Landlords who are paid by the county to shelter the homeless but whose Skid Row hotels are rat-infested, unheated or crime-ridden should have to refund up to two years' worth of payments, the county counsel's office said Tuesday.
In a memorandum sent to the Board of Supervisors, the counsel's staff noted that the county faces a 2-year-old lawsuit filed on behalf of the needy who are housed in such hotels. The county also faces a recent motion for a preliminary injunction to halt payments to landlords who violate local or state health and safety laws.
In seeking the preliminary injunction in late July, the Century City law firm of Irell & Manella contended that conditions had not improved since 1984, when a Superior Court judge ordered the county to stop placing the homeless in unheated hotels.
Rats, Roaches, Robberies
In statements accompanying the firm's motion, 170 former and current homeless people told of rats and roaches, lack of hot water or heat, broken windows and robberies.
If the allegations are true, the county counsel's memo stated, "these vendors are liable for repayment of all monies received from the county for hotel rooms which were not habitable."
The counsel's staff said it will file complaints against hotel operators who have continued to permit such conditions. It also vowed to seek compensatory damages and attorneys' fees going back nearly two years to the date the original suit was lodged against the county.
"If we identify evidence of fraud or conspiracy by any of these vendors," the memo read, "we will also seek punitive damages."
The counsel's office also said it will propose that the county's normal twice-a-month inspections of hotels on the county voucher program be more frequent, that operators of those hotels be adequately informed of county welfare standards and that the City of Los Angeles be told of violations so that compliance is ensured.
Mary Wawro, assistant county counsel for public services, said the county currently pays about $200,000 a month to lodge indigent people in about 15 Skid Row-area hotels, shelters and nonprofit agency facilities.
Formerly, she said, about 40 such places were used in the Skid Row area, but some were eliminated "because they just couldn't cut the mustard." As for the remaining 15 or so, she said, "We're going to make sure they start doing it."
Attorney Jon Davidson of the law firm that stepped in a year ago to help poverty lawyers on the case without charge, said that although the county uses about 120 hotels, the suit and motion focus on the 15 downtown, even though "We don't claim all those 15 are terrible."
A hearing on the motion for a preliminary injunction has been set for Tuesday, but Davidson said the county has asked for additional time to respond.