First, the landlord yanked the pipes out of their sinks. The Jimenez sisters put buckets underneath to catch the water before it streamed onto the floor.
Next, he stripped the facade from the outside of the building, exposing rotting boards and some gaping holes. He removed some windows, allowing cold air and sometimes pigeons into their rooms.
Their phone lines were cut, and gas and water service sputtered off and on. But even as rats and cockroaches ran wild in the walls around them, the three sisters, who, with their families, have each have rented rooms in the building for two decades, decided to stay and fight for their homes.
Last week, they joined other tenants in suing landlord Joon Lee, alleging that he is on an illegal campaign to replace them with tenants who will pay higher rents in the graceful but dilapidated old building near USC.
“The landlord is treating us like we’re nothing.... I want the landlord to have to live here for one day,” Guadalupe Jimenez, 42, a warehouse fruit packer, said in Spanish during an interview last week.
She stood in the doorway of her twin sister’s bedroom, her daughters clinging to her side, and raised her arm in the air, her eyes flashing with anger. “For one day, so he can know what it’s like with the cockroaches, not to have water to shower, afraid they’re going to cut the gas, with the rats outside.”
Jimenez gestured with her finger again. “One day.”
Housing advocates say Lee is the most egregious example of a growing number of landlords resorting to strong-arm tactics to push out tenants in “zoom zones,” rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods where longtime residents pay below-market rates because of rent control.
It’s “an extreme version of what I’m seeing happen all over Los Angeles,” said legal aid lawyer Tai Glenn.
Glenn said that after she visits the area, she bags her clothes to shield her own children from possible toxic lead in the dust swirling through the building.
Landlord Lee, an exterminator who says he bought the building as a retirement investment, denies that he is trying to force his tenants to leave.
Rather, he said, the tenants are partly responsible for the horrific conditions.
“I have a plan to put half a million dollars to refurbish,” said Lee, who bought the building last year and said he thought it could be used as housing for USC students. “But every time I make a plan, they hire some lawyer group and make some kind of obstacle. All I want is to fix it up.... But what they want, they don’t want to pay anything.”
The building at 103 E. 21st St. was built in 1904 as a residential hotel.
When the Jimenez sisters, twins Guadalupe and Ana, and their older sister Maria, arrived from Mexico in the mid-1980s, each floor had several rooms that shared two kitchens and two bathrooms.
It was never particularly nice. Maria Jimenez recalls drug dealers, crack vials and the smell of marijuana.
For a time, one room seemed to be used as a place of prostitution, with women conducting their business with the male tenant and his acquaintances and then hogging the communal bathroom.
Still, it was affordable -- about $200 a month for a room. And over the years, a community developed. Many tenants liked the fact that their church, school and health clinic were within walking distance. They decorated the communal kitchens with posters of the pope, the Virgin of Guadalupe and family photographs.
But over the last few years, as the neighborhood got better, conditions in their building only got worse. Then, last year, Lee bought the building from the longtime landlord.
A few months later, workers began banging on doors, screaming at tenants to pay their rent or the police would come, according to tenants. Lee denies their account.
Then, workers showed up and “began demolishing the building” with the tenants still inside, according to the lawsuit.
In February, city inspectors found code violations that filled 13 pages, including damaged electrical outlets, rotted drywall, floors with holes rotted through, leaky pipes and missing smoke detectors. A subsequent inspection detected high levels of lead in the air, according to the suit. Lead can cause brain damage in young children.
With help from the tenant-rights group SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy), as well as attorney Michelle Manzo from the private law firm McDermott Will & Emery and legal aid lawyer Glenn, the renters launched a campaign against Lee. Their lawsuit asks for damages, for the building to be repaired and, before that is done, for a judge to order the landlord to live in the building for two nights as punishment.
The landlord said the suit was groundless.
“When I took over this building, it was worse,” Lee said. “Now it’s better. But still, I want to fix everything nice. They don’t want me to do it.... They want the money. They want to live for free.”
Glenn said the tenants pay on time, although for the past few months, the city has ordered rent reductions because conditions are so dreadful. But city officials have at times stopped work when it posed a health risk.
With the empty rooms, boarded windows and buckets beneath the sinks, the building has a post-apocalyptic feel.
At first, standing by the window in the tiny room she shares with her husband and 11-year-old son, Maria Jimenez said she was staying to “end the injustice.”
But then, gazing at the giant stuffed Bart Simpson doll by the bed, at the dozen ceramic elephants she keeps for good luck on her small bookshelf, and at the mound of trash on the ground outside her window, Jimenez began to sob.
In a city where average rents have jumped 82% in the last 10 years, they can’t afford to move somewhere else -- especially with financial obligations to relatives in Mexico.
“I can’t believe any mother would want her children to live in these conditions,” Jimenez said. She wept as her husband handed her a tissue. On the bed, her son watched his mother’s tears fall, and he began to cry.