Tarzana real estate broker Stephen Regen leaves his black Mercedes sedan in the garage and climbs into his wife's red Japanese import. His destination: Skid Row.
It is not a place he would ordinarily go.
But last October, Municipal Judge Lois Anderson Smaltz ordered Regen to spend 60 days working at a Skid Row children's center after he failed to complete court-ordered repairs on his downtown Los Angeles tenement.
For the past six weeks, Regen, a 27-year-old former New Yorker, has done his mandatory penance, beginning with the hourlong commute from his quiet, suburban street off Ventura Boulevard to the inner-city center. There, he spends the mornings soliciting corporate donations for the agency over the phone from a small, cell-like room with a barred window.
The scene as Regen arrives on a recent morning is typical. A group of emaciated women are sprawled on the sidewalk sharing a needle to shoot drugs. Near the entrance, a man wheeling a shopping cart stumbles and adjusts his bundle. Later, four police cars screech by at once, their sirens interrupting Regen's pitch for donations.
"This is America," Regen sighed as he walked back to the parking lot after his daily stint ends. "No one cares what happens to these people."
With nearly a third of his sentence completed, Regen portrays himself as a compassionate landlord who cared deeply about his tenants and was unfairly prosecuted for numerous health, fire, and building and safety violations at his 1115 Wall St. building. He sold the apartment building in September after owning it for about three years.
"I'm a nice guy, ask anyone, ask my tenants--they were happy," Regen said. "The city attorney just didn't like me."
To illustrate the point, a sympathetic friend is having a plaque made of newspaper clippings and documents from the case, engraved with the legend "You Can't Fight City Hall," Regen said.
But Deputy City Atty. Richard M. Bobb said Regen was a slumlord who wound up in court because of serious problems at the apartment house. They ranged from broken windows and doors, damaged sinks and toilets to unsanitary bathrooms, insufficient water pressure and holes in the walls and ceilings. He said residents of Regen's former building complained about the conditions there to nuns at a nearby crisis center, who referred the case to the city's Housing Enforcement Task Force.
"Mr. Regen is a very articulate young man, but his actions speak louder than his words," Bobb said. "Altogether, he had nearly a year to complete the court-ordered repairs and he didn't finish them. His actions show he was trying to make the minimum effort possible if he could get away with it."
Bobb said he urged Smaltz to sentence Regen to work on a Caltrans crew because he believed the hard work and indignity of picking up trash from the side of the freeways would teach Regen a lesson.
But Regen asked to work at Para Los Ninos, saying he was aware of the agency because children in his building attended day-care, child-abuse prevention and other programs there. The judge agreed and also ordered Regen to contribute $2,500 to the agency.
"I hope he becomes more sensitized to the plight of tenants living in the building he owned," Smaltz said last week. "I hope they become more than just numbers to him and that he realizes he was personally responsible for their suffering in this case."
But Regen says his renters never complained to him about conditions in the building, although he concedes the water pressure in at least one of the communal bathrooms shared by tenants was extremely low before the city's crackdown. The pipes in the 86-year-old building had calcified over the years, resulting in some faucets that trickled water even when on at full force, he said.
"If you gave my tenants all the hot showers in the world, whether or not they'd use them, I have no idea," Regen said.
"You're taking U.S. living standards and equating them to people whose standards may be different," he added, referring to the primarily Latino residents who live in the small, crowded one-room units in the building and use toilets down the hall.
"Of course, if someone told me they had no hot water, we sent out a plumber," Regen said. "But it's hard. I didn't have the money to do the whole thing because I only charged about $200 a month rent.
"The building is in the same condition for years. Then all of a sudden, after I had to spend $100,000 to repair the earthquake damage, the city hits you with all the old stuff and you're responsible," he said, referring to the 1987 Whittier earthquake.
Many investors, including Regen, buy downtown tenements hoping to profit from increasing land values there, said Barbara Zeidman, director of the rent stabilization division of the Los Angeles Community Development Department. But becoming a landlord means taking responsibility for maintenance, she said, adding that "it's difficult to see someone who invests voluntarily as a victim."
But Tanya Tull, founder and president of Para Los Ninos, said it is nearly impossible to adequately maintain old, decaying buildings, especially overcrowded single-occupancy apartments, such as the one Regen owned. "What he did was wrong," Tull said, "but he truly was a young, naive person who didn't know what he was getting into."
Regardless of where the blame lies, Para Los Ninos officials say they are pleased with Regen's performance and demeanor, which they say is refreshingly pleasant compared to that of past court-referred workers. Executive Director Jack J. Faz said Regen has used his business skills and contacts as a real estate agent to get the center crucial donations of funds, laundry soap, toys and sneakers. Regen is trying to find three vans to replace the agency's aging vehicles, he said.
"He has a boyish quality," Faz said. "It's almost like this is his first real job."
The oldest of three children, Regen attended Harvard School for Boys, a private school in Studio City, after the family moved from Long Island to Los Angeles. Regen's father is a clothing manufacturer who lives in Encino, he says. Regen himself was a premed student at UC Berkeley who graduated with a degree in biology, but he decided to pursue a business career instead.
Faz said Regen has not had to confront the harsh reality of poverty by working in the center's clean, cheerful environment.
"That's what's missing," Faz said, adding that "if I had to choose between giving the children toys" that Regen solicited "at Christmas or hot water and heat, I'd choose decent living conditions."
After finishing a shift at Para Los Ninos, Regen offers to guide reporters through his former building to demonstrate how good living conditions are there. The three-story building, just south of the city's flower district, is surrounded by clothing manufacturers and other garment industry businesses.
Pulling up to the back door, Regen jumps out and immediately points to a pipe that is not anchored securely to the back wall as it should be according to regulations. "You see," he says excitedly, "someone pulled this off the wall. That's a strict liability offense right there."
Under the strict liability doctrine, if violations exist, landlords are guilty--whether or not they caused the problems or even if they had been trying to make repairs. Some strict liability violations, such as a lack of smoke detectors--which tenants often remove so they can cook illegally in their rooms--threaten the safety of the entire community, prosecutor Bobb says.
But Regen says landlords cannot be omniscient. Walking down the dimly lit hallway, he points to a fire hose cabinet and says he once was cited because tenants stole the brass fire hose nozzles to sell. "Finally, I had to spend $2,000 to put the locked cabinets in," he said.
At first glance, the building, which Regen no longer owns, appears surprisingly spacious, with its wide hallways and large windows. But the tile on the floors of its cramped communal bathrooms is uneven and the bathtubs are moldy. After knocking on a few doors and finding no one home in the middle of a weekday, Regen gets the key from the manager and opens a couple of apartments. The action is a violation of city laws that require owners to give 24 hours notice to tenants if they plan to enter the premises.
One room has lace curtains and a white chenille bedspread with an industrial sewing machine in the corner that its owner uses to do piecework. A jumble of clothes and bedding are crammed into another apartment, where seven people live, one tenant says.
"Rosie, tell them what a good landlord I am," Regen says to a short woman wearing a thin white dress and cooking rice on a hot plate. "You had hot water, right?"
"Sometimes hot, sometimes not hot," the woman says.
Later, after Regen left, a group of tenants met with Sister Kathy Wood of St. Francis Crisis Center to discuss current problems at the building. For them, regardless of who owns the building, the problems persist.
These days, it is the heaters that have broken down, prompting the city attorney's office to conduct a hearing with the new owners, which is only done in emergencies. Damp walls from leaking plumbing have caused one woman to move a double bed from the wall, further limiting the living space in the already small room.
To make matters worse, the tenants said, the new owners have sent out notices saying rents will increase substantially, from about $200 to as much as $500. Elias Donay, one of three partners with offices in Beverly Hills who now own the building, said the landlords decided to charge an additional $50 for each person who resides there above the legally allowable limit of three people per unit.
The rent hike is illegal, city official Zeidman said. At most, the new owners could charge 20% of the current legal rent for each additional person. And to do so, they would have to make the difficult case that there is no way they could have known how many people lived there when they bought it, she said.
Regen, who apparently consults frequently with the new owners, said the rent hike has been rescinded on his advice. To him, the incident demonstrates whose side he is on.
"This is a story about a young guy who got into a situation," he said, "where if the city didn't get on his rear, everyone would be happy, including the tenants."