Kathy Reveles and her eight children are afraid to take showers in their run-down Hollywood apartment. They say the water leaks through the floor and out onto the driveway, and the landlord gets mad.
Forced to sleep two to a bed and couch, crammed into one tiny bedroom, they shiver when the January chill makes its way through the broken windows, concrete floors and the patched holes in the walls and ceiling.
They pay $750 a month in rent, but the heat doesn't work right, the doors don't lock, and prostitutes and crackheads hang around outside their apartment, they say. But at least they have windows--one apartment in the same nine-unit complex doesn't.
On a recent sunny morning, two transients gingerly rooted through the complex's garbage cans, placing some items in the shopping carts that carried the rest of their belongings. A few feet away, some of Reveles' barefoot children were playing hopscotch on the driveway.
"They're never outside when it gets dark," Reveles would whisper later, so the children would not hear. "I don't trust the people around here."
Reveles, 37, and her brood are some of the undetermined hundreds, possibly thousands, of Hollywood residents who live in what city officials say is slum housing, where the conditions are so substandard as to be dangerous.
"We have more (slum) buildings in Hollywood than we have on Skid Row right now," said Stephanie Sautner, head of the city's Interagency Slum Housing Task Force. "Cecil B. DeMille would probably turn over in his grave."
In the glory days of Hollywood more than 50 years ago, DeMille owned a lot of property on Argyle Avenue, according to Sautner. Now that street, and other avenues throughout Hollywood, are pockmarked with slum housing, Sautner said, some of them tenement buildings with hundreds of renters, and others small complexes like the one Reveles lives in at 5853 Virginia Ave.
Two weeks ago, Councilman Michael Woo held a news conference outside Reveles' building to say he was getting tough on slumlords, especially the owner of the property, Leon O'Brien. "We want to hold him up," Woo said, "as an example of what not to do in Hollywood. . . . But as bad as this is, there are others just as bad, or worse."
Woo boasted that a Community Safety Task Force he created 18 months ago has helped rid Hollywood of its most dangerous slums and eyesores. But the fact is, according to city officials, Hollywood is getting anything but better when it comes to slum housing.
Task force members Richard Sanchez, a city building and safety inspector, and Carlos Lopez, a Los Angeles police officer, have spent the last year trying to crack down on Hollywood slums. They said the experience has been frustrating. By the time they clean up one building and move on to the next, the first one starts deteriorating. "We all get upset about it," Lopez said.
In O'Brien's case, city officials say they have been gathering evidence of alleged slum conditions for more than a year. Yet residents say that despite the investigations and official interest, living conditions are as bad as ever, at least at the Virginia Avenue complex.
"It's a run-down complex that attracts would-be, potential criminals," said tenant Abdul Hakeem, 28. "I'm just trying to get out."
During Woo's news conference, in fact, water from Reveles shower once again poured out of their apartment and ran into the street near the councilman's feet.
Soon, Woo and his entourage were gone, and Reveles was left with the same troubles she has had since moving in several months ago.
O'Brien knows about the problems, Reveles said, because he lives in one of the units at least part time. "He says, 'I'll fix it.' But he never does."
Reveles is afraid to rock the boat too much, though, saying she and other renters are threatened with eviction when they complain.
"I try to stay on his good side so we don't get kicked out," she said.
Sautner said Woo's task force finally gave up on O'Brien and asked the citywide slum task force to get involved. That task force also uses police, health inspectors and building and safety investigators to document slum conditions and cite owners.
On Jan. 16, following a slum task force investigation, City Atty. James K. Hahn filed a 36-count criminal complaint against O'Brien and his wife, Kathleen. The two are charged with operating a series of slum buildings in the Hollywood area, including the one Reveles lives in, and a hearing has been set for Feb. 6 in Los Angeles Municipal Court.
O'Brien says he is trying his best to keep the buildings in good order.
"I know you've heard a lot of (expletive deleted) from some of these no-good tenants of mine, (and) I'm evicting all of them," O'Brien said last week. "Either they're on drugs or welfare fraud or whatever."
"My life was threatened, I'm worried and I don't know what I'm going to do," said O'Brien, who said he is a retired Air Force officer and has owned the Virginia Avenue building for 30 years. "There are two sides to every story. I've got this building here, and I'm trying to get it situated. But there's a lot of problems here."
O'Brien made his comments in a taped phone message, in response to a letter seeking comment. He could not be reached for further comment.
Authorities say O'Brien and his wife are clearly not taking care of the building, and that they have allowed slum conditions to develop at five other small apartment houses that they either own or lease at these locations: 1261 Crenshaw Blvd., five units; 4877 Melrose Ave., four units; 1849 N. Gramercy Place, six units; 1753 N. Winona Ave., eight units, and 1409 N. Normandie Ave., six units.
In a statement, Hahn said that because of O'Brien's alleged negligence and refusal to take care of his buildings and screen renters, Reveles' complex and the others have become "a serious blight on the entire community."
According to Hahn, part of the problem stems from O'Brien's renting many apartments to ex-convicts.
"Not only are these six properties a serious blight on the entire community," Hahn said in a statement, "but they do not offer the kind of living conditions that are helpful to former convicts beginning their move back into society."
Sautner said: "As slumlords go, he owns relatively small buildings. But what he is doing to the Hollywood community is he is destroying their way of life, and he seems not to care."
Sautner said her task force is being kept as busy, or busier, in Hollywood than any other part of the city, including Skid Row and the MacArthur Park and Pico-Union areas.
One convicted Hollywood slumlord, Jack Dardashti, was sentenced earlier this month to spend two months living in one of his buildings, Sautner said. She said another landlord, Hasna M. Bashara, will be forced to live in her building on North Plymouth Boulevard.
Sometimes slum conditions exist even when the landlords are doing their best. "I hear stories of landlords who say their buildings are being overrun by gangs, and that they are afraid to go in there to make repairs," Sautner said. "We try to work with them."
Other landlords "abdicate responsibility, don't make repairs and pocket the rent," she said. "Those are the ones we go after."
Often, inspections or threats of criminal action scare landlords into cleaning up apartments, said Sautner, adding, "Sometimes it takes a conviction and court order."
But with all the disparate groups of immigrants and poor who flock to Hollywood, an area where 80% of the housing units are rentals, slum housing will never completely go away, she said.
"You get rid of one," Sautner said, "and another pops up. We'll never put ourselves out of business."