The bare floorboards creaked as Jose Gomez trudged up the stairs of the apartment building where he lives, avoiding the rat poison lining the sides of the steps. He walked around a pile of empty beer bottles and stopped to look at a neighbor's ceiling that had collapsed from a water leak.
For nine years, the 44-year-old garment worker has called the building just outside downtown a "terrible" place to live, with its dirt, trash, leaking pipes and exposed wiring.
But now, ironically, he is fighting to stay there.
In a situation city officials fear is becoming all too familiar, Gomez and his neighbors in the Maryland Avenue apartment building are being evicted while the owner does the seismic rehabilitation work necessary to comply with the city's 5-year-old earthquake safety ordinance.
This law, meant to fortify the city's stock of unreinforced masonry buildings to save lives in case of a major earthquake, is having an unforeseen effect: the potential elimination of a sizable chunk of the city's low-income housing--as many as 34,000 apartment units, according to Barbara Zeidman, director of the city's Rent Stabilization Division.
"You're beginning to see people being evicted to do the work, or people being constructively evicted--rents going up so much they can't afford to live there anymore," she said.
The impact of the ordinance on tenants started to surface after the City Council amended the ordinance last year to accelerate compliance in reaction to the September, 1985, Mexico City earthquake.
The ordinance gives landlords three years to make their buildings safe, once they are notified by the city Department of Building and Safety. Within one year, however, they must apply for permits to install anchors that tie together building walls, ceilings and floors.
Originally, the city expected the process to take 15 years as landlords were phased into the program gradually.
But the amendment telescoped the process so much that by early this month the department had sent out compliance orders on 4,900 buildings, including 1,400 apartment buildings with an estimated 136,000 tenants. Though the process of rehabilitation has begun on only about 2,000 units, estimates are that at least 1,200 people have been evicted so far.
A total of 7,792 buildings citywide need earthquake safety modifications. All were built before 1933--when modern earthquake construction standards were adopted by the city. The majority of these older structures, city officials say, are in the downtown, Hollywood and Mid-Wilshire areas.
Due to the high costs of making the seismic repairs--which average, according to some landlords, $5,000 per unit--many owners have opted to increase the value of their properties by combining earthquake rehabilitation with substantial cosmetic renovations. The result is a building that, under current city law, gets taken out of the rent control system and is upgraded to command rent increases of as much as $250 per apartment.
In a report to the City Council's Government Operations Committee last week, Zeidman recommended a six-month moratorium on both tenant evictions and owner compliance while city officials analyze the ordinance's impact on tenants and owners.
"They (the 1,400 apartment buildings ordered to comply) represent such a significant portion of the housing stock that houses low-income tenants that the city cannot stand to take them out of circulation because we have no alternatives for the people who dwell in them," she told the committee.
The full council will consider the recommendation Dec. 5, at the request of Councilman John Ferraro, who represents the mid-Wilshire area.
"We need to provide safety for people, and at the same time not put people out on the street because there's no place they can afford," Zeidman said.
An added misfortune for tenants in such buildings is that under the city's rent stabilization law, if major rehabilitation work involves seismic upgrading, landlords are exempt from paying relocation assistance. If earthquake repairs were not involved, owners would have to pay evicted tenants up to $2,500 to move.
The squat, three-story building at 1312 Maryland St., built in 1913, is one of those slated for renovation. Gomez, an illegal alien who asked that his real name not be used, will lose his $210-a-month rent-controlled apartment. Current area rentals are about $350 to $400, he said, which will be difficult to pay on a $6-a-hour salary that also supports his wife and child.
Because of the seismic repair exemption, he does not qualify for relocation assistance and cannot imagine how he will come up with a security deposit.
'Forced Out With Nothing'
"Landlords are taking advantage of the seismic law to rehabilitate and not paying relocation assistance," charged tenant activist Dino Hirsch, director of Inquilinos Unidos (United Renters). "After living all these years in slum conditions, (Gomez) is forced out with nothing."