As part of a citywide crackdown on deteriorating rental property, city officials have charged a Huntington Park businessman with allowing dozens of low-income tenants in two apartment complexes he owns to live in “slum-like” housing.
In a 14-count complaint filed Monday at Huntington Park Municipal Court, Wafick Zaky was charged with allowing a long list of unsafe conditions to exist for the past year, city prosecutor Cary Reisman said.
Reisman said Zaky has repeatedly ignored city officials’ orders to correct several dozen health and safety code violations, some serious enough to endanger the health of tenants in apartments on Loveland Street and Ajax Avenue, he added.
“We’re determined that it’s not going to be profitable to maintain slum-like conditions in Bell Gardens,” City Manager Claude Booker said.
But a representative for Zaky, in a telephone interview on Tuesday, denied that his boss has been uncooperative with city officials or has allowed the 13 apartment units to become rundown and unsafe.
Zaky is one of 18 absentee landlords that city officials cited this week for a variety of code violations.
Despite “numerous opportunities” and a conference last year in which city building inspectors outlined the various alleged violations to the landlords, Reisman said, they have not complied with city orders to upgrade their rental property.
The violations, which date back to April, 1988, range from excessive trash accumulation to major building defects, such as exposed electrical wiring, rotting floors and collapsing ceilings, Booker said.
“We tried to do it by sugar and honey, but that didn’t work,” Booker said. “It got to the point where it was obvious that we were not going to get compliance.”
The other landlords face between two and seven charges each. Each offense is punishable by a $1,000 fine, six months in County Jail and other penalty assessments based on the condition of the property.
Most of those charged were arraigned on Monday at Huntington Park Municipal Court. Six failed to appear, two pleaded guilty, two face a preliminary hearing on March 28 and arraignments for the remainder were continued to various dates. Bench warrants were issued for the six who failed to appear.
City officials describe Zaky as the greatest offender. He is scheduled to reappear for arraignment on March 28, Reisman said. If convicted of all charges, he could face more than $30,000 in fines and seven years in County Jail, Reisman said.
“We hope (the criminal charges) send a strong message to those who might follow in his footsteps,” Reisman said.
Emad Ghargory, head of Zaky’s rental property business, said that the city has been unfair to his employer and other landlords. While acknowledging that there have been numerous problems that have cropped up over the years, he claimed that Zaky has a crew on duty six days a week for routine maintenance and repairs.
“I don’t want to make derogatory comments toward the city of Bell Gardens,” Ghargory said, “but in all honesty, this is all grossly unfair. I do not agree that these things . . . don’t get fixed in time.”
Zaky also owns rental property in Huntington Park, San Pedro, Downey and Palm Springs, Ghargory said. Ghargory said that Zaky’s company has had no complaints in any other city. He added that this is the first time Zaky’s attorney has had to fight Bell Gardens about such charges at the Loveland and Ajax properties, which he has owned for 15 years.
Ghargory said that the burden of responsibility should be shared by the tenants.
“I am sure these people (tenants) did not rent the properties in the condition that the city is alleging they are in,” Ghargory said. “It is unfair that the city asks for a 24-hour monitor to make sure the tenants put their garbage in the bins all the time.”
Ghargory also said that the company has spent more than $20,000 upgrading the apartment complexes, both inside and outside. The parking lot at the Ajax Avenue complex was recently repaved and the apartments underwent a roof renovation.
But city inspector Carlos Levario said he visited Zaky’s apartment complexes on Sunday and took photographs. He said he found holes in walls, missing floorboards, loose and dangling wiring, cracked and leaking water faucets, missing bathtub tiling and broken windows.
“One tenant tripped (in a hole in a floor) while she was showing me around,” Levario said.
“This guy (Zaky) insists that it is not his fault. He’s definitely responsible for his property. If he can find his way to the place to collect the rent, then he should know what condition the place is in.”
Several of Zaky’s tenants interviewed at the Loveland apartment complex shared Levario’s view.
Nellie Limon, who has lived in a three-bedroom apartment with her husband and four children for the past five years, said that the family often makes repairs. But some problems are too difficult for the family to handle, and they remain uncorrected for years, she said.
“He doesn’t come to fix anything,” Limon said. “He only comes to pick up the rent.”
She pointed to a collapsing ceiling, damaged by rain water, in a bedroom, saying that the damage had remained uncorrected for three years.
Next door, Hilda Padilla complained that her bathroom faucets have been leaking for years, causing the wooden floor to rot.
About two weeks ago, she said, she stepped out of the shower and a portion of the floor collapsed beneath her. She said she has told Zaky’s maintenance crew, but the floor hasn’t been repaired.
“It just opened up,” said Padilla, 25, pointing to the hole. The hole in the floor next to the bathtub revealed a dusty crawl space.
Ghargory said he was aware of all these problems, including Padilla’s rotting floor, and that the three-member crew has been scheduled to make the repairs.
City officials launched a similar campaign to force absentee landlords to clean up their property in December, 1987.
Of the 18 charges that were filed against a number of absentee landlords, only one went to a jury trial, Reisman said.
Landlord Victor Vaillette of Huntington Beach, who publishes Rent Guide Magazine, was convicted on four counts of health and safety violations, and was fined $2,700 and sentenced to 20 days in County Jail, said Reisman. Vaillette also was ordered to build a carport and fix a leaky roof.
Vaillette, who is representing himself, has appealed. His case is scheduled to be heard in four months, he said.
Vaillette also complained that city officials have been unfair to landlords. He said that he was not informed about specific charges of health and safety code violations.
“I’m 100% behind improving Bell Gardens,” said Vaillette, adding that he has recently moved back into the property that the city found to be substandard in 1986. “But I don’t think the city acted properly in helping me make the necessary repairs I needed to make.
“I had some very severe tenant problems,” Vaillette said. “Now they want me to pay.”