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Tenants ordered to relocate as officials investigate safety of converted home

Three years ago, landlord John Callaghan was granted city permits to enlarge a South Los Angeles single family home, creating three apartments.

But he didn’t stop there. He crammed as many as 44 rental rooms into a warren of narrow hallways, tiny, shared bathrooms and communal kitchens.

Now, as the holidays approach, dozens of renters who paid as much as $500 per unit are being ordered to vacate the burnt orange three-story complex, in a neighborhood about a mile from the Coliseum.

“What’s Christmas this year?” asked tenant William Pack, 35. “To get an eviction notice, where it’s not our fault.… It has already spoiled the holidays.”

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Tenants and city officials agree that the place is potentially unsafe, but some city officials are asking what took inspectors so long to figure it out.

“Clearly, someone was not doing their job,” said Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents the area where the building is located and has demanded a formal inquiry.

Adding to questions surrounding the case of 443 W. 49th St. is that the owner received an updated permit allowing occupancy in the building last month from the city’s Department of Building and Safety. That permit, which department officials say cleared up a clerical error, was reissued despite repeated orders to correct violations discovered by the city’s Housing Department, which regulates multiple-unit apartments.

In a court proceeding just this week, Callaghan’s attorney cited the new occupancy permit as evidence that the apartment building was legal, according to Sonia Pflaster, a lawyer for the tenants. The case, seeking to evict one of the tenants, was continued.

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“It makes me incredibly frustrated,” said Pflaster, noting that the new permit appears to be completely at odds with the city’s orders to correct violations at the property. The building’s owner “is using these documents as a shield, and he is abusing tenants and renting extremely hazardous units.” Callaghan and his attorney declined to comment.

The latest inquiry involving the Department of Building and Safety comes on the heels of a federal undercover sting operation. Earlier this year, two department inspectors pleaded guilty to taking bribes in exchange for issuing city permits. Records show both inspectors worked on preliminary stages of the construction at 49th Street, although no evidence has surfaced of bribery in this case. The Housing Department has also had issues recently. Last year, a clerk working the front counter of the agency’s Koreatown office was charged with 11 counts of taking bribes. She eventually pleaded no contest to a single felony count.

Construction began on the 49th Street building in 2008, records show. The city issued a temporary certificate of occupancy in 2009 for three units. It’s not clear when the owner transformed the interior, a third-floor attic and a carport into a hive of rented bedrooms and shared kitchens and bathrooms. Pflaster, the attorney for the tenants, said she has spoken to one tenant who moved in as early as the fall of 2009. By the summer of 2010, according to tenants at the building Thursday, the third floor, which the city has found is illegal, was occupied.

Attorneys for the tenants said they believe the building has 44 units. City officials said they cannot confirm that because they do not recognize them as housing units since they are illegal.

By last winter, tenants began to organize, complaining about cockroaches, a lack of heat and the landlord’s requirement that they clean common areas, among other issues. They teamed up with organizers and attorneys from the Inner City Law Center, which advocates for tenants’ rights, and began filing complaints with the Housing Department.

City records show that the Building and Safety Department received a complaint April 18 — from the city’s Housing Department — that a single family home had been illegally converted into multiple units.

A Building and Safety Department inspector visited the property, according to spokesman David Lara, and “observed what appeared to be an apartment building.” The inspector saw that the building had valid permits to be three units and — without entering it — determined that it could be three units, Lara said. The case was referred back to the Housing Department.

The Housing Department sent its own inspectors, who found a host of problems, including unpermitted units, and unpermitted plumbing and electrical work. In June, September and November, the department issued abatement orders for structural hazards, fire safety violations and “unapproved construction,” among other issues.

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But the owner did not fix the problems, according to housing officials.

This week, Housing Department officials asked the Department of Building and Safety to make sure the building wasn’t an immediate danger.

On Wednesday, inspectors from Department of Building and Safety determined that the building was not an “immediate hazard,” Lara said. But they could not determine “if that foundation can hold the third floor,” he added.

The next day, Housing Department officials descended on the property to post 30 day notices, telling the landlord that he must empty the units, bring the property up to code and pay relocation assistance to displaced residents.

Perry, who is running for mayor, introduced a motion Friday demanding that officials from the Department of Building and Safety come before the council and explain how the property “was allowed to grow to this size without permits, and when and by whom the site was inspected.”

Perry said she also wanted to know why the department reissued the certificate of occupancy last month — well after the housing department had found evidence of illegal units.

Lara, the Department of Building and Safety spokesman, acknowledged “there might be instances where the department could do a better job of communicating. We are working on it. But we handle thousands of permits on a daily basis.”

He said the department is planning improvements.

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As of now, the tenants say they are hoping they can quickly get relocation assistance so they can begin looking for new places to live.

Perry’s spokeswoman said the cash-strapped city may have to front tens of thousands of dollars and try to recoup the money from the landlord. Housing advocates believe relocation payments for all the tenants could reach $300,000.

jessica.garrison@latimes.com

david.zahniser@latimes.com


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