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The Neighbors a Slumlord Left Behind : Some Say Building Is Better but Families Still Share Quarters With Mice, Cockroaches, Decay

August 13, 1987|ITABARI NJERI | Times Staff Writer

Dolores Oroza leaned wearily against the bathroom wall, its tiles the coolest surface in the hot, slum tenement, address: 1660 N. Western Ave. Dr. Milton Avol's place, and for 30 days, his prison. Avol is the man with the run-together moniker: "neurosurgeon-slumlord." In July, a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge sentenced him to a month in his own rodent-infested tenement. He and Oroza have been neighbors.

Her eyes were dark and dull in a somber face as she spoke. Water seeps under the floor tiles from the leaking bathroom sink, she said. "And the windows are no good." She pointed to the cracked and rotting wood frame and sill. When it rains outside, it rains in her bathroom, too, the Salvadoran refugee complained through an interpreter.

And the bathtub, its corroded, blackened state was not fit to touch her baby's skin, the woman said. She painted it. But, she shrugged and smiled faintly, "it didn't work." Now she uses a foam cushion to protect her baby's bare bottom from the tub's rough surface.

Torn Screens, Scent of Gas

Oroza left the stuffy bathroom for the kitchen with its torn window screens and scent of leaking gas.

"Nothing has changed" inside her apartment since Avol, cited for numerous safety and housing code violations in the building, was essentially put under house arrest, fitted with an electronic ankle cuff to monitor his movements and ordered to make repairs. Avol's sentence ended Wednesday.

Some Improvements

Several tenants in the sprawling, 91-unit building said there have been some improvements, however, mainly in the common areas of the building. The hallways have been cleared of trash and human debris.

"The difference in cleanliness is tremendous," said "Maria Vargas," a long-time resident who asked that her real name not be used. "Before it was very, very dirty. Very bad."

Vargas attributes the improved conditions to a new manager, coincidentally Avol's bodyguard, who took up the manager post when Avol began serving his sentence. To Vargas, the essential difference has been that "he's here all the time in the office, whenever we need him."

But Vargas said she doesn't know what will happen after Avol is gone. For now, however, she and her children no longer have to fear the prostitutes, winos, drug peddlers and addicts who used to line the corridors. "So things are better now that they are gone."

Antonio Rivera, a new tenant, pointed to the new carpet in his apartment, "Everything is fine for now. How long it will last, I don't know. But fine, for the moment."

Avol has said through his lawyer and spokesman, Donald Steier, that he partly blames the condition of the building on the tenants and vandals in the area. (Steier did not return several phone calls from The Times.) But the city says the building is not up to code, and that is Avol's fault.

Putting "new carpet over rotting wood floors is typical Avol, said deputy city attorney Stephanie Sautner, supervisor of the city's Interagency Housing Task Force, which expedites repairs of substandard housing.

Avol "is basically working on empty units in hope of selling the property," said Sautner, who prosecuted the case against Avol. "He's doing a whitewashing job."

The Beverly Hills doctor was told he had to repair broken windows in the building. He did. By covering them "with a plastic glazing that would give off toxic fumes" in a fire, Sautner said. He was ordered to replace it with glass. Sautner said that's typical of "the kind of work he's been doing in his buildings for 10 years." (Over the years, Avol has been cited for numerous housing code violations in various tenements, most of which he has sold. The Western Avenue property is for sale.) "He won't use good materials and won't hire a licensed contractor. He hires unskilled labor," Sautner said.

He will get another 30 to 45 days after his sentence ends to bring the building up to the city's health and safety codes, Sautner said. If he doesn't, "I will file another case against him."

Right now, she said, there is a "dangerous fuse box" with an exposed wire in the common hallway on the first floor. If a child touched it, "they'd be subject to electrocution."

Further, when she went with inspectors from the city's housing task force to check the building two weeks ago, it was still "infested with cockroaches and rodents."

Vargas, the long-time resident, sat with her husband and children in their living room. She pointed to the trail of white, poisonous powder that bordered the apartment floor. Rats and roaches "that is the state all the time." The children sleep in the bedroom with their parents because the rodents consider the living room their territory, she said.

Welts on the Legs

Even so, "I can't sleep at night sometime because I feel the itches and things," her 7-year-old daughter said. "I don't like the way the animals do."

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