Tenants of a North Hollywood bungalow complex say their landlord refuses to make needed repairs to his run-down units and harangues them for no reason, all in an effort to drive them out without having to pay relocation benefits.
But landlord Samir Yousif says he is the "opposite of a slumlord," and wants only to protect the tenants from apartments he terms "death traps." He said the units are beyond repair and should be demolished.
Since January, when Yousif began a campaign to evict the residents, the tenants and their landlord have struggled over the future of 24 aging units in the 6000 block of Lankershim Boulevard.
The conflict has moved back and forth from Los Angeles Superior Court to almost daily shouting arguments on the trash-strewn yards surrounding the bungalows.
Tenants Speak Little English
The tenants, most of whom are Latino immigrants and speak little English, are represented by lawyers from San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services. All parties agree that the project has become a haven for nocturnal drug sales. They also concur that, in their present condition, the apartments should not be inhabited.
Roofs leak, ceilings sag and broken glass, much of it from shattered windows, litters the yard. Some buildings have gaping holes in the walls.
Only 11 of the 24 units, which rent for $350 to $400 a month, remain inhabited. Attorney Anthony Rodriguez, who represents the remaining tenants, blames the exodus on Yousif's refusal to make "even the most-needed repairs" and his verbal harassment of tenants.
"He makes it so miserable for everyone in order to drive them out without having to pay relocation benefits," Rodriguez said.
He added that Yousif, part owner of nearby North Hollywood Subaru, "possibly needs space and wants to park cars here."
But Yousif, who said he bought the property two years ago, insisted in an interview that he will leave the land vacant after demolition and "maybe sell it eventually."
Tenants have left in recent months because they "realized this was not a good place to live," Yousif said. "There is no way I have to pay benefits. I'm not even thinking about that."
Michael E. Hembree, assistant director of Los Angeles' Rent Stabilization Division, said landlords who evict tenants must nearly always pay relocation benefits.
There is "virtually no escape from paying relocation benefits, regardless of whether a landlord plans to replace a building with something else or leave the property vacant," he said.
But he added that landlords sometimes seek to force tenants out before demolition because they "know it's almost impossible to collect benefits if you leave early."
Under an ordinance given final approval by the City Council Tuesday, relocation payments were raised to $5,000 a family, up from $2,500.
Rodriguez obtained a temporary restraining order July 31 from Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ricardo Torres that prohibits Yousif from harassing the tenants. A hearing is scheduled Thursday on a request for a preliminary injunction.
But Rodriguez said the court order "has not lessened the abuse."
About half the inhabited apartments have electricity. The rest are served by extension cords from neighboring units. Several vacant buildings are boarded up, but Yousif said the plywood sheets don't deter drug users from breaking into the units.
"Drug people have taken over. This place isn't safe after dark. That's one more reason why I want my tenants out," he said.
Several tenants and legal services lawyers said they suspect that Yousif is sabotaging his own units to drive them out.
The valve controlling water to the complex has been shut off several times in recent months, Rodriguez said, "and we think Yousif is doing it. We don't see anyone else who could be."
Yousif scoffs at accusations of harassment and sabotage, saying, "I'm a person who cares about people. I wouldn't do that kind of thing."
Citations Are Lacking
Robert Steinbach, who heads the city's Conservation Bureau, which investigates substandard buildings, said Yousif's property records show reports of "sagging ceiling and leaky roofs, but not anything real serious on the face of it."
Rodriguez said he has not complained to building officials because Yousif has used citations as justification for prompt evictions.
The attorney said he has thus far foiled Yousif's efforts to evict the tenants by finding defects in the notices.
He acknowledged that Yousif has a right to evict the tenants "if he does it with due process. But our clients have no place to go except the street, so we want them to stay here as long as possible."