Three months ago, Clarabel Basicllo's landlord told her that she had to leave the tiny room she rented for 30 years at the Earl Roy Hotel on Skid Row.
Deaf, mute and using a wheelchair, Basicllo had no place to go and no money. But after only 24 hours' notice, her landlord literally put the 58-year-old woman out on the street with her few belongings, she alleges in a lawsuit filed Monday.
Attorneys from the Inner City Law Center on Skid Row filed the personal injury suit in Superior Court in behalf of Basicllo and four other disabled tenants who once lived at the 42-unit hotel at 239 E. 5th St.
Named as defendants were Jong K. Lee of Woodland Hills, who owns the building, and her son, Steven Lee, who law center attorneys say managed the property and was the one who evicted Basicllo.
Workers at various social service agencies on Skid Row responded to Basicllo's plight the day she was found on the street, and she now lives in another Skid Row hotel.
But the attorneys decided to go further, center director Nancy Mintie said, when they learned that several others had also suffered after the owners allegedly forced the tenants out without paying the city-mandated relocation benefits. The attorneys also allege that Lee intends to convert the building to commercial uses.
Beyond the individual trauma suffered by those tenants is a concern over the declining number of single-room occupancy hotels that once dotted Skid Row, but have increasingly given way to commercial developments. The rooms tend to be the cheapest in the city, renting for well under $300 a month.
About 200 such hotels have been torn down over the last decade, Barbara Zeidman of the city's Rent Stabilization Division estimated, leaving 273 citywide. About a fourth of them are in the downtown area.
The Los Angeles City Council passed a temporary moratorium against the demolition of such hotels two years ago, and today the council is expected to vote on a measure introduced by Councilman Michael Woo to extend the moratorium another five years on Skid Row and three years citywide.
Meanwhile, the Earl Roy is empty and the loss is important, Zeidman said, even if it is only 42 units.
"Though they are called single-room occupancy, the incidence of two people living in each of them is quite high," she said. "That means 80 people competing for the remaining units that they can afford, or competing in the shelter system, or competing in the social delivery system. All these little increments add up."
Steven Lee, however, denied that he intends to convert the three-story brick building to a commercial use. "I wish I can, but I can't," he said. "I wish I could just vacate this for four or five years until the zoning changes."
However, the last several months the tenants lived at the Earl Roy were ugly ones, said Mintie of Inner City. "They let the building run down, with the apparent intent to drive out the tenants so they could avoid paying relocation obligations."
According to city law, landlords must pay senior citizens or handicapped people $5,000 per unit for relocation. Of the five plaintiffs, Lee said three "left of their own accord. No one forced them out."
But one of the three, Alan Thomas, a 46-year-old disabled man, disagreed. He said he was forced to flee for his life. "The management would not keep out the dopers and drug dealers," he said. "Then one doper was beating the hell out of the janitor and I came up and slugged him in the head. So the jerk (the drug abuser) went and got a gun." Thomas left.
'Huge Gaping Holes'
Those who stayed then found the building "torn down around their ears," Mintie said. "They broke out windows, so the tenants would look directly out into the street, with no screens, no glass, nothing, just these huge, gaping holes. The electricity was turned off, the hot water, then the water."
The suit, she said, seeks to "compensate the tenants for the physical and emotional injury they suffered as a result of the uninhabitable conditions and to secure some of the back rent they paid and relocation benefits owed to them."
Lee said the work being done was seismic reinforcement required by the city, and that he paid the necessary relocation benefits. He did not pay Basicllo, he said, because he was kind to her. "She used to be like family. We took care of her. We used to feed her, we used to take her to the hospital. This is what I get for doing this for 10 years."
But Jill Halverson of the Downtown Women's Center remembers the day Lee brought Basicllo and a blind woman to the center. "He was screaming at us to take them. He had lots of people in that hotel eligible for $5,000 relocation benefits. He wanted them out."