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Bootleg Dwellings Becoming a Fixture in the Southland

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dennis Cassity’s beach house is a modest place, really. OK, so it’s a garage.

But such a cozy garage! Tiled bathroom, kitchenette--and all for about $100 a month less than thecheapest apartment in town.

“Of course, I knew it was illegal,” the 40-year-old computer repairman chuckled, recalling the day he found his Hermosa Beach apartment.

“I was born and raised on the beach. I know a bootleg (apartment) when I see one.”

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No matter. Cassity took the place anyway. And though he lived comfortably there for 4 1/2 years, he wasn’t surprised last month when his landlord arrived with some bad news: His sunny apartment was on the shady side of the law, and Cassity would have to be out by July.

Welcome to the underground of the Southern California real estate market, where one man’s misdemeanor is another man’s home. No one knows exactly how many “illegal dwelling units” there are in the Los Angeles area, but planning and building authorities say they have become an irksome fixture in garages and spare rooms throughout the region and a particularly troublesome problem in the beach cities.

City officials hate them for the crowding and safety hazards they cause, claiming they make a mockery of zoning laws. Renters, on the other hand, say they are among the few sources of affordable housing for young adults, single parents, the elderly and the poor in densely packed and high-priced communities.

In Manhattan Beach, where a one-bedroom apartment rents for $750 a month or more, about 100 bootleg complaints a year are filed with the city’s residential zoning inspector. Culver City, on the cramped Westside, launched a crackdown in March, and Temple City in the San Gabriel Valley is studying one. Redondo Beach, which logs about five bootleg complaints a month, last year caught a landlord on the city’s north side who had lined his wine cellar with bunk beds and rented it out to 16 immigrants.

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“Illegal units have been a problem for as long as I’ve been here, and that’s been since 1978,” said William Grove, director of building and safety for Hermosa Beach. “At any one time, we’ve got a solid core of 25 to 30 cases.”

The problem has become so time-consuming, he added, that the city in November hired a special prosecutor to handle nothing but bootleg complaints.

One of those special prosecutions involves Cassity’s landlord, Edward W. Roszyk of Redondo Beach. Besides Cassity’s cheery bachelor apartment, Roszyk is accused of having added at least two other illegal units to single-family homes he owns. The units have prompted city prosecutors to charge Roszyk with a dozen misdemeanor violations of the Uniform Building Code, the Uniform Plumbing Code and the Municipal Code.

Roszyk declined to comment. But interviews with the city’s prosecutor and court records indicate that for the first time in years he has taken steps to cooperate with the city.

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In recent weeks, he has tacked up “For Sale” signs on two of the named properties, and has dismantled one of the alleged bootlegs. The actions have come even though, according to court records, Roszyk feels he has been “singled out and harassed.”

Roszyk’s tenants--and other supporters of bootlegs--say he has a point.

“I don’t think the landlord was that much in the wrong,” said Jeff Gunn, 24, who said he paid Roszyk $400 a month for one of five units in what was supposed to be a single-family home with a garage.

“There’s garage conversions everywhere--everyone wants to live by the beach.”

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A Manhattan Beach renter, who spoke on condition that her name be withheld, agreed.

“I’d rather have a lot of little houses for people than these big, giant houses they’re putting up in Manhattan Beach that I’ll never be able to afford unless I win the lottery,” the woman said.

“If my landlord can cheat and, in turn, save me money, I’m not going to tell on him.”

But there’s another side of the argument: the side, for example, of the people who live next door to illegal apartments. Consider the observations of Roy A. Judd, who lives next door to the Roszyk property where Gunn lived.

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“He (Roszyk) is getting $2,600 a month total income off what’s supposed to be one single-family dwelling,” Judd said. “But there are six people living there with no legal parking places, and so there are six times the cars, six times the trash and six times the people going in and out at all hours of the night.”

For the first few months after Roszyk remodeled the house next door to Judd’s in 1984, Judd said he didn’t complain because the tenants there were friendly and quiet.

“But then they moved out and he rented it to a bunch of party animals who seemed to live in split shifts,” Judd said.

Judd fired off a flurry of letters to City Hall. Other neighbors followed suit. Finally, the city responded, not only with a crackdown on Roszyk, but with the hiring of its special prosecutor.

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Such feuds, city officials say, are the most fruitful source of tips about illegal apartments. In 1987, for example, a group of Westwood residents sick of having no place to park filed a complaint with Los Angeles against a local developer who had illegally made room for 63 apartments in a building that was supposed to have only 48 “luxury” units.

And the battles can be bitter. In 1988, the annexation of the unincorporated Orange County community of South Laguna to Laguna Beach left the city with 119 new complaints about bootlegs. When the city launched an effort to phase the units into compliance, the result was an all-out war.

A recall campaign was launched, and city officials soon found that their own building records were being probed. The community development director got caught with an illegal addition. A city councilman was nabbed with an improper den off his garage. But most dramatic was the case of building inspector John Hingula, who ended up suffering an anxiety attack and resigning from his 10-year job because the pro-bootleggers revealed that his mother-in-law had a bootleg and the inspector hadn’t cited her.

Hingula later said in an interview that he felt the community made him a political scapegoat. Former co-workers said he has since moved with his family to El Salvador.

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One problem with bootlegs, city officials say, is that they are rarely built in compliance with fire and other safety codes, and so can be hazardous for the tenants.

Moreover, they add, the inhabitants of such places are often elderly. In those cases, city officials say the best they can do is to bend the rules to give the tenant extra time to find a new home.


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