LONG BEACH — Alleging that they were rented vermin-infested houses in deplorable condition, five low-income families sued their former landlords last week.
The three Golden Avenue houses were in such bad shape--with gaping holes in the walls, overflowing sewage lines and defective electrical systems--that residents suffered physical injuries, according to the lawsuit filed Thursday in Long Beach Superior Court by the Legal Aid Foundation of Long Beach.
Legal Aid attorney Alaine R. Parry said that residents suffered scabes and other skin rashes and that the basement of one home was flooded with sewage.
"We've seen so many situations where the landlords are not keeping their properties up to (health and building safety) codes," Parry said. "We've instituted a new policy to crack down on slumlords."
Landlord Craig E. Caldwell--named as a defendant, along with his Ocean Park Partnership, his ABC Management Corp., his wife and two of his property managers--said the tenants' lawsuit has "no merit."
He said the area surrounding Golden Avenue has many drug abusers and other irresponsible tenants who defeat the best efforts of landlords trying to maintain their rental units.
"The landlord is the one who takes it in the shorts on the west side of town," Caldwell said.
The lawsuit asks for a refund of all rent that the former tenants paid while they lived in the houses at 413, 415 1/2 and 422 Golden Ave. Among other things, it seeks punitive damages of $1.6-million--$100,000 for each of the 16 former residents named in the suit.
None of the three houses are now occupied. Two of the rambling wood-frame houses on the west side of the block--413 and 415 1/2 Golden Ave.--are boarded up. Caldwell said they would be razed to make way for a proposed 118-unit apartment or condominium project he has pending before the city.
Declared a Nuisance
The stucco home on the east side of the street--422 Golden Ave.--was declared a nuisance in December by the city Planning and Building Department. Officials directed that the building be demolished or repaired. Caldwell said the building is undergoing major renovation.
Parry said Anthony and O'Lethea Ann Russo moved into 413 Golden Ave. with their four children in August, 1986. After complaining to the manager about problems they discovered in the house, they moved across the street to the stucco home at 422 Golden Ave., ostensibly to allow the landlord to make repairs, the attorney said.
But before the repairs were made, the 413 house was rented to Lucky Rauens and her 16-year-old son, Parry said.
At one point, the basement was flooded with sewage caused by broken pipes, he said.
The lawsuit alleged that the family's living quarters were in "an unsafe, unhealthy and uninhabitable condition" and that the landlords "abused their position" and "acted in an unsafe manner."
The Russos, meanwhile, encountered more slum-like conditions at 422 Golden Ave., the lawsuit said.
The house had leaky plumbing that caused the bathroom floor to deteriorate to the point that a hole began to develop, and the Russos' daughter, Cynthia, 4, was injured when she fell from the back stairs after a hand rail gave way, Parry said.
The Russos moved out last August and were replaced by Lisa Brensfield, Patricia Ann Spitler, Rebecca Armas and their children.
About the same time, Izetta Brotherton and her toddler son moved into 415 1/2 Golden Ave. and found inadequate plumbing, broken or missing windows and other problems, the suit alleged.
Stopped Paying Rent
The conditions became so bad that the families occupying the properties independently stopped paying rent, which ranged from $400 to $450 a month, demanding that repairs be made, according to Parry.
The landlords sued them for nonpayment in small claims court and won. But Parry said two of the families contacted Legal Aid and got the case reversed on appeal in Superior Court. The third family contacted Legal Aid but not in time to appeal.
Reports filed by city Public Health Department inspectors in November and obtained by Parry show many code violations in the three homes. The inspection of 413 Golden Ave. alone turned up 22 violations, ranging from rodent infestation to broken windows to plugged pipes.
Caldwell said that his companies respond to tenants' complaints but that sometimes they are not allowed in houses to make repairs. "By the time it's turned over to you, it's in shambles," he said.
Squatters sometimes move in when tenants move out, he said. Some tenants run up thousands of dollars in damage to their rental units, he added.
Caldwell, a resident of Rolling Hills, is the former chairman of the Western National Bank in Santa Ana, which federal regulators declared insolvent in 1982. Last year, he was indicted by a federal grand jury on bank-fraud charges. But a federal judge recently dismissed the case on the ground that prosecutors waited too long to seek his indictment.