REDONDO BEACH — An entourage of city inspectors and county health officers converged on the 800 block of Irena Avenue last week, sweeping through seven dilapidated bungalows and writing dozens of health and housing code violations in what city officials describe as the most run-down residential block in Redondo Beach.
None of the 50-year-old bungalows has heat, although one has a fireplace, and in several of them electrical wiring and fixtures are exposed, cockroaches have infested eating areas, rats scurry under the floors and roofs leak into bedrooms when it rains, inspectors and some residents said.
In one home, the bathroom sink has not worked in more than five years, one tenant said, and the toilet seat is split in two. In another, holes have been punched in the walls of several rooms, and the bathtub is encased in plywood.
The city and county officials were escorted through the thinly painted wooden homes by Werner Sylla, owner of the properties, which are located near the Autohaus, a Volkswagen and Audi repair business Sylla owns at the corner of Irena and Pacific Coast Highway.
Sylla said in an interview that he maintains the properties adequately and complained that officials are harassing him. He said the houses are no worse than others in the city.
Sylla said tenants pay between $250 and $550 a month rent for the two-bedroom houses, but residents at one bungalow, where seven people live, said they pay $700.
"We just want to live like other people, not like animals," one tenant said last week after the inspectors had gone. "We pay a lot of money, and we want a nice house."
City Manager Timothy Casey, who toured the homes, said in an interview that the conditions are so severe that city officials may have to evict some of the tenants and consider demolition.
"We will have to seriously consider eviction among our list of options," he said. "There is good reason to believe that the electrical wiring system in the houses has been so jury-rigged that it may constitute a danger to the inhabitants."
Officers from the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services had called for the meeting with Sylla to show him more than 40 health code violations they discovered during earlier inspections at the bungalows, said Daniel Esposito, chief sanitarian in the department's Torrance office.
City inspectors, who notified Sylla last month of building and zoning code violations at the properties, and Casey joined the tour, which evolved into a bitter confrontation between Sylla and city officials.
"This is the worst situation I have ever seen in the city of Redondo Beach in that it encompasses almost an entire residential block," Casey said in the interview. "I don't think anybody, including the property owner, would tolerate living next door, let alone in these conditions themselves."
The feisty Sylla, who rents the bungalows to several Latino families, has been fighting with city officials over conditions at the properties for more than a decade. Sylla said city officials have been harassing him in hopes that he will sell the land for an apartment or condominium project to get more tax revenue for the city.
"There are several real estate agents who would like to buy the land, and they are trying to make me out to be a bad guy," Sylla said. "I agree the houses don't look the nicest, but on almost every block in the city there is a house that is not up to date. If I didn't have all these houses here together in a row, they wouldn't be bothering me. This is just harassment."
Sylla said that if he fixed up the houses, he would need to charge higher rents, which would deprive some of the low-income tenants of affordable housing. He said he has always corrected health and housing code violations when they are pointed out to him and said he will make whatever repairs are necessary to correct the violations cited last week. He denied that his tenants are unhappy. "This is a free country," he said. "If I don't want to live in my house, I can sell it and go to another place. Every place I rent has hot water, every place has cold water, and they have kitchens. They can live like normal human beings.
"Maybe I am not the best landlord, but if the renter comes and tells me there is problem with water or a light, I fix it. But I don't go in and harass people."
Sylla said he was told only recently that the bathroom sink that residents say has been broken for five years was not working. "What can I do if they don't tell me about it?" he asked. "I don't feel bad that I own those houses. I don't feel bad at all."
Zoning Violations Cited
City officials, however, say Sylla's problems go beyond the health and safety concerns of the tenants. City Building Inspector Vic Peterson said Sylla has repeatedly violated the city's zoning code over the past 13 years by using the bungalows' backyards to park cars. Casey said he spotted 17 cars as well as scrap parts in the backyards last week.