When her landlord promised Josephine Shields $4,000 if she would vacate her run-down apartment in San Pedro, she packed up her belongings and, with her three children, moved in March to a room in a motel on Pacific Avenue.
She didn't expect to stay more than a night.
Today, the Shields family is still living at the Imperial Inn, paying $44 a night--a sum Shields cannot afford on her monthly public assistance check. Her former landlord, convicted slumlord Martin Cantor, acknowledges that he has not kept his promise to provide relocation money.
Three other families--all former tenants of Cantor and former neighbors of the Shields family--are in similar predicaments. They and Shields wound up with no homes and no relocation money after taking the advice of a legal aid foundation in their dealings with Cantor.
"It didn't work," acknowledged Toby Rothschild, executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation in Long Beach, which represented the tenants.
Shields wishes she had followed her initial instincts. "I kept telling (the other tenants), 'Do not make a move until you get your money,' " she recalled last week. "I was right."
Shields said she moved out expecting to use some of the $4,000 as a deposit on another apartment. Instead, she has stayed at the motel, using money borrowed from friends and $210 a week in county emergency aid to the homeless to help pay her motel bill. The homeless aid ended after three weeks, although she continues to receive a monthly check of $663 in Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Said Dee Petty, a counselor at Toberman Settlement House, a San Pedro social service agency: "These people moved in good faith. They gave up their homes and they've been homeless and out of a lot of money. Josephine has paid more than $1,000 for a hotel, and that's $1,000 she does not have."
In a telephone interview last week, Cantor said he changed his mind about paying his tenants $4,000 apiece because "they trashed the building"--a charge they deny--and because he believes that Los Angeles municipal law provides for evicted tenants to receive only $2,000 in relocation assistance.
But that is not necessarily the case, according to Anna Ortega, the city's assistant director of rent stabilization. Although most tenants who live alone are due only $2,000, Ortega said that a disabled tenant, a tenant over 62, or one with a dependent is due $5,000 in relocation money.
Juana Webman, the deputy city attorney who prosecuted Cantor, said she believes that Cantor offered immediate payment and the promise of his cooperation to get tenants to move out right away.
Under the city's eviction law, a landlord must serve tenants with a 30-day notice of eviction and pay relocation money within 15 days of the notice. As an alternative, a landlord may give notice but place the relocation funds in a trust account with the money going to the tenant by the date of the move.
"I think it's so very, very sad," she said. "These people have lived in deplorable situations and conditions for a long time. This money would have enabled them to relocate effectively, and they can't do it."
The tenants' battles with Cantor began last year, when they complained to the Los Angeles County Health Department about conditions at their apartment building at 2319 S. Pacific Ave. in San Pedro. Inspectors checked the building and found cockroaches, rats, a leaky roof, faulty wiring and "a hole the size of a bathtub, filled with sewage water," said Webman, who presented the evidence in court.
As a result of the findings, Cantor was charged with violating his probation on a previous conviction involving slum conditions at three houses he owned in Wilmington. The Rancho Palos Verdes resident was sentenced Jan. 11 to spend 120 days under house arrest in one of his San Pedro apartments and told to fix up the apartment building. He was permitted to leave the apartment during the week, but only to work at the liquor store his father owns in Torrance.
But Cantor violated the terms of his house arrest by going to work on a Saturday. On March 15, San Pedro Municipal Judge Roy Ferkich extended the term of the house arrest by 30 days and also ruled that Cantor would go to jail for a minimum of 45 days at the end of June.
Report to the Court
According to Ferkich's order, Cantor must report to the court June 27. If he has fixed up his property or sold it by then, and could show proof that he had given his tenants money to help them relocate, he would spend 45 days in jail. If not, he would serve 180 days.
Webman said that if Cantor does not pay the relocation assistance by June 27, as the court order requires, she will ask Judge Ferkich to sentence him to jail for the full 180 days.
According to Cantor, Petty and Rothschild, this is what happened after Ferkich ruled in March:
Cantor, wanting to get out of the rental business, found a buyer for his building. But the sale--Cantor would not disclose the price--could not go through as long as the building was occupied. So Cantor asked the tenants to move.
David Salisbury, the legal aid lawyer representing the tenants, struck a deal with Cantor: The tenants would move out on March 30--the day before escrow was to close on the building. In turn, Cantor would authorize the escrow agent to pay each family $4,000 out of the proceeds from the sale.
Documents supplied by Petty show that Cantor signed an agreement with the legal aid foundation to this effect and that he also signed escrow instructions authorizing the payment to the tenants. Cantor acknowledges signing the documents.
Based on Salisbury's assurances, the tenants moved out March 30, expecting to get their money the following day.
Instead, escrow took an additional four weeks to close, leaving the tenants to find homes without relocation money. Some moved in with relatives. Others borrowed money to help them move, expecting they would be able to repay their debts when the sale of Cantor's building became final.
But by the time escrow closed, Cantor acknowledged, he had changed the escrow instructions so that the money from the sale would go directly to him. Because the tenants were not a party to the sale, they did not learn of the change until Cantor had already received the money.
"I was so dumbfounded," said Petty, who has been an informal adviser to the tenants. "All of this was in writing and was signed, sealed and delivered by the attorney and Martin Cantor."
When asked why he changed the escrow instructions, Cantor exploded verbally.
"Why should they get $4,000?" he thundered. "Why should I agree to $4,000? Ask yourself if I was in a corner or if I had any way out. . . . There's no way out. It's a nightmare and there's no way out."
Salisbury, the legal aid lawyer, could not be reached. Rothschild, who got involved when the deal fell apart, said he now has second thoughts about the way his office handled the case.
"In hindsight would I have done it differently? I think so," Rothschild said. "But that doesn't mean that what we did at the time we did it was wrong. . . . I don't feel good about it. I wish things had turned out differently, but they hadn't."
Ortega, the rent stabilization official, said that if Ferkich's threat to lengthen Cantor's jail term doesn't induce him to pay his former tenants, they must file a complaint with her agency, or sue Cantor in civil or small claims court. But she was not optimistic. "It's harder to get the tenant relocation assistance once they've moved out," she said.
Shields, meanwhile, has discovered that she cannot find a suitable apartment in San Pedro for the amount she was paying Cantor, $475 a month. She said others should learn from her experience.
Rather than moving "into a building that's shabby or no good, think about it," she advised. "It's worth paying a little more money to keep from going through the hell I'm going through."