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Health Code vs. Rights of Couple : Frail Pair Block Effort to Fix Up Faulty House

March 31, 1988|MARTHA L. WILLMAN, Times Staff Writer

Signs tied to bushes and scattered about the front yard of an aged home on Cypress Street in Glendale instantly mark the property as different.

"Spring House Cleaning," one sign announces. "Good Bargains Every Day 'Til Sold Out (cash only)." "FOR SALE: Australian Fern Palm. You dig it. Dwarf $75."

Piles of cartons stacked on the porch of the California bungalow are there for the convenience of shoppers, the owner says. A clothes dryer, sinks, chairs and other paraphernalia, covered with assorted tarps and carpeting, also are up for grabs. Cactuses and plants in plastic pots--hundreds of them--can be bought for as little as 25 cents each.

Inside the house, Glendale city officials say, are tons of cardboard boxes filled with magazines, papers and trash. Worn furniture, broken appliances, empty ice cream cartons and a variety of junk are stacked wall to wall and floor to ceiling, they say. The plumbing and electrical wiring are faulty. The heater doesn't work.

"That house is one of the most terrible structures in the city," said Councilman Larry Zarian, who launched the city's crackdown on building and safety code violations four years ago. "It is by far one of the worst cases we have had."

Despite the severity of violations, the frail couple who have lived in the Cypress Street house for 13 years appear to have stalled the city's seemingly unstoppable code-enforcement program.

"If it had been anybody else," said Madalyn Blake, the city's community development administrator charged with coordinating code enforcement, "we would have put them in jail long ago."

But William and Leatta Lyons are not like everybody else, city officials said.

'So Frail and Sickly'

Leatta Lyons is 65, has had three heart attacks, a number of strokes, a broken wrist and torn knee ligaments, all within the last three years, according to the elderly woman. Her husband is 59, has had two heart attacks, but still works when his health allows, she said.

"They appear so frail and sickly," Blake said. "We don't want to just put these old people in jail. It would kill them." The result could be just as fatal, officials said, if the city obtained a court order declaring the Lyons home a nuisance and carted their possessions off to the dump.

For the first time since the city began its code enforcement program, officials say they are stumped by the Lyonses' stubbornness.

No amount of persuasion has moved the couple to comply with the health and safety provisions of the city's building code.

Blake said the city helped the couple obtain a low-interest $30,000 loan to pay for clearing debris and making repairs. The city has offered to help find a contractor and coordinate the work. It even suggested a plan to postpone payments on the loan until the house is sold.

But all along, Blake said, Leatta Lyons has refused to permit anyone to touch her stuff. Meanwhile, Blake added, the cluttered house poses a health and fire hazard to the Lyonses and their neighbors as well.

"We're in a dilemma," Blake said. "Where do you draw the line between infringing on individual privacy and protecting the health and safety of the neighborhood?"

"We're caught between a rock and a hard place," added Zarian, who said the city could be perceived as "heavy-handed" if it jailed the Lyonses or ordered the disposal of their property.

But he said he also fears the city could be held negligent if it fails to enforce health and safety standards.

"If we were not concerned about electricity, plumbing and other health basics, then what kind of a city would we have?" Zarian asked.

'Selling Everything'

Leatta Lyons maintains that she has been "working night and day" to comply with the city's orders to clean her house. "We are selling everything we have, furniture and all," she said during an interview outside her home. She declined a request to view the inside of the house.

She conceded that she needs help to sort through her boxes of possessions. She said she has no relatives, but another elderly woman, who is partly sighted, helps her from time to time.

Despite the task, Leatta Lyons said she is wary of any assistance offered by the city, afraid that her collections--such as perfumes, cosmetics and coffee cups--will be tossed out.

"We have to get the money out of our possessions," she said.

Blake called the stalemate "an impossible situation." She said the elderly woman "has been saying that she could assemble and sell the items for a year and a half, but there has been no progress."

Michael R. Grant, deputy city attorney, said the city has delayed action against the Lyonses for months. "We have been bending the rules because of their condition," he said, "but the city can only do so much."

Zarian, who has long insisted that all residential units be brought up to minimum city standards, said: "It is a question of timing. At what point do you call it quits and say 'no more' "?

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