Ask any of the tenants of the four apartment buildings from 14601 to 14617 Blythe Street in Panorama City if they have problems, and without hesitating, they'll rattle off an unnerving list.
Concepcion Ramirez worries about her ceiling falling on her head because of all the water that leaks in when it rains. Socorro Patino fears one of her sons will break a leg on the broken stairs. Lola Aguilera is terrified of fire because there's no smoke detector.
Other tenants point to the broken windows, exposed electrical wires, leaky faucets, and the mildew that clings to the walls of their bedrooms, closets and bathrooms after each rainstorm.
All are common-enough problems on a street that Los Angeles Building and Safety officials have long acknowledged contains some of the worst slum conditions in the San Fernando Valley. But residents witnessed what could be a breakthrough this week when the Los Angeles city attorney's office charged Paul and Peggy Calvo and Howard and Danielle Yonet, who own the four properties together, with 20 building-code violations.
The city took action against the Calvos of Pasadena and the Yonets of Pacific Palisades despite their claims that they divested themselves of the property and believed a nonprofit group was assuming maintenance responsibilities.
Neither couple could be reached for comment.
City officials note that the couples remain the owners of record and are therefore legally liable. If convicted of the criminal charges against them, they could face fines, jail time and be forced to make repairs, city lawyers said.
"They didn't do nothing," said Lupe Rodriguez, who shares a one-bedroom apartment with her mother, husband and two daughters.
"They say we're always complaining about something, or else the manager, he would write it down and then not do nothing," she said.
When Rodriguez and her family moved in four years ago, most of the 56 apartments in the four buildings were occupied and the most pressing concern was the leaky ceilings. Since then, the buildings have suffered two fires that nearly gutted a couple of apartments, a score of vacancies, and repeated damage by vandals who urinated and defecated in vacant apartments and pulled bathroom sinks from walls.
Holes punched into exterior walls become instant trash bins. Wobbly railings easily lean with the weight of a small child. Sheets of plywood cover windows and doors to the more than 20 vacant apartments and some inhabited apartments. And the combined smell of mildew and urine rise up from the carpets in some vacant apartments.
In Felix Ortega's apartment, there is more charcoal-gray mildew than yellow paint on the walls of his bathroom and bedroom. A large, clear plastic tarp tacked to the ceiling of his bathroom catches water that drips from the roof. Small handfuls of brown water from the last heavy rainfall still sit in the tarp's creases.
"I used buckets to collect the water, but it got worse so I needed to do something else to fix the problem," said Ortega, who has lived in two different apartments in the buildings for 16 years.
Plastic bags and tarps have become the solution for most of the leaks that plague the apartments. In February, after three years of enduring incessant dripping water through the ceiling of her first-floor apartment, Ramirez put her son's kiddie pool in the vacant apartment above hers to catch the water.
If Blythe Street is considered one of the harshest in the Valley, then these four apartment buildings have come to be regarded as the worst of the worst.
"The conditions there are really some of the worst we've seen on the street," said Deputy City Atty. Dan Cocek, who filed the charges against the two couples.
Paul Calvo was convicted in 1987 of 18 counts of building-code violations for property at 936 S. Albany St. in Westlake. But Calvo's ownership of the Blythe Street apartments has been a subject of contention, a debate that helped spawn deteriorating conditions as the lines of responsibility for maintenance continued to blur.
Calvo deeded the property in October, 1993, to a now-defunct nonprofit group called the Blythe Street Renaissance Assn. Soon after, he and his partners stopped collecting the rent and paying the utility and trash-collection bills, said attorney Ruth Zacarias of San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services, who has been working with tenants to improve their living conditions.
The Renaissance group briefly took over landlord responsibilities including rent-collection and utility payments. But faced with mounting repairs and costs, the group abandoned the project last July, leaving the ownership of the property up in the air.
With no manager on site and no owner answering phone calls, 22 of the tenants took matters into their own hands and late last year became the de facto landlords. They formed the Blythe St. Tenant Assn. with assistance from Zacarias and three other legal-aid attorneys.
"The owner, he's supposed to do everything, but he's doing nothing. So we're doing his job, we've been doing everything," said Socorro Patino, treasurer of the fledgling association.
Instead of paying rent, the tenant association's 22 members now contribute to an account that covers the costs of repairs, utility bills and trash collection. Those living in one-bedroom apartments pay $150 a month, and those in two-bedroom apartments give $200--compared to the reduced rents of $200 and $250 they had been paying to a city housing program.
The tenant association, which has begun cleaning up the property, is also looking at gaining official control or even ownership, Zacarias said.
The rest of the tenants, who have not yet joined the association, are still paying their rent to the same city program that has been collecting the money and holding it in escrow since 1993.
But for the immediate future, residents are concentrating on repairing the leaks and gaping holes, and hope the city's legal action will force the Calvos and Yonets to help.
"We just want to stay here and have them fix what's here," said Lidia Olmos, 18, who grew up on the property. "For many of us, this is all we know as home and we don't want to leave. But we do want things to change."