Slumlord Agrees to Settle Suit, Pay DWP $1 Million

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A landlord with one of the worst records of slum housing violations in Los Angeles has agreed to an out-of-court settlement in which he pledged to maintain his buildings and to pay $1 million in delinquent Department of Water and Power bills.

The landlord, Lance J. Robbins, also agreed to pay $200,000 to a tenants group and its lawyers in the deal presented for certification Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court. Judge Ralph Dau took note of the $1-million DWP payment, but gave both sides 30 days to come up with a mechanism for monitoring living conditions at 23 buildings under Robbins' control.

The settlement resolves a lawsuit filed last year by Bet Tzedek Legal Services and the private law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher on behalf of tenants' rights group Inquilinos Unidos and a former Robbins tenant, Laura Ochoa. The Los Angeles city attorney's office was also part of the action.

"It's a good agreement," said Lauren Saunders, an attorney with Bet Tzedek, a nonprofit law center serving low-income tenants. "We got pretty much everything we wanted. He's giving us a list of the properties he's involved in and has committed to personally keep them safe and in decent condition, and has assured us that there is not going to be any retaliation against tenants."

Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo praised the agreement as a "landmark settlement" against a landlord who has troubled the city for more than a decade.

"What this does is create a much-needed mechanism to [maintain] the quality of the buildings that are under his ownership," he said.

Robbins could not be reached for comment, but an attorney who represents him said the landlord was also pleased.

"He runs his buildings very well considering where they are--in overcrowded neighborhoods where conditions are tough for landlords to deal with," said attorney Rosario Perry. "His repairs are quick and efficient. We have had no problems in two years."

Perry said the 53-year-old landlord denies there are any problems with living conditions in his buildings and claims that he has been responsible for rehabilitating 6,000 units in the city in 15 years.

In the lawsuit, Robbins was accused of operating a complex web of sham corporations to hide his ownership in nearly two dozen apartment buildings, frustrating efforts by the city's Slum Housing Task Force to force him to follow codes.

Robbins, who lives in Playa del Rey, has provided the court with a list of 23 buildings in which he is involved as manager or as an attorney representing owners. While he continues to maintain that he doesn't own any of the buildings, he has agreed to notify the court if there are any changes of ownership.

"I don't own any apartment buildings," Robbins said in an interview in 2000. "I only represent the owners."

At the time, Robbins said it may appear to tenants that he is an owner because he often represents the owners' interests in the buildings he manages.

"They come after me because I'm the guy who shows up," he said.

Robbins' problems with the city date back to the mid-1980s, when he faced civil and criminal charges for operating substandard housing at various low-income apartment buildings.

He was fined $500 for a misdemeanor health code violation, in the first of eight convictions he would receive over the years for health and safety violations that included rat and cockroach infestations. He was sentenced to a 30-day jail term in 1987 after pleading no contest in two slum cases and admitting that he violated parole in an earlier one.

Last year, Robbins agreed to donate $5,000 to the nonprofit Children of the Night in connection with another violation. He pleaded no contest to three fire code violations at a 63-unit building he runs and was ordered to serve 18 months probation.

"He is very clever," said Gary Blasi, professor of law at UCLA. "He has made a mockery of the legal system."

Robbins has not ingratiated himself with other landlords.

"He destroys our reputation," said Harold Greenberg, president of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles. "He should follow the laws like the rest of us."

Tenants in a Robbins-run apartment building on West Third Street near downtown L.A. gave Robbins mixed reviews. The building has been remodeled to attract upscale tenants.

"I have no problems," said Nidia Reyes, who pays $550 a month for a one-bedroom unit. "No leaks, no cockroaches, no mice. When something breaks they repair it."

But across the hall, Michael Malry painted a different picture.

A tenant for less than a year, Malry said he waited four months before workers fixed the leaks in his bathroom. The iron gate at the front of the building and the intercom are routinely broken.

"From July to November, I couldn't use my bathroom sink and when I took a shower I had to put down paper towels," said Malry, who is being evicted for nonpayment of rent. "The owner doesn't care. I've never lived in a place like this."

Perry said Robbins, his client, is not to blame. He said Robbins is called upon by other building owners because he's very knowledgeable about the restoration and repair of aging apartment buildings.

"He's like a doctor you call in when a patient is sick," Perry said. "You don't blame the doctor for the patient being sick. He's there to help."

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