The residents of twin apartment buildings on Taylor Avenue can go on and on about the conditions in which they live.
Arlene Michaelis looks through tears when she tells the story of her 5-year-old daughter, Michelle, who put down her glass of milk to go to the bathroom, returned and took a drink.
"You know when you get a hair in your mouth? She went like this and pulled a cockroach out of her mouth," Michaelis, 22, said in an interview last week.
A mother of five tells of her bathroom ceiling that fell to the floor New Year's Day; the plumbing in an upstairs apartment was leaking. Her daughters are scared to use the bathroom in the two-bedroom apartment.
"I have to stand there with the girls while they're using the restroom," said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous.
Last week, several of the families presented a petition to the Montebello City Council asking the city to force owner Anthony Lopez of Hacienda Heights to eliminate cockroach infestation. They complained of overflowing dumpsters, damaged ceilings, leaky plumbing and faulty wiring.
They said there is insufficient hot water and that apartments are not equipped with smoke detectors. The petition also contends that Lopez unfairly raised one tenant's rent. The petition was signed by residents of 15 of the 30 apartments at 825 and 829 S. Taylor Ave.
Lopez said there are not any "real big problems" at the buildings and his workers are trying to remedy those that exist.
"I spend more time and money on those places. I don't like to have my places run down," he said.
The situation has erupted into a particularly bitter landlord-tenant dispute. Tenant spokesman Arthur Gonzales said Lopez has threatened him and other tenants with eviction for publicizing the problem.
"He's trying to evict us to keep us quiet, but I won't stop," said Gonzales, who is leading the tenant campaign with his wife, Maria Flores.
Lopez said he has threatened to evict no one but Gonzales and Flores, because they have not paid their rent.
"This man is crazy," Lopez said in an interview. "He harasses me."
But tenants say the problems have existed for years. What repairs are made are never sufficient, they allege, and any attempts to clean the grounds and eliminate vermin are temporary.
In inspections over the past two months, a Los Angeles County health officer found cockroach infestation, garbage littering the grounds and an insufficient number of garbage dumpsters, said Rudy Bagnera, chief sanitarian of the East Los Angeles office of the county Department of Health Services.
They also found inoperable garbage disposals, broken kitchen exhaust fans, damaged walls and ceilings, an inoperable heater, broken cabinets, torn carpeting and pools with algae.
"He's (Lopez) got an above average number of violations," Bagnera said.
Earlier this month, Montebello Fire Department inspector Tim Snowden discovered apartments without smoke detectors, missing fire extinguishers, accumulated rubbish and other fire hazards, according to a department report.
Another city report states that an inspector with the Montebello Building Department last week found leaky roofs, water damage to walls, broken electrical outlets and cracked walls from the Oct. 1 earthquake.
Lopez has been told to correct the violations, within 15 days to 60 days, depending on the problem, officials said.
The apartment owner has a long history of city and county code violations, officials said.
The Health Department warned Lopez for similar violations in 1985, the last year for which records were immediately available, Bagnera said.
The Fire Department warned Lopez of other hazards in August, 1982, inspector Snowden said. Lopez had to be notified two more times and threatened with legal action before he finally took care of the problem, Snowden said.
The Building Department first warned Lopez of code violations in 1972, and again in 1974, 1976, 1979, 1981, three times in 1982, and in 1983, Assistant City Administrator Victor S. Grgas said.
Those violations ranged from unsafe swimming pool gates to damaged ceilings and leaky plumbing. Officials say Lopez has taken care of repairs and other problems when warned, but the repeat violations are cause for concern.
"I think his past history does not speak well for his ability to keep the place up to standards," Grgas said.
Roof Has Leaked 2 Years
Maria Rodriguez said she moved into her two-bedroom apartment more than two years ago and complained immediately to apartment management about her leaky roof. But the leaks persist. She pays $600 a month rent.
"When it rains, I can only use half of my bedroom," said Rodriguez, who lives in an upstairs apartment with her three sons.
Some of the residents said they cannot afford to move, or it would be difficult to relocate because many apartments do not accept families with several children. Others say they will not move because of principle.
Lopez said most of the problems are caused by apartment dwellers who pay their rent late and try to get back at him when he threatens to take action.
"They break things on purpose," Lopez said. "When I'm trying to evict them they break things."
Inspectors Visit Site
In response to complaints at last week's City Council meeting, Grgas organized a team of inspectors who visited the apartments last Thursday morning.
Grgas said the grounds appeared to be "fairly" clean but he and other officials said most of the building, fire and health violations discovered during the past two months remain.
If Lopez fails to correct the deficiencies, the case could be referred to the district attorney's office for criminal prosecution, or the city could declare the apartments a public nuisance and seek a court order to compel repairs, or make repairs and put a lien on the property to recover costs, officials said.
"If he doesn't make corrections, we'll take him through the court system," Grgas said.
Lopez pledges to make the repairs to the satisfaction of city and county officials.
Gonzales and Flores started their campaign shortly after the Oct. 1 earthquake, which shattered the front window of their two-bedroom apartment.
Tenant Hired Workmen
Flores said the apartment manager would not arrange to have it fixed promptly, so she hired workmen to board up the gaping hole that night. Lopez eventually replaced the window.
In the meantime, Gonzales and Flores deducted the cost of boarding up the window--$125--from their rent payment. Shortly after, Lopez raised their rent from $550 a month to $600.
In an agreement reached last month before the Montebello Housing Mediation Board, the couple agreed to pay the rent increase if Lopez eliminated their cockroach problem, fixed their garbage disposal and made other repairs. Some of the repairs have been made, but Gonzales and Flores say their apartment is still infested with cockroaches and they will not pay the increase until the problems are eliminated.
Gonzales said Lopez has given him notice that he and his wife will be evicted if they do not pay their rent.