Almost all the 1,500 tenants are immigrants from Latin American or the children of immigrants. Few speak English. Many are infants. All are poor.
Many appear to have little idea that they are plaintiffs in a massive lawsuit that was filed in their name Tuesday by the Los Angeles city attorney, the Legal Aid Foundation and a private law firm. Some of those who do are skeptical that it will improve their lot.
“I’ve seen inspectors come and go and take portraits of our bathrooms,” said Julio Cesar Alarniz, a tenant in a run-down Glassell Park building where whole families live in 9-by-12-foot rooms. “But nothing changes.”
Yet, if the suit succeeds, it could change the very way these tenants bathe and eat and the way they bed their children down for the night.
The unprecedented suit alleges that the tenants of 11 local slum dwellings have been the victims of a racketeering conspiracy by two lending institutions and dozens of middlemen and dummy corporations that have illegally eked fortunes out of the slums where they live.
Named as principal defendants are Highland Federal Savings and Loan, A&B; Loan Co. of Inglewood and a Westside real estate consultant, William Leyton, who was described as a middleman by the plaintiffs. Also named are 137 “shell” corporations, individuals and companies that allegedly conspired to siphon funds out of slum buildings, while refusing to make repairs.
Highland Federal officials denied the allegations, while the other key parties declined comment.
Long before the lawyers became involved, however, many tenants say they strongly suspected what is now alleged in court: That while ownership of their buildings was transferred time and time again, the same circle of men usually remained in charge.
A 29-unit apartment building at 823 S. Bonnie Brae St. changed owners 19 times between 1977 and 1988, according to the lawsuit. Almost every time a new “owner” appeared, tenants say they were required to pay a $4 “transfer tax” in cash that none understood. After a while, tenants say, they no longer believed the stories about the new owners.
“They were the same men each time,” said Margarita Espinoza, a mother of six who has lived in the Bonnie Brae building since 1977. When Legal Aid Foundation attorneys began helping the tenants about five years ago, she found to her amazement that her invalid husband, who lives in a hospital, had been listed briefly as an owner of the building.
It took four criminal prosecutions by the city attorney and years of legal actions by Legal Aid, but eventually improvements were made to the building.
‘I Was Wrong’
“I did not believe it was possible to improve conditions here,” she said, pointing to various improvements. “I was wrong . . . look.”
Rain no longer comes down through the ceiling from the floor above, she said. The cockroaches that used to scurry over children’s feet are gone. Mice no longer breed inside her mattresses. The hallways, once filthy, are repainted with bright white and gray enamel. New green grass is growing outside the front door.
Overcrowding still makes living conditions seem sordid. The living room is divided by a partition into a dining area and a bedroom with a bunk bed and a double bed. Four of her children sleep in a two-level bunk bed, and the two smaller ones sleep with her in a double bed a foot away.
The dining area seats four. Never, she says, has her family been able to sit together around a table to eat. The newly renovated kitchen is so narrow that she moves into it sideways. In such cramped spaces, everything serves a double purpose. Purses are tacked onto walls, and then used as files for important papers. A toy truck stores clothing. A tiny dressing table is for homework for her school-age children. A fire escape becomes a jungle gym.
Still, because of the improvements, the Bonnie Brae apartment is now listed as a “former slum” in the lawsuit, which meticulously divides the buildings into three categories: current slum, transitional slum and former slum, according to the degree to which landlords have complied with court orders to repair their buildings.
The suit seeks to enjoin the defendants from allegedly illegal lending practices, as well as asking for punitive damages for current and former tenants who have been forced to live in legally uninhabitable buildings. A tour of three of the buildings--one in each category--Wednesday indicated that tenants have lived with broken toilets and windows and without dependable hot water and lights for so long that these amenities seem permanently out.
Just three blocks away is the Cameo Hotel, at 504 S. Bonnie Brae St.
So run-down does the building appear that it would seem impossible that anyone could make money from it. However, it has 167 small rooms that rent for $265 and $275 each, the manager said. That means roughly $15,000 a month income. Tenants say the rent must be paid in cash. The rent, according to the lawsuit, has been siphoned off by the three major defendants through loans that were falsely inflated whenever the building changed hands. And it has had six owners of record since 1985, one of them reportedly a pet dog.
The Cameo is a “transitional slum,” according to the lawsuit. A team of workmen could be seen inside the grim cement courtyard making court-ordered repairs. After a reporter and photographer were refused entry into the building by a manager, tenants leaned out windows to describe the conditions under which they live.
The bathroom ceiling fell down on one tenant recently, they said. The cockroaches are everywhere. Rats and mice abound.
“Nothing will change,” asserted Maria Melgar, a Salvadoran immigrant with a 2-week-old baby who pays $275 a month for her one-room apartment without a kitchen.
As she spoke, children played on the fire escape by windows that had been boarded up so that young children would not fall out. Tricycles, water bottles and cleaning supplies were stored on window ledges, testaments to the tiny spaces inside. A small boy flew a kite that was fashioned from a plastic shopping bag and a piece of string out of his fourth-story window.
A 25-room former hotel at 2616 Idell St., just around the corner from Lawry’s California Center in Glassell Park, is considered a “current slum.” Surrounded by asphalt, the two-story building houses rows of 9-by-12-foot rooms. There is one toilet and two showers for women on each floor, and the same for men.
“When my wife takes a shower, I go with her to guard the door,” said Gabriel Barragan, 32, from Guadalajara, Mexico.
Because there is usually no light bulb in the single bathroom socket, he carries his own.
In these tiny cubicles, immigrants--many of them from the Mexican state of Nayarit--have lived five, six, seven years of their lives. Bumper stickers against drugs and for various Christian religions adorn the doorways.
Barragan came here three years ago from Guadalajara, where he had a two-bedroom apartment with a little patio that he could afford to rent on his salary as a heavy equipment operator. So bad are the conditions here, he said, and so impossible does he find it to accumulate enough cash to make a down payment elsewhere, that he plans to move back to Mexico “as soon as we file our income taxes,” he said.
He is one of 80 named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. But he does not really understand what it is about. By the time it wends its way through the courts, he said he will have given up on this building and gone home.