About 80 people were left homeless Friday by an arson fire at a three-story apartment building near downtown Los Angeles that had been targeted by a slum housing task force because of its dilapidated condition, city officials said.
No one was seriously injured in the fire late Thursday. It caused an estimated $340,000 damage to the building at 1613 West 7th St., Fire Department officials said. Arson investigators were looking into how the fire was set.
Only hours before the fire broke out--it was the third in the building since last September, according to tenants--Frank MacIntyre, a Los Angeles County health official, visited the building and reinspected the structure when he saw waste water, either from toilets or sinks, running into the street. It was seeping from the plumbing in the upstairs apartments and draining through the ceiling of a vacant street-level store.
He said the building was in virtually the same condition Thursday as it was late last month when he found holes in the walls and ceilings, exposed and stopped-up plumbing, worn-out carpeting, broken windows and evidence of vermin and trash outside the building.
Tenants, who spent Friday picking through the debris for whatever they could save, had complained earlier that the building was infested with cockroaches and mice and that water from the leaking roof and from faulty plumbing frequently poured through the ceilings of the apartments.
They also said that the building repeatedly lacked hot water.
"It was one of the worst buildings in the city," said Deputy City Atty. Stephanie Sautner, a lawyer with the Los Angeles Interagency Slum Housing Task Force.
Thursday's fire, tenants said, was the third in the building in the last eight months. And at least one of those blazes was also deliberately set, said Delfina Saillant, the building's assistant manager. The Fire Department said it knew of one other fire in the building.
The building is owned by Allen Alevy of Long Beach and Gabor Rosenberg of Canoga Park. Alevy told The Times that he and his partner had planned to evict some of the tenants to allow renovation of the building a wing at a time.
Asked why more had not been done to repair the structure, Alevy maintained that "a Band-Aid" approach was not practical. Alevy said Rosenberg had purchased the building in September, and blamed problems such as poor plumbing on the previous owners.
The fire heavily damaged 22 of the building's 38 apartments. Firefighters said the flames started on the third floor, went into the attic and destroyed most of the roof.
The suspicion by investigators that the fire was not accidental supported the beliefs of many of the tenants, Saillant said. She said that strangers, probably transients, have been seen in the apartment--in the building's west wing--where Thursday night's fire started.
Tenants React Quickly
Tenants reacted quickly when the flames were discovered Thursday night.
"I was watching TV and the flames just shot out, like out of a flame thrower," Juan Villa said. "It was terrible. I just ran out and helped anybody I could."
The tenants, most of them from El Salvador, scrambled to save what they could as firefighters entered the apartments, which are above a row of stores on 7th Street. The members of one family were able to save the household TV set and stereo system.
But Rodrigo Olivares, a plastics factory worker, was not so lucky.
"I had $2,000 in cash in the clothes in here and the fire got it," said the native of the Mexican state of Jalisco. "It's gone. . . . what am I going to do?" He said his wife is expecting the couple's fourth child shortly.
Spend Night at School
Most of the tenants spent Thursday night at Belmont High School and Red Cross officials were making arrangements for additional housing Friday evening.
The building had been targeted by the slum task force after complaints were received by city authorities, Sautner said.
Task force inspectors from the Los Angeles City Building and Safety and Fire departments and the County Health Department had inspected the structure late last month and early this month and the owners had been notified to make extensive renovations within 30 days.
Owners who do not comply with such notifications have been subject to heavy fines and even jail sentences with increasing frequency.
A construction consultant hired by the owners estimated that it would have cost $100,000 to bring the building up to what he termed "livable, usable conditions."
Some Repairs Made
Paul McAllister, hired last February, said he discussed several options with the owners, including razing the structure, but that demolition was not seriously considered. McAllister maintained that some safety repairs had been made since last February but didn't know how much money was spent on such work.
Task force inspectors indicated that living conditions in the building prior to the fire were unhealthy and hazardous.
"There were many locations (in the building)," said electrical inspector Ken Comer, "that were hazardous and some were imminently hazardous. There were some areas that if children had touched exposed live wires they could easily have been killed."