About 160 residents of a poorly maintained downtown Los Angeles apartment building owned by a convicted slumlord were left homeless Tuesday after an intentionally set fire swept through a portion of the building before dawn, city officials said.
No one was injured in the blaze, which broke out on the second floor of an empty unit at 3:28 a.m., destroying five units and damaging several others. Arson investigators would not comment about how the fire was set.
Residents of the 75-unit, three-story building, many wrapped in bedclothes, frantically groped their way down creaky, wooden stairways through heavy smoke into the chilly air.
The building, populated mainly by Central American and Mexican immigrants, was cited three weeks ago by the Fire Department for 48 code violations, including missing fire extinguishers, inoperative smoke detectors and blocked fire escape routes. City building inspectors also found numerous Building Code violations.
The building is owned by a man who was recently convicted in the largest criminal case ever brought against a landlord in the City of Los Angeles.
Vijaynard Sharma, 39, who faces a maximum sentence of 56 years in prison and up to $200,000 in fines and penalties, will be sentenced Dec. 16 for failing to correct deficiencies in five buildings. Problems included vermin infestations, broken pipes, exposed wiring, faulty smoke detectors, lack of heating and lack of hot water, according to building inspectors.
The building that was set on fire Tuesday, located at 3981 Menlo Ave., was not part of the criminal case against Sharma. However, earlier last month, it was referred to the city attorney's Slum Housing Task Force for possible action after inspections by fire and building and safety officials.
It took between 80 and 100 firefighters nearly an hour to quell the blaze, which caused approximately $230,000 in damage.
Many of the shivering residents, including scores of small children, were taken to a Red Cross evacuation center at nearby Manual Arts High School. Some, with most of their possessions in suitcases or plastic bags, spent the morning across the street from the building on the grass of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum complex, waiting to see if they would be allowed to return.
Tuesday afternoon, city building and safety officials gave them their answer: not now and possibly never. The 61-year-old building was declared vacated until Sharma decides whether to demolish it or meet Building and Fire Code requirements established by the City Council in the wake of a 1982 fire at an aging downtown hotel that killed 24 people.
Residents of the Menlo Avenue building, who pay about $300 a month rent, said they had been periodically plagued by lack of water, electricity and gas. They said street gangs, whose graffiti covers the interior and exterior of the building, sometimes broke into vacant units at night.
Tuesday's fire was the fourth time in two months that the lives of the building's residents have been disrupted. They were temporarily forced out by the Oct. 1 earthquake. While some returned that evening, others, fearing aftershocks, slept outside or sought other shelter for several days.
Then, in the ensuing weeks, there were two fires, several residents said in interviews. In one, they said, one resident broke both legs jumping out of the building.
Fire officials would confirm only that there had been one previous fire before Tuesday's.
"I would have moved out before, but it's too expensive," said Luis Molina, who came to the United States from Guatemala five years ago and was waiting across the street from the building Tuesday afternoon while his wife took their children to the Red Cross shelter to eat. "To pay the two months rent in advance you need $800 minimum."
Inside the shelter, Luz de Maria Ayalla, whose apartment was one of those destroyed by the fire, fed her month-old daughter a bottle of milk on a green cot and worried. She had lost everything.
"I don't know what is going to happen," she said.
Her family came to Los Angeles from El Salvador three years ago. Her husband could not stay with her Tuesday. He had to go to work at his job in a restaurant.
Deputy City Atty. Stephanie Sautner, head of the city attorney's Slum Housing Task Force, said the conditions in the building were worse than those in many of the five other buildings that led to Sharma's conviction last month.
"My inspector told me this was the worst building he'd ever been in, and he's only told me that about a building two or three times in the past," said Tom Pope, a senior building inspector, who led a group of inspectors through the building Tuesday afternoon.
Sharma said in an interview after his conviction that he owned 18 buildings in Los Angeles but was in the process of selling them. According to tax records, he bought the Menlo Avenue building last February.