RIFT OVER RENTALS

In Long Beach, renter and land­lord groups are di­vided on in­spec­tions

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Ben Welsh

At a faded yel­low du­plex on Long Beach’s Or­ange Av­enue, less than three blocks from Pa­cific Coast High­way, Larry Wat­son’s apart­ment is suf­fer­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of drought.

There’s no run­ning wa­ter. The faucets don’t flow. The shower doesn’t spray. A hand­writ­ten sign in the kitchen warns “Please!! No wa­ter put in sink.” Liq­uid poured down its plugged pipes is likely to come back up.

Wat­son, 61, is con­fined to a wheel­chair af­ter a surgery to re­move in­fected bed­sores. In­ter­viewed on a re­cent morn­ing as he re­cu­per­ated in bed, he said friends and neigh­bors carry in wa­ter to fill the toi­let. When he wants to shower, he said he checks into a mo­tel.

The con­di­tions faced by ten­ants such as Wat­son are part of an in­ten­si­fy­ing de­bate in Los An­ge­les County’s sec­ond-largest city, where more than half the 469,000 res­i­dents are renters.

City records and in­ter­views show that un­safe con­di­tions can go un­de­tected by in­spec­tors for months or even years and that Long Beach lags be­hind other large mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties that have adopted pro­grams to more ag­gres­sively find and fix hous­ing code vi­o­la­tions.

On Tues­day, the City Coun­cil will con­sider a long-awaited plan to up­date its rental in­spec­tion pro­gram. The pro­posal de­vel­oped by city staff would in­crease some fines and step up ten­ant ed­u­ca­tion ef­forts, but falls short of what ac­tivists and some coun­cil mem­bers want.

“We have

peo­ple living in hor­ri­ble, de­plorable sit­u­a­tions. You would think it’s a Third World coun­try,” Coun­cil­woman Lena Gon­za­lez said. “Peo­ple are not be­ing pro­tected.”

Apart­ment own­ers and city ad­min­is­tra­tors ar­gue the rental in­dus­try has worked well with ex­ist­ing over­sight.

An­gela Reynolds, who leads Long Beach’s rental hous­ing reg­u­la­tory ef­fort, said her pro­gram is “the best out there.”

Un­der rules es­tab­lished nearly 50 years ago, a fee charged to the city’s rental prop­erty own­ers funds in­spec­tors who in­ves­ti­gate com­plaints. Those in­spec­tors also pe­ri­od­i­cally visit larger prop­er­ties with four or more units.

If a ten­ant an­swers an in­spec­tor’s knock on the door and il­le­gal con­di­tions are found, the land­lord can be or­dered to make re­pairs or face fines and po­ten­tial crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion. When own­ers are cited, 90% of de­fi­cien­cies are re­solved within 120 days, of­fi­cials said.

But if an in­spec­tor’s knock goes unan­swered and no ad­di­tional com­plaint is re­ceived, years may pass be­fore an in­spec­tor re­turns.

At thou­sands of build­ings in Long Beach with fewer than four units, such as the du­plex where Wat­son lives, in­spec­tors only re­spond to com­plaints and no rou­tine in­spec­tions oc­cur.

Some other Cal­i­for­nia cities, such as Los An­ge­les, San Jose, Sacra­mento and Santa Cruz, keep a reg­istry of rental build­ings with mul­ti­ple units and man­date that, in ad­di­tion to re­spond­ing to com­plaints, in­spec­tors pe­ri­od­i­cally en­ter and as­sess each one.

L.A. and other cities have en­force­ment pow­ers that can pres­sure own­ers to more quickly make re­pairs and pro­tect ten­ants from re­tal­ia­tory evic­tions. Some of those cities also use data gath­ered dur­ing in­spec­tions to in­crease their mon­i­tor­ing of own­ers with his­to­ries of prob­lems, as well as tar­get re­sources in neigh­bor­hoods with large num­bers of build­ings fall­ing into dis­re­pair.

“Th­ese pro­grams are ex­tremely suc­cess­ful and an enor­mous tool in the fight against slum hous­ing,” said Larry Gross, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Coali­tion for Eco­nomic Sur­vival, a renter or­ga­niz­ing group. “In the other cities sur­round­ing L.A., there is lit­tle en­force­ment and lit­tle pro­tec­tion for ten­ants.”

Among the changes be­ing sought by Long Beach ten­ant groups is an en­force­ment tool mod­eled af­ter an L.A. pro­gram that al­lows of­fi­cials to tem­po­rar­ily seize rent pay­ments when land­lords fail to make re­quired re­pairs. City staff in Long Beach has said such a pro- gram would be too ex­pen­sive to op­er­ate.

As one point of com­par­i­son of en­force­ment ef­forts in L.A. and Long Beach, The Times iden­ti­fied land­lords who had been sanc­tioned in L.A. for fail­ing to promptly cor­rect vi­o­la­tions, and then vis­ited nearly two dozen prop­er­ties they owned in Long Beach.

Ten­ants com­plained to a re­porter of bro­ken win­dows, faulty wiring, un­re­li­able plumb­ing, pest in­fes­ta­tions, leak­ing ceil­ings and po­ten­tially haz­ardous mold. Some said their land­lords were slow to fix prob­lems or pres­sured them to pay for re­pairs.

“They al­ways want the rent on time, but they don’t want to fix any­thing,” said Maria Cav­illo, a mother of four who lives in an Almond Av­enue du­plex east of down­town, where she said rain­wa­ter of­ten streams down through cracks vis­i­ble in the living room ceil­ing.

Af­ter a re­porter re­quested in­spec­tion records for four prop­er­ties — and be­fore the doc­u­ments were pro­duced — city ad­min­is­tra­tors dis­patched staff to as­sess the build­ings, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­nal emails ob­tained un­der the Cal­i­for­nia Public Records Act.

“What do they know that we don’t know?” Deputy City Manager Ar­turo Sanchez wrote, re­fer­ring to the Times in­quiry.

In April, city in­spec­tors en­tered three of the build­ings — in­clud­ing the du­plexes where Cav­illo and Wat­son live — and logged 40 vi­o­la­tions of the city’s mu­nic­i­pal code. The most se­ri­ous prob­lems had not been iden­ti­fied in past in­spec­tions, city records show. At the fourth build­ing, the in­spec­tor en­coun­tered a locked gate and did not ex­am­ine the prop­erty.

The owner of Wat­son’s du­plex was or­dered to re­store wa­ter ser­vice and ad­dress 19 other vi­o­la­tions. But five weeks af­ter send­ing an ini­tial in­spec­tion no­tice, Long Beach of­fi­cials said they had yet to make con­tact with the land­lord they be­lieved owned the build­ing, Janet Bob­bitt. Af­ter The Times fol­lowed up Fri­day, the city is­sued Bob­bitt the case’s first fine for $100, an of­fi­cial said. Bob­bitt did not re­spond to tele­phone calls seek­ing com­ment.

Cav­illo’s land­lord, Naz­mudin Lalani, was or­dered to in­stall miss­ing smoke de­tec­tors, re­pair bro­ken win­dows, re­caulk the bath­tub, re­place a de­te­ri­o­rated shower wall and elim­i­nate a roach in­fes­ta­tion, among other things, city records show. Lalani said he plans to fix the prob­lems, which he said are largely caused by ten­ants crowd­ing an ex­tended fam­ily into the $1,300-a-month, two-bed­room apart­ment.

“I think the best way to po­lice is to do bed checks,” he said. “Write a let­ter to own­ers say­ing you have too many peo­ple. Then the land­lord gets fined if they don’t get them out.”

Long Beach of­fi­cials and land­lord groups say many such prob­lems could be re­solved un­der the cur­rent in­spec­tion pro­gram if ten­ants were bet­ter in­formed about their rights and knew how to lodge com­plaints.

“Some peo­ple are just afraid to call. That’s part of their own per­sonal is­sue,” said Jo­hanna Cun­ning­ham, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of land­lord group the Apart­ment Assn., South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Cities. “They don’t have faith in the process, so we have to ed­u­cate them.”

Wat­son said his wa­ter sup­ply hasn’t worked since he and a room­mate moved in two years ago. Af­ter re­la­tions with his land­lord de­te­ri­o­rated and he be­gan with­hold­ing rent, he said he con­sid­ered legal ac­tion and mov­ing to a nurs­ing home.

But he said he never tried call­ing City Hall in­spec­tors. “What good would that do?” he asked.

Renter ad­vo­cates say any reg­u­la­tory pro­gram that re­lies on com­plaints plays into the hands of bad land­lords who can ex­ploit vul­ner­a­ble parts of the pop­u­la­tion.

“This is part of the busi­ness model: Poor, low-in­come im­mi­grants who won’t com­plain, who are in dire straights, who are one bad break away from the streets,” said Fer­nando Gay­tan, an at­tor­ney at Legal Aid Foun­da­tion of Los An­ge­les.

The ques­tion of whether tougher en­force­ment, more ten­ant ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams — or both — are needed to im­prove hous­ing con­di­tions for res­i­dents, par­tic­u­larly those at bot­tom of the eco­nomic lad­der, falls to a newly re­con­sti­tuted City Coun­cil in which a ma­jor­ity of mem­bers took of­fice in the last year.

First-term Coun­cil­man Rex Richard­son said he’s not ready to cre­ate a ma­jor new en­force­ment op­er­a­tion with the power to take over rent col­lec­tion. But the city needs to con­sider more fre­quently in­spect­ing smaller apart­ment build­ings to pre­vent se­ri­ous vi­o­la­tions from go­ing un­no­ticed, he said.

“I have deep con­cerns about our ap­proach. [The city] needs to make sure we have a process that is safe for peo­ple who might not re­port prob­lems.”

‘We have peo­ple living in hor­ri­ble, de­plorable sit­u­a­tions. You would think it’s a Third World coun­try. Peo­ple are not be­ing pro­tected.’

— Lena Gon­za­lez, Long Beach coun­cil­woman

Pho­tog raphs by Ge­naro Molina Los An­ge­les Times

BRUCE SMITH looks at the bath­room in his Long Beach unit that lacks a shower head, faucet and run­ning wa­ter. Land­lord groups say prob­lems would be re­solved un­der the cur­rent in­spec­tion pro­gram if renters were bet­ter in­formed about how to re­port them.

A WARN­ING over a faulty kitchen sink. City records and in­ter­views show that un­safe con­di­tions can go un­de­tected by in­spec­tors for months or even years.

Ge­naro Molina Los An­ge­les Times

BRUCE SMITH looks at the bro­ken wa­ter line on the side of his Long Beach apart­ment. At the thou­sands of build­ings in the city with fewer than four units, such as this one, no rou­tine in­spec­tions oc­cur.

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