating a safe environment," he said, "and it will discourage the few, unscrupulous landlords."

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