Ten­ants must va­cate il­le­gal L.A. ware­house live-work spa­ces

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Leila Miller

When Redgi Woods, 30, moved into a spa­cious loft in a Fash­ion District ware­house in July, he could not be­lieve his luck. The high ceil­ing and light­ing ap­pealed to him, and he used the space to host par­ties and meet with clients for his fash­ion de­sign projects.

“I saw other peo­ple liv­ing here; I saw other artists,” he said, sit­ting at a ta­ble in his loft, now crowded with mov­ing boxes.

“Pho­tog­ra­phers are great for me to have, mod­els are great for me to have,” Woods said, “and when they’re all a door knock away it doesn’t get bet­ter, it doesn’t get eas­ier, it doesn’t be­come more beautiful.”

But the dream of liv­ing and work­ing in the same place is com­ing to a bumpy end for the ten­ants of 931 E. Pico Blvd., who have been or­dered by Los Angeles of­fi­cials to va­cate the

four-story ware­house by June 28. The or­der has been ex­tended twice, with the dead­line pre­vi­ously set for Thurs­day.

The struc­ture was cited in Au­gust for il­le­gal res­i­den­tial use. The lock-out or­der, an­nounced in April, comes al­most seven months af­ter the city at­tor­ney’s of­fice sued the prop­erty owner, al­leg­ing fire code vi­o­la­tions in the wake of Oak­land’s Ghost Ship fire.

Two weeks ago, about 10 of the ten­ants at­tended a City Coun­cil com­mit­tee meet­ing, as­sert­ing that the prop­erty owner, Mo­rad “Ben” Ne­man, was re­fus­ing to pay re­lo­ca­tion as­sis­tance and plead­ing for help from the city.

On Wed­nes­day, the City Coun­cil unan­i­mously voted to ap­prove nearly $400,000 in re­lo­ca­tion funds, in­vok­ing a rule that al­lows the coun­cil to vote on an item the same day it’s put on the agenda. Coun­cil­man Jose Huizar had re­quested that funds be iden­ti­fied to as­sist the Pico res­i­dents, along with those at 1518 S. Paloma St., who also have been or­dered to va­cate be­cause of il­le­gal res­i­den­tial use. Both prop­er­ties have the same owner.

“To­day’s vote was crit­i­cal in pre­vent­ing res­i­dents caught in le­gal pro­ceed­ings at no fault of their own from be­com­ing home­less,” Huizar said in a writ­ten state­ment. “This is ex­actly what we should be uti­liz­ing these type of funds for.”

The deadly Ghost Ship blaze in Oak­land’s Fruit­vale neigh­bor­hood broke out Dec. 2 in a ware­house that had been con­verted into artists’ res­i­dences and a per­for­mance space, killing 36 peo­ple. The fire prompted many cities, in­clud­ing Los Angeles, to step up en­force­ment of build­ing codes and crack down on il­le­gally con­verted ware­houses.

The Pico build­ing was sin­gled out by Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer, who on Dec. 5 filed a crim­i­nal com­plaint al­leg­ing un­per­mit­ted res­i­den­tial use, in­ac­ces­si­ble fire escapes and an in­ad­e­quate fire alarm sys­tem. A sub­se­quent in­spec­tion found that new elec­tri­cal cir­cuits had been in­stalled with­out per­mits.

Se­cu­rity guards ap­pointed by the land­lord also threat­ened and in­tim­i­dated res­i­dents, the city at­tor­ney said.

Robert Mardis, a ten­ant, said that a guard once yelled at him, “He gotta gun, he gotta gun,” when he was out­side the build­ing.

Now, ten­ants of the Pico build­ing are su­ing the owner for fail­ing to make fire and safety im­prove­ments. On March 7 — the same day the ten­ants filed their suit — a court or­dered a re­ceiver to take con­trol of the prop­erty.

“We sought a re­ceiver from the court who would … not only as­sure that the needed up­grades were ac­com­plished to com­ply with fire code, but also to pro­tect the ten­ants who oth­er­wise had no one to stand up for them,” Feuer said.

The prop­erty owner, he said, has ap­pealed the re­ceiver’s ap­point­ment.

The law­suit — filed by about 80 cur­rent and for­mer ten­ants against Ne­man — in­cludes al­le­ga­tions of un­in­hab­it­able liv­ing con­di­tions, van­dal­ism of ten­ants’ prop­erty and in­tim­i­da­tion of ten­ants who filed com­plaints to city agen­cies.

“You had no safety, you had no heat, you had no per­mits,” said Harold Greenberg, who rep­re­sents the ten­ants. “And when you block off the exit to the roof and when you block off the exit to the out­side, you’re go­ing to trap peo­ple, and that’s what hap­pened at Oak­land.”

An at­tor­ney rep­re­sent­ing Ne­man in the ten­ants’ law­suit de­clined to im­me­di­ately com­ment. Bradley Brunon, Ne­man’s lawyer in the city’s crim­i­nal com­plaint, de­clined to dis­cuss the case, say­ing that “at this point things are up in the air.”

The ten­ants ac­cuse Ne­man of con­struct­ing the units for use as apart­ments — point­ing to kitchens that were in­stalled be­fore they moved in. Many turned their lofts into gal­leries, rented out the space for din­ner par­ties and hosted photo shoots. Celebrity sight­ings were com­mon.

The lofts ap­pealed to Mark Stout, 62, a com­mer­cial fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher who moved in af­ter spot­ting an ad on Craigslist, which he said ad­ver­tised the space as work-live.

“There’s cool­ness about things here in a rough, fall­ing apart kind of way, and that’s how an artist looks at it,” he said.

Still, ten­ants had com­plaints.

Stout, who said he was evicted from the build­ing and now lives in a mo­tor home, said that his pho­tog­ra­phy clients would get stuck in the freight el­e­va­tor and that he could see the unit above him through gaps in the wooden floor.

In De­cem­ber, a no­tice was posted in the ware­house in­struct­ing res­i­dents to com­ply with a court or­der pro­hibit­ing film­ing and gath­er­ings with more than 10 guests. Ten­ants said this con­stricted busi­ness and their abil­ity to gen­er­ate an in­come.

“That pretty much cut off my din­ner par­ties,” said D.J. Park, a 30-year-old chef, ex­plain­ing that he switched from hold­ing events twice a week to three times a month.

When Park moved into the prop­erty in Novem­ber, he built a 15-seat coun­ter­top bar and in­stalled new floor­ing. He pre­pared prod­ucts to sell in his shop in Kore­atown and pro­vided off-site cater­ing for film and television pro­duc­tions.

He said he paid $4,900 monthly in rent but “to jus­tify that, I felt I was gen­er­at­ing in­come from mul­ti­ple busi­nesses.” That changed, he said, af­ter the court or­der.

Teresa Flow­ers moved into the Pico build­ing more than two years ago and dec­o­rated the hall­way en­trance with al­bu­men prints — pho­to­graphs made with egg whites that she said can sell for up to $4,500.

“Not only am I in fear of be­ing home­less, I have lost all the means to ac­tu­ally have a busi­ness,” Flow­ers said at the coun­cil meet­ing two weeks ago.

Their sit­u­a­tion re­flects a larger re­al­ity: There are few af­ford­able live-work spa­ces for artists down­town.

The Santa Fe Art Colony, which of­fers sub­si­dized hous­ing, was es­tab­lished about 30 years ago with a $1.2-mil­lion Com­mu­nity Re­de­vel­op­ment Agency loan.

Sylvia Tid­well, head of its ten­ants as­so­ci­a­tion, said rent for many of the 80 res­i­dents will rise from $981 to a range of $1,350 to $1,750 when the fi­nanc­ing agree­ment ex­pires Oct. 1. Another live­work space, Art Share L.A., of­fers 30 sub­si­dized units in the Arts District with rents rang­ing from $700 to $900 a month.

“The need is def­i­nitely there, and we saw that with so many peo­ple be­ing dis­placed af­ter the Ghost Ship fire,” said Cheyanne Sauter, Art Share L.A.’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

It’s a sit­u­a­tion that the Pico ware­house ten­ants un­der­stand.

Eric Ca­cioppo, 35, de­cided to leave his loft and move into a two-bed­room house with his girl­friend.

“The big­ger is­sue that I have,” said Ca­cioppo, “is down­town as a whole aban­don­ing the core peo­ple that made down­town what it is — and that’s artists that can’t work down here.”

‘Not only am I in fear of be­ing home­less, I have lost all the means to ac­tu­ally have a busi­ness.’

— Teresa Flow­ers, a ware­house ten­ant speak­ing at an L.A. City Coun­cil meet­ing

Pho­to­graphs by Mar­cus Yam Los Angeles Times

REDGI WOODS, 30, said his Fash­ion District ware­house loft was ideal for liv­ing and work­ing as an artist. The city has or­dered the build­ing’s res­i­dents to va­cate and ap­proved a $400,000 re­lo­ca­tion fund for them.

THE BUILD­ING at 931 E. Pico Blvd. was cited in Au­gust. Then the city sued its owner, al­leg­ing fire haz­ards, af­ter the Ghost Ship blaze.

Mar­cus Yam Los Angeles Times

ERIC CA­CIOPPO left his loft at 931 E. Pico Blvd. to move into a two-bed­room house with his girl­friend. “The big­ger is­sue that I have is down­town as a whole aban­don­ing the core peo­ple that made down­town what it is.”

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