BELL GARDENS — This city says it wants to send a message to local landlords who have long ignored health and building code violations on their rental property: Either clean it up or face prosecution.
The toughened stance began last year with a City Council resolution to improve the city's appearance. That, in turn, led to reorganization of the Building Rehabilitation and Property Maintenance Program, which city officials say has given them more punch in cracking down on substandard rentals.
The city has always cited violators and gone the administrative route of notifications, hearings and court conferences before filing formal charges, city officials say. They admit, though, that such cases were sporadic, with the city usually giving extensions of time instead of prosecuting.
Will Have to Answer in Court
But City Prosecutor Cary Reisman said that has changed. Property owners who do not meet building codes at the end of an inspection and administrative hearing process will have to answer in court.
As evidence of the crackdown, Reisman points to the sentencing this month of two Bell Gardens landlords. Reisman said he expects to file charges against four to six more landlords this month if conditions on their properties are not corrected.
Dean Francis Nelson, who owns seven units at 5852-58 E. Gage Ave., pleaded guilty Oct. 11 to 10 misdemeanor counts of health and building code violations, including broken windows and exterior doors and maintaining premises strewn with debris.
Nelson was sentenced in Huntington Park Municipal Court to three years probation, fined $2,550 and ordered to perform 150 hours of community service and repair all remaining code violations.
Harold Wilder, owner of another property at 6075 Priory St., was sentenced in the same court on Oct. 18 to one year probation and fined $306. Wilder had pleaded guilty to 12 counts of building code violations, including damaged walls, floors and plumbing fixtures and general dilapidation.
Reisman said he was satisfied with the sentences handed out.
But Nelson, a real estate broker in Norwalk, complained about the city's stance. He said in an interview many of the violations he has been cited for have been taken care of and many have been done four or five times.
"I've been actively correcting them (the violations). They just don't like how fast I do it or how I do it." He said the seven-unit complex is the only property he owns in Bell Gardens. The property, where rents range from $310 to $450 a month, is currently for sale.
Nelson denied a cockroach infestation charge, saying he hired an exterminator in November, 1980, who has been spraying once a month ever since. But Inspector Jim Jaramillo, of the Los Angeles County Health Department, said that cockroaches have an incubation period of 7-10 days. Even if the units are sprayed once a month, it only kills the adult cockroaches.
Nelson expressed regret over his guilty plea. "I think I made a mistake pleading guilty. I thought it would be easier to get it over with. I never dreamed I would end up with the verdict (sentence) I did."
Improving rental conditions is important, Bell Gardens officials say, since 70% of the city's residential housing is rental property. At the same time, the problem is difficult to tackle, since 65% of the rental properties are owned by absentee landlords.
"We are going after them rather aggressively," said Mayor Roger McComas, who pushed for an intensified effort to clean up the city. "We have a lot of absentee landlords with pretty slummy property."
He said the city has tried talking, suggesting and, finally, administratively urging landlords to clean up their acts. And even though the city has prosecuted isolated cases before, he supports the drive to file charges on as many cases as possible.
"We haven't been real easy, but we're not as aggressive as we should be," McComas said.
But at the same time, he said, the city is "providing some avenues of help for those who really can't afford" to fix their property.
The city has agreed to put "as much time, money and effort as we could afford" into bringing substandard properties up to grade, said Maria Aguirre, assistant city manager.
The city sent a pamphlet to residents and landlords who live in the city in August to inform them of the city's goals and available options, such as the Home Loan Program. The program, which falls under the umbrella Property Improvement Program, provides low-interest loans to owners who qualify. The city is also removing abandoned vehicles and cleaning up graffiti.
Robert Smithurst, a property-rehabilitation inspector with the city, said he currently has 120 instances of substandard housing in his caseload. Too many landlords, he said, do as little maintenance as they can get away with and are experienced in skirting the laws. But he said he sees improvement under the new procedures.
"Everyone wants to feel a sense of accomplishment," Smithurst said. "We're doing the best we can."