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COVER STORY : Where the Living Isn’t Easy : Riddled With Hazards and Unsanitary Conditions, Thousands of the Central City’s Aging Apartment Buildings and Hotels Are Home to Desperate Tenants.

Welcome to the Hotel Californian. There are no mirrors on the ceilings or pink champagne on ice. Still, like the near-namesake hotel immortalized in the 1977 Eagles hit, this could be heaven. But it seems more like hell. In this five-story, single-room-occupancy building in the middle of cacophonous Westlake, gaping holes in ceilings, trash-strewn hallways and roach-infested rooms welcome tenants.

Conditions like these at the Hotel Californian beset a host of dwellings in Central Los Angeles, creating a legion of substandard housing, or slums as they are commonly called. The problem is especially acute in the Westlake and Pico-Union areas, home to some of the city’s oldest buildings. Scores of those neighborhoods’ deteriorating 1920s and ‘30s apartment buildings and hotels are rife with fire and safety hazards and unsanitary living conditions.

About 7% of Los Angeles’ 780,271 multiple-dwelling units are considered substandard, according to the city’s Department of Housing. Local regulatory agencies do not find scads of earth-shattering violations--such as an open elevator shaft or a collapsed roof. But violations are cumulative, in some cases adding up to 20 or more for a single building.

And small problems can grow.

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In the 11 years she has lived in the Cambria Apartments, at 738 S. Union St., Maria Conteras has endured trash-filled hallways, unreliable plumbing, and rats and roaches. Those problems were compounded in 1992 when the owner fired the building manager, leaving no one to make even minor repairs. The owner also stopped paying the bills for trash pickup, gas and electricity bills.

“We would complain to the landlord,” said tenant Josephine Guzman, “but he wouldn’t do anything. He wouldn’t listen to us.”

Finally, Conteras and other tenants took matters into their own hands. They organized a rent strike with the help of the Legal Aid Foundation and took over basic management duties, including collecting money from residents to pay the gas bill and trash collection, and cleaning the building themselves every Saturday. “We didn’t want it to get real bad,” Conteras said.

Local regulatory agencies try to compel owners and landlords to keep their properties safe and habitable through warnings, citations and the prospect of prosecution. Some landlords pull their buildings up to code to comply. But a number of other structures continue to slide into disrepair under owners who skirt those warnings, keeping the law at bay.

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“They know how to work the system and play into the sympathies of everybody in the system to get as much time as possible,” said Lauren Saunders, an attorney with Bet Tzedek Legal Services.

In other cases, building owners end up becoming the scapegoats for destructive tenants. “Some of these landlords have tremendous problems with drugs, gangs, prostitution, in addition to dealing with old buildings” that are costly to repair, said Barry King, an attorney who has represented landlords for 12 years. “In some cases, no matter how much work they do, there will still be problems with the buildings.”

Building owners can sometimes avoid prosecution if they can persuade individual inspectors to grant them more time to do repairs. But if conditions are grave enough to call in the city’s Slum Housing Task Force, the law usually will catch up to them.

“They can try to put things off for a while but we don’t go away,” said Richard Bobb, deputy city attorney and head of the task force.

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The multi-agency task force was created in 1980 to crack down on the owners of the city’s most dilapidated apartment buildings. Its seven inspectors, representing the county health department and the city’s building and safety and fire departments, focus on multiunit structures with common hallways, mainly found in Central Los Angeles and parts of the San Fernando Valley. Smaller, “garden-style” apartment structures on the Eastside and in South Los Angeles are handled separately by the health and building and safety departments.

“We’re after just the basic services for human beings. . . . Just the basic necessities of life,” said building and safety task force inspector Howard Stern.

The buildings on the task force caseload--about 100 at any given time--are usually in code violation of all three inspection agencies involved. The goal is not demolition, but rehabilitation.

Bobb said that since the task force’s creation, he has seen many more landlords in the past few years bring their buildings up to code to avoid criminal charges, hefty fees and possible jail time.

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Part of that increase in compliance is due to the change in the types of property owners, he said. Some of the ‘70s and ‘80s slumlords who milked rent out of buildings with no regard for living conditions are being replaced by owners who do the minimum required maintenance, and unsophisticated owners who bought property without fully understanding the amount of work involved.

Most landlords, said King, do not run “empires of low-standard housing, but more are mom-and-pop people who are trying to do right.”

In a typical task force case, a landlord is cited and given 30 days to complete the repairs or at least begin the work. Failure to make some significant progress by the deadline may result in criminal charges being filed depending on the number and types of violations, Bobb said. Guilty owners face penalties that range from a fine and the cost of the investigation to doing community service, or being sentenced to house arrest or jail.

Still, there are some who slip through the system’s cracks. A number of factors allow this to happen, judges and officials from city agencies say.

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The overburdened system can, at best, investigate complaints and possibly do follow-up visits, but has few resources to do preventive work. Ten members of the city Fire Department handle inspections of commercial and residential buildings over three stories tall throughout the city, said Chief James Hill of the high-rise division. In the Building and Safety Department alone, 260 inspectors in the community safety division were responsible for checking out 49,555 complaints in commercial and residential buildings during fiscal 1993, said Phil Kaainoa, the division’s assistant chief. Budget cuts have dropped the number of inspectors to 228.

And several officials said there is a desire by some sympathetic judges, attorneys and inspectors to work with the landlords to improve the property, only to have some landlords take advantage of that.

“The end goal is to have a building that’s up to code. That’s what we’re all working toward here,” said Municipal Court Judge Vicki MacBeth, who in 1985 became the nation’s first judge to sentence a slumlord to house arrest. “You have to make some allowances sometimes. Because you want to make sure these people still have a safe place to lay their heads at night.”

In a recent reinspection of the 200-room Californian, at 1907 W. 6th St., the list of what was wrong with the building far exceeded what was right, said Frank MacIntyre, a health inspector for the task force. The building has been cited at least three times since 1989 with as many as 20 violations, some as serious as faulty fire doors and no emergency exit signs, according to the city’s building and safety department.

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Cigarette butts, used tissues and chewing gum littered the hallway floors and carpets. In one room, a purple T-shirt was strung through a doorknob hole; the door had no lock. Inside was a mess of empty beer bottles, food and dirty clothes, holes in the wall, a broken smoke detector and a pale-green carpet covered with large black and gray blotches of ingrained dirt.

The building’s recorded owner, Dali Dale Inc. of Los Angeles, has done little or nothing in the way of repairs or cleanup, MacIntyre said. Gregorio Groisman, who holds most of the interest in the building but is not on record as the owner, was out of the country, according to the building’s general manager. The only telephone number and address for Groisman was at the Cecil Hotel, 640 S. Main St., which he and now-deceased partner Josefa Lerner sold several years ago. Both the Californian’s business manager and the manager of Cecil Hotel said they had no idea how to reach Groisman.

“We’re trying to get in touch with him too,” said Roger Birdseye, general manager of the Cecil. “He really took (the new owners) for a ride when he sold the building.”

Tenants seldom live in these buildings because they want to, officials say. It is a matter of necessity. They are simply desperate to avoid the dangers of living on the street. For them, any space of their own is a step up.

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Some tenants are illegal immigrants, fearful that complaints might land them in trouble with immigration officials. Some are drug addicts or dealers. Others are just looking for an inexpensive, decent place to sleep at night.

Maria Loper, 39, who has lived in the Californian for the past year, is tormented by the flying water bugs that swoop down over her head at night and the cockroaches that crawl freely across her walls and floor. Loper’s 2- and 4-year-olds were taken from her last month by a social worker who said their cramped room at the Californian was unlivable. They had moved here from a local shelter the Red Cross put them up in after their South-Central apartment burned.

“I want to get out of here and get my children back, but I can’t right now,” Loper said. She cried with each mention of her children.

With the single sweep of an arm, a tour of Loper’s $350-a-month home is complete.

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Sunlight tries to make its way through a filthy yellow shade. The floor is barely large enough to fit the two single mattresses for her and her children. The walls, their paint peeling, are splattered with dirt and crusted with food. Clinging to a corner of the bathroom ceiling are the remains of a roach nest, a cluster of brown spores about the radius of a bowling ball.

“I complain to (the clerk) at the front desk all the time about the roaches and the water bugs and they don’t do nothing,” Loper said. “And when the (social worker) came, a rat ran across the floor and she seen my bathroom and took my kids.”

But while tenants complain of landlords’ misdeeds, landlords have their own gripes--about tenants.

“The people, they don’t know how to treat these places. They kick in the windows, the doors, the screens, everything,” said Joe Tabello, owner of a 100-unit building at 840 S. Hobart St.

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Only 10 of the apartments are rented now. The building looks shoddy in some places--broken windows, filthy carpets and dingy walls--but there are few serious violations, said Herb Zimmerman, a building and safety inspector for the task force.

Tabello said that soon after tenants move in, they stop paying rent. He said he has lost more than $20,000 annually since he bought the building in 1985. Once eviction proceedings get under way, he said, tenants start breaking things up. “They destroy the apartments and we end up looking like the bad people,” he said.

Deputy City Atty. Michael Wilkinson agreed that tenants sometimes vandalize buildings and fail to pick up their trash. But, he said, the lack of maintenance and repair--not poor tenants--ultimately creates slums.

Said Bobb: “Of course, if you didn’t have any tenants in any property, they would remain pristine. But in any property there will be wear and tear. And as management you have the responsibility to limit that wear and tear.”

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Bobb has a laundry list of excuses landlords and their attorneys have thrust at him when cited for substandard housing:

“We hired an exterminator. What more can we do?”

“Any building this old is bound to have problems.”

“My client is not a slumlord. He didn’t know what he was getting into.”

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Dan Woodard, manager of two buildings on Westlake Avenue since 1988, has seen it from both sides.

“A lot of it is bad tenants,” said Woodard, who lived as a tenant in one of the buildings he manages. “Some of it is the landlords’ fault too because they don’t take care of the places properly.”

One building Woodard oversees, at 720 S. Westlake Ave., was cited by the task force in 1987 while Woodard was still a tenant. Then-owner Tim Priest started to make repairs, but fell behind on his payments and didn’t have enough money to complete the work, Woodard said. Priest, who owned other properties that were also in disrepair, was sentenced to house arrest in the building and later was sent to jail.

“The place was a mess. People would throw trash in the hallway. When I would come home at night from work there’d be flies and mice in my room,” said Woodard, a former Merchant Marine and a recovering alcoholic. “I remember saying that if I ever took over this place, I’d fix it up.”

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Woodard is a no-nonsense manager: No drugs. No alcohol. No visitors after 10 p.m. Rent is due on the first of the month. His rules are strict. His security guards are tough. And his buildings are clean and up to code.

“You do what you have to do around here,” he said. For Woodard, that has meant evicting dozens of problem tenants and using his own money to clean up an alley behind the building and making repairs to the building.

Woodward is the type of manager needed to successfully run apartment buildings, said MacIntyre. “You have to weed out the bad or else your legitimate tenants will move out and you end up with a drug-infested, crime-infested rat hole.”

There are as many ways buildings deteriorate as there are landlords, from professional slumlords who milk their buildings for everything they can, to the neophytes who have gotten in over their heads financially.

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And judges, such as MacBeth and Susan Person, say individual circumstances must be taken into account when building owners are sentenced.

“I will put people in jail if they are deserving, I have no problem with that,” Person said. “But there is no hard-and-fast rule here.

“And you have to look at how your judgment will affect the people living in these buildings,” she said. “If the landlord goes to jail, the building still doesn’t get fixed. So you have to look at everything.”

However, Bobb and other prosecutors said that making building repairs goes with the territory of property ownership.

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“Not everyone can be a brain surgeon. Not everyone can be President. And not everyone can be a landlord or building manager,” Bobb said.

“If you want a passive investment, buy municipal bonds.”

On the Cover

Ramon Ascencio, 75, an unemployed tenant, has lived in his Union Street apartment for 12 years and now shares it with two others.

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About 7% of the city’s multiunit housing structures are considered substandard--many of them in Westlake and Pico-Union. Regulatory agencies don’t usually find earth-shattering building and safety code violations, but in some cases 20 or more can be found in a single building. Building owners can sometimes avoid prosecution but if conditions are grave enough to call in the city’s Slum Housing Task Force, the law usually catches up with them. “We don’t go away,” said Richard Bobb, head of the task force.


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