Falling Through the Cracks : Building and Safety Department Works to Put New Pressure on Landlords to Upgrade Housing

Times Staff Writer

On a recent rainy afternoon, water poured from the kitchen light fixture in Ernestillo Lopez's apartment. His wife put pails under three other ceiling leaks and complained that her clothes and the children's had gotten soaked.

Lopez, meanwhile, draped plastic over the bed .

"It's raining in here too," the 28-year-old truck driver said. The windows in the bedroom were gone.

Elsewhere in the squat, two-story building at 645 E. Washington Blvd. near downtown Los Angeles, other tenants walked down cold, dark hallways, past plaster cracks that were left from the recent earthquake. In their small apartments were walls with peeling paint, clogged sinks and more leaks.

A Familiar Story

The conditions in this 24-unit building seem all too familiar, as stories of slum housing and well-publicized accounts of enforcement efforts against landlords--at least one forced to spend jail time in his own building--become more common.

But this building is not an example of vigorous response to shoddy housing by the city Building and Safety Department's conservation bureau. It was just another one of the 12,551 buildings cited for code violations during the last year, and nothing more has come of the citation. In the same period, more than 4,000 building violations were similarly allowed to lapse, city records show.

Critics, inspectors and Building and Safety Department officials alike attribute the poor performance to backlogged cases, inspection staff shortages and delays that favor violators.

The burden placed by the earthquake inspections after the Oct. 1 temblor has compounded an already troubled process. A total of 8,000 special earthquake inspections were done in early October, according to Bob Steinbach, chief of inspections for the conservation division of the Building and Safety Department, which handles inspection of single-family, multiple dwellings and commercial buildings. Another 2,400 follow-up inspections were undertaken about two weeks ago.

Department statistics show that even before the earthquake, the backlog of unattended housing complaints had reached a staggering 23,500. In the period since the Oct. 1 earthquake, more than 1,000 additional public complaints, which are requests for inspection, have gone unanswered for lack of staff to address them.

"It's going to take me a year to catch up," one senior inspector, Bill Howard, said.

Working conditions are poor as well. Housing inspectors are assigned to a cramped, dingy area on the fourth floor of City Hall. While other department offices are modernized, the conservation bureau is filled with battered old tables, chairs and desks, and seems, as one inspector put it, like "the stepchild."

Because of inspection problems, however, the department is about to embark on an overhaul of its system, setting up a "neighborhood inspection program." Department officials say this will increase the number of residential inspectors responding to complaints from 21 to 105 and move them out into various field offices around the city.

At the same time, the City Council plans to consider new proposals to improve the system. One made by the Building and Safety Department would allow it to impose fees for non-compliance on landlords by charging them for additional inspections.

Rent Escrow Accounts

A City Council motion introduced last month by Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina would allow the city to set up rent escrow accounts to pay for repairs at substandard buildings. Another introduced by Molina this week would require the Building and Safety Department and the city attorney's office to report to the council in two months on the entire inspection, citation and enforcement process to see what changes are needed.

"Our feeling is the reason property owners don't comply is they know the system does not work," Molina deputy Anna Martinez said.

According to Mel Bliss, chief of the conservation bureau, inspectors achieve only a 50% compliance from property owners.

About 2,000 of their housing violation cases end up each year with the department's investigations division, which prepares them for criminal prosecution by the city attorney's office. Under the Municipal Code, violations are misdemeanors, punishable by a $1,000 fine or six months in jail.

The code violations referred to the department's investigations division tend to be "four to eight months old," said Mike Claessens, chief building mechanical inspector for the division, and the subsequent process can take from a "minimum four months" to "over a year."

Meanwhile, a lot of violations "fall through the cracks," said Art Johnson, assistant chief of the conservation bureau. "You just don't have the wherewithal to get back to each job."

The building where Lopez lives on Washington Boulevard is such a case. It was ordered vacated by the Building and Safety Department last January due to the owner's failure to correct "substandard" conditions.

If a "substandard" notice is ignored by a property owner, the department can issue an "order to vacate," meaning the owner must remove the tenants until the violations are corrected. After that, the Building and Safety Department can order the building to be demolished.

'Order to Vacate'

Last Jan. 12, the department issued an "order to vacate" to the building's owners, Fritz Braune and Eugene J. Golling of Pacific Palisades.

But after that, nothing happened. The tenants are still there. The Building and Safety Department did not follow up until fearful tenants asked for an earthquake inspection and an inspector showed up Oct. 5. According to his report, the substandard conditions were not corrected.

"If it hadn't been for the earthquake, we probably wouldn't have been there yet," said Jim Carney, principal inspector for commercial buildings.

Building and Safety officials are also wary of pushing landlords who might be prone to simply demolish the property rather than make needed, costly repairs, Carney said, thereby diminishing already shrinking low-income housing stock.

Apply Pressure

At 645 E. Washington, he added, "we ordered the building vacated not with the intention of moving the people out but with the intention of putting pressure on the owner."

He added ruefully that without a follow-up, "there's no pressure."

Critics say that the department is not only slow but that its system fails to identify faulty conditions before buildings deteriorate to an advanced stage. Inspection officials, in fact, do not even know how many apartments there are in the city. The Community Development Department says there are 670,000 rental units.

Under the current process, housing is inspected only if someone makes a complaint. There is no system of routine inspections, which both the city Fire Department and Los Angeles County Department of Health Services have.

Tenants Afraid

Barbara Zeidman, director of the rent stabilization division of the Community Development Department that oversees 484,000 rent-controlled units, said, "Where you have tenants who are afraid to complain, who don't know how to complain, and a landlord who doesn't care, that building deteriorates before your very eyes, without any kind of intervention from the city."

Building and Safety Department's Steinbach said that a few weeks after the earthquake, "a building collapsed completely and broke apart up in Boyle Heights."

Inspectors who went to the scene could see that the building had been in bad condition for some time, he said, but the department had no record of any inspections made or violations recorded on the building.

Steinbach blamed the tenants, not the department, for the lack of inspections.

'High Concentration'

"When you get a high concentration (of tenants who have a) life style that doesn't demand a lot of cleanliness or well-maintained buildings," he said, "we don't know about the condition of the building because no one's complained."

Deputy City Atty. Stephanie Sautner, head of the city attorney's interagency slum housing task force, which targets the worst slum housing for special prosecution efforts, believes that "preventive" inspections by the Building and Safety Department are needed. Her unit led the fight against Milton Avol, the Beverly Hills neurosurgeon and slumlord who was convicted of violating numerous health and safety codes and was sentenced to serve 30 days in his rat-infested Hollywood building.

'Let It Slide'

"Buildings get bad because of people like Avol," Sautner said. "He owned the building for 10 years and let it slide because nobody was out there citing him on a regular basis."

The city attorney's task force, which includes inspectors assigned from the Fire Department and the county Department of Health Services, as well as from the Building and Safety Department, has brought 2,500 to 3,000 units into compliance in the last two years, Sautner said.

But the task force caseload is only 100 buildings, leaving the majority at the mercy of routine hearings, extensions, appeals and other delays.

The department's newly reorganized housing inspection system will take effect in about a month.

"It'll be like a cop on the beat," conservation chief Bliss said, with inspectors handling complaints, new construction permits and doing what he calls "pro-active" enforcement, inspecting whatever buildings that look like they need it.

The residential inspector staff, augmented by about 60 transfers from elsewhere in the department and 28 hired during the next year, will be reassigned to one of 18 satellite offices, he said. Working from these offices, each of the inspectors will be responsible for monitoring buildings in designated 4.4-square-mile districts.

The new neighborhood inspectors will focus on single-family dwellings, not apartment buildings. However, Bliss said 23 inspectors handling apartment buildings along with other commercial properties will be assigned to the neighborhoods as well, backed up by a new 10-person "strike force" that will concentrate on deteriorating neighborhoods.

Extra $2 Million

In August, the City Council approved the neighborhood inspection program, along with an extra $2 million in funds to pay for new staff and other costs.

Under the rent escrow account program proposed by Yaroslavsky and Molina, the city would have the power to set up escrow accounts to hold tenants' rent money on substandard buildings. If landlords refuse to correct violations, the city could contract to have the repairs made.

Zeidman, whose rent stabilization division would oversee the program, said the proposal held promise because "there is no economic disincentive to ignore a Building and Safety order."

Ignore Orders

As another disincentive, the Building and Safety Department has been seeking an ordinance, now being drafted by the city attorney's office, to impose non-compliance fees on landlords who ignore violation orders.

According to Assistant City Atty. Claudia McGee Henry, the amount of the fees has not been determined, but they would be high enough to be an "incentive to comply" and would be charged every time inspectors had to make additional trips to the building.

"The idea is to put the burden on the wrongdoer," Bliss said, estimating that $661,500 in fees could be generated annually.

Meanwhile, Braune, owner of 645 E. Washington, said: "We're working on it. We're going to fix it up."

The tenants, for their part, decided to take action on their own. Recently, they started a rent strike. Through tenant activist Dino Hirsch, they have been in touch with Legal Aid attorneys and are exploring the possibilities of filing a lawsuit.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Monday November 16, 1987 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction Measure = 12p0, point.size = 8.5 on 9.8, font = PL A caption in Sunday's Times incorrectly identified David Beaston as a Los Angeles building inspector. Beaston, who was shown looking at damaged water pipes in an apartment building on Lafayette Park Place, is a tenant.
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