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Landlord Frank McHugh lives above rules and regulations

Frank McHugh had been warned repeatedly that the railings on a third-floor walkway at one of his apartment buildings were so widely spaced that children could fall through.

Concerned for their kids, tenants used wire coat hangers to rig their own safety guards. McHugh left the problem unfixed until one day in October 1991, when 18-month-old Edgar Repreza plunged through the gap and slammed into the concrete about 20 feet below, suffering permanent brain damage.

“His brother, who was about 5 at the time, saw him fall,” said Alison Baird, the lawyer who obtained a settlement of more than $1 million for the family. “It was terrible.”

Despite the big payout, and the tragic consequences for a little boy and his family, the 1991 incident did not end a pattern of repeated health and safety violations at McHugh’s buildings. Nor did it or other incidents spur public officials to force him to significantly change his practices.

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For more than 50 years, McHugh, 84, has bought apartment buildings mostly in Los Angeles’ poorer neighborhoods and filled them primarily with immigrant tenants. And for at least a generation, he has been investigated, cited and denounced by city and county officials. Almost three decades ago, then-City Atty. Ira Reiner accused McHugh of dealing in “blood money” and threatened to send him to jail.

But McHugh continued to buy more properties and build an ever-longer record of flouting health and safety codes.

Prosecutors say McHugh told them last summer that he owned more than 140 Los Angeles properties, which by various estimates housed more than 8,000 people. Many of his buildings have fallen prey to rats, cockroaches and mold, and are plagued by inoperative plumbing and rotting ceilings that cave in with regularity, according to court records.

Now, city prosecutors once again are seeking to shut McHugh down. In 2007, they charged him with multiple fire and health code violations. As part of a plea deal, he agreed last fall to sell all of his Los Angeles rentals within three years. The deal allowed him to avoid jail time.

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McHugh, of Marina del Rey, has declined repeated interview requests. His lawyer, Harold Greenberg, says McHugh is complying with the court order and that he has been targeted unfairly by authorities.

His tenants and their advocates say they are waiting to see whether this latest attempt at enforcement will work, some expressing skepticism because of a long history of ineffective enforcement involving McHugh’s buildings.

In January, the front half of a Koreatown four-plex that the city Housing Department had signed off on as habitable nine months earlier suddenly collapsed. Four people suffered minor injuries and more than 20 were left homeless.

In the 2007 violations, city housing inspectors had cleared one of two buildings as habitable, only to have health and fire officials come in months later and find violations serious enough to put McHugh in jail.

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The failure to regulate him effectively goes back decades.

It was in April 1982 that Reiner blasted McHugh as one of five “heavy hitters” among Los Angeles slumlords.

“We aren’t talking about landlords who are just in over their heads, unable to maintain a building properly,” Reiner said at the time. “We are talking about men in the slum business. Men who buy slums and maintain slums. . . . People who deal in blood money.”

Reiner pledged to send McHugh and the other landlords to jail, saying no other penalty would work. “For them,” he said, “a fine is merely a cost of doing business.”

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But a fine is what McHugh got. On Oct. 25, 1982, according to records from the city attorney’s office, McHugh pleaded guilty and received a fine of $500 per count. The city attorney’s handwritten notes on the case do not indicate how many counts he faced, and court records are incomplete.

Other subsequent attempts to prosecute him on misdemeanor charges had similarly minimal effects, records show.

In 2003 he was prosecuted again, for fire code violations, but the charges were dismissed. A year later, he pleaded guilty to charges stemming from habitability violations, paid less than $1,000 in fines and took a “property management course” on how to be a better landlord.

“He’s played the system like a violin for many, many years,” said UCLA law professor Gary Blasi, who helped craft Los Angeles’ slum housing laws and who has known of McHugh for years. “He is really good.”

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Greenberg said his client has thus far sold 20 to 30 properties. He also said his client has been demonized by tenants and advocacy groups.

“He’s an easy target. He’s an old man,” said Greenberg, who contends that many of the problems in McHugh’s buildings are the result of tenant neglect and illegal overcrowding.

“You know how many tenants have been prosecuted? Zip,” he said. “They go after the landlords, not the tenants. Everybody talks about slumlords. Who talks about the tenants from hell, tenants who literally destroy things?”

McHugh rents primarily to poor people, many of whom are here illegally and are willing to put up with shabby conditions in exchange for low rents, or because other landlords won’t take them, advocates and officials say. Many McHugh tenants also share small apartments with extended families -- overcrowding that many landlords would not allow.

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“There’s a kind of silent agreement between him and his tenants: ‘I’ll give you low rent and you never complain -- and I never have to talk to you again or fix anything,’ ” said Ziv Kozaski, a real estate broker and investor who bought one of McHugh’s buildings in 2007 and said it was a “nightmare.”

Mercedes Marquez, head of the Los Angeles Housing Department, said McHugh is well-known to her inspectors for doing the minimum repairs required by law. She insists that her department does all it can to protect renters, noting that its inspection program has won national awards.

“The Housing Department is committed to ensuring safe and habitable housing for all of its residents,” she said. “We understand that as our housing ages, and as bad actors come to light, that we have to challenge ourselves to do even better, and that is what we will do.”

Still, some city officials and advocates say the city’s Housing Department could do more and expressed frustration that it had referred only one case against McHugh for prosecution in the last nine years.

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McHugh was born in 1925 in Mohill, Ireland, one of eight children in a well-to-do family. His father, an Irish-born U.S. citizen, raised alfalfa and sheep on 1,000 acres he owned in Oregon before returning to his homeland in 1920 and buying an English lord’s estate, complete with a castle, a relative said.

Frank, his twin brother, Charlie, and their siblings resettled in the United States after World War II, drawn by their father’s loving description of the country, said the relative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was afraid McHugh’s tenants might direct their anger at her.

McHugh arrived in Los Angeles around 1950 and worked as a butcher and a machinist while saving to buy rental properties, many with his late sister Christine O’Donovan or other siblings. His daughter Teri McHugh, a psychologist with offices in Beverly Hills and Malibu, is in business with him now; she did not return phone calls seeking comment.

“Real estate has been his whole life,” McHugh’s relative said. “He was very good at it and very shrewd. He would always make sure to know exactly what the value of the property was. I don’t think he has ever made a mistake on buying something that was overpriced.”

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For McHugh it was always “reinvest, reinvest, reinvest,” according to the relative, who said McHugh was less interested in accumulating wealth than he was in acquiring a large number of buildings -- he viewed it as a measure of accomplishment.

For a man who owns tens of millions of dollars in real estate, McHugh by all accounts lives modestly. He owns two Toyotas and lives in a weathered, three-bedroom, 1,688-square-foot condo he bought in 1984 for $215,000, public records show.

“He’s a nice neighbor. He’s very quiet. He’s friendly. That’s all I can tell you,” said Dan Christy, who lives two doors away. “I hardly ever see him.”

Others know McHugh as a philanthropist whose family foundation has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to children’s charities and animal welfare groups, among others.

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Recipients include the Children’s Lifesaving Foundation, a Santa Monica nonprofit that provides summer camp stays and other services to homeless and poor children. McHugh gave the group a total of $83,750 in 2006 and 2007, according to the most recent IRS filings available.

“The grants have been an enormous help, have always been generous and always have come at particularly opportune times for the CLF,” said Chief Operating Officer Francesca McCaffery. “They have been a true blessing, this year especially!”

His tenants and their advocates see a different picture.

Gudelia Peralta, 37, has rented a small apartment on East 50th Street from McHugh for 10 years. It is infested with mice, cockroaches and other insects that bite her three young children.

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Sitting on her bed while her children played and bugs scuttled in the kitchen, the native of Guerrero, Mexico, said her family would like to move but their apartment is rent-controlled at $530 a month.

But there is a cost to living in such apartments.

Jim Mangia, president of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, a nonprofit community clinic in South Los Angeles, said he first met McHugh about six years ago. Clinic nurses conducting a health study reported a disturbing uptick of neighborhood children with lead poisoning and asthma, as well as dozens of cases of kids with cockroaches lodged in their ears -- which can cause chronic ear infections.

The nurses discovered that many of the sick children lived in buildings owned by McHugh, said Mangia, who met McHugh when the landlord went to the clinic to ask why clinic staff members were visiting his buildings.

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In lawsuits and in interviews at buildings that records show McHugh owns personally or through a family trust, tenants complain of bad plumbing, rodent infestations and swarms of cockroaches.

“Plaintiffs are disgusted with the bedbugs, which latch onto them while they sleep, suck plaintiffs’ blood until they are gorged, and stubbornly resist eradication,” according to allegations in a 2008 lawsuit, which echoed similar complaints from earlier civil suits.

At 2:45 a.m. on June 17, 1988, Sonia Albanez was awakened by the screams of her 2-month-old daughter, Norma.

“The baby’s mother discovered a large rat was biting on the minor’s foot and the foot was bleeding,” a 1989 lawsuit alleged.

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McHugh settled the case for $341.28, plus medical expenses, records show.

By fall 2006, community organizers at the tenants rights group Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, known as SAJE, launched a campaign against McHugh.

Representatives of the group met with McHugh but said he did not fulfill their demands for repairs. They decided to target him with public protests, including one last Halloween when tenants trekked from their rundown units near downtown to McHugh’s condo in Marina del Rey. The children dressed as cockroaches and adults held signs declaring McHugh L.A.'s “Worst Landlord.”

A year before that protest, SAJE got the attention of prosecutors. A newly appointed manager in the housing unit of the city attorney’s office met with McHugh tenants and taught them how to file complaints with city and county regulatory agencies -- and also referred 15 properties for inspection by a special city-county slum housing task force.

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Acting on violations found by health and fire inspectors, the city attorney filed 57 charges against McHugh in October 2007 -- enough to put him in jail if convicted.

Last summer, McHugh’s lawyer and prosecutors worked out the deal in which he pleaded guilty to more than two dozen counts and agreed to sell.

McHugh showed no emotion when he appeared in court in the fall and took the deal. On that day, at least, it seemed that city officials and tenants who had fought him had won a victory. But seven months later, tenant advocates say they doubt conditions will improve any time soon for his tenants.

“He’s a friendly, charming man,” said Albert Lowe, a research director for SAJE. “He’ll say, ‘I’ll do what I can because I care about people, I care about my tenants.’ And then he’ll go back to his old ways.”

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jessica.garrison@latimes.com

kim.christensen@latimes.com

Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Past problems

City officials labeled Frank McHugh a slumlord in the early 1980s. Here are some key events related to McHugh’s apartment ownership since then:

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April 1982

City Atty. Ira Reiner blasts McHugh and four other men as “heavy hitters” among Los Angeles slumlords, charging them with dozens of health and safety code violations.

June 1988

Awakened by her 2-month-old daughter’s screams, one of McHugh’s tenants finds a rat chewing on the child’s foot, causing it to bleed. Two weeks later, the mother also is bitten in her sleep. Court records show that McHugh settled a civil lawsuit for $341.28, plus medical expenses.

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October 1991

An 18-month-old boy falls through a faulty, third-floor guardrail at a McHugh apartment building on South Westlake Avenue, sustaining permanent brain damage. McHugh and his insurance company settle a lawsuit for more than $1 million.

2004-05

McHugh pleads guilty to housing code violations; to settle the matter, he pays less than $1,000 in fines and enrolls in a “property management course” on how to be a better landlord.

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2006

Tenant rights group Strategic Actions for a Just Economy begins organizing tenants in McHugh’s buildings.

October 2007

City prosecutors file more than four dozen misdemeanor counts against McHugh stemming from violations at two of his buildings near downtown.

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September 2008

McHugh strikes a plea deal in which he agrees to sell all of his Los Angeles rental buildings to avoid jail time.

October 2008

Tenants of a Union Drive apartment that McHugh had recently sold sue him and the new owner, complaining of rodent and insect infestations, including bedbugs that, according to a pending suit, “suck plaintiffs’ blood until they are gorged.”

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Oct. 31, 2008

Some of his tenants dress their children as cockroaches and trek from their apartments near downtown Los Angeles to his condo in Marina del Rey to protest him as the city’s “worst landlord.”

Jan. 18, 2009

The front of an apartment building McHugh owns in Koreatown collapses, injuring four people and leaving more than 20 homeless.

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Source: Times reporting


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