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Gunning for Slums : Deputy City Attorney Puts Law on the Side of Low-Income Renters

August 31, 1989|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

The preliminary hearing in Department 59 of Los Angeles Superior Court last week looked like a mismatch.

On one side, Deputy City Atty. Stephanie Sautner sat with three other lawyers, representing impoverished tenants and the people of the State of California in a ground-breaking "civil racketeering" suit against more than 100 alleged slumlords and the lending institutions that funded them.

On the other side, four heavy-artillery type lawyers from big firms argued for the defense, backed by another 24 attorneys and assistants for various defendants, who sat in the gallery intently scribbling notes in yellow legal pads.

But anyone who thinks Sautner and her team were outgunned might heed a story making the rounds in legal circles.

When Sautner was hired by the City Attorney's office in 1984, she went through a routine orientation, including a tour of the Police Academy. Standard procedure is to ask the least likely woman in a visiting group to take a crack at the simulator--a realistic film of a crime scene, used to teach cops how to react to attacks.

Invariably, the results embarrass a neophyte shooter but amuse and enlighten those watching.

"Have you ever held a gun before, little lady?" the training officer asked Sautner.

She looked at him sheepishly. He handed her the Smith & Wesson .38. She fumbled it. She couldn't find the trigger.

With enormous patience, the amused officer pointed her in the direction of the simulator. Promptly, a swarm of ominous scumbags burst onto the screen. Sautner crouched and opened fire.

Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!

The patronizing training officer watched as Sautner--who in a previous life had been a New York City police detective--nailed each of the mock perpetrators squarely in a part of the anatomy exclusive to males.

Colleagues who work with Sautner, and attorneys who have opposed her, say her street smarts have a lot to do with the fact that the slum housing task force she heads has a 100% conviction rate against slumlords.

The windows in Sautner's 16th-floor office in City Hall East haven't seen a squeegee in years. But even through the grime, the vantage point makes Los Angeles look like a city of sparkling glass towers capped with bright corporate logos.

Follow Sautner down from this perch and into the streets, however, and there's another city in the shadows of the gleaming skyline.

There's a brick building on Carondelet Street, for example, that has been thoroughly autographed by Droopy and Mouser and gangsters with equally colorful monikers. Rap music blasts with in-your-face insolence from a window displaying the bare back of an inert young man. Meanwhile, a young girl smiles sweetly from a basement window.

The scene, as Sautner sees it through locked security gates, encapsulates the problem: With the shortage of cheap housing in Los Angeles, what few apartments are available tempt vermin of all species.

"I don't consider myself a Pollyanna," she said. "I go into some apartments and say, 'This person's a slob. . . .' There are gang members and drug dealers in these buildings. But there are also a lot of very poor families, babies, children playing in hallways."

A Moral Obligation

Landlords have a moral obligation to kick out the slobs and the thugs who terrorize other tenants. But it's the legal obligation they have to keep their buildings safe and decent that concerns Sautner.

So it is that each Wednesday, Sautner and her colleagues on the task force meet with liaisons from the City Fire Department, the Department of Building and Safety and the Health Department to discuss what inspectors have found at low-rent buildings around the city.

To make the task force list, a building must be three or more stories high and "violate all three agencies' codes substantially," Sautner said.

When a building becomes "task force," the agencies give the owner 30 days to start fixing problems. Landlords who fail to begin repairing the unsafe wiring and broken plumbing, exterminating the rats, or doing whatever else is needed to bring their buildings up to code, are hit with criminal charges for jeopardizing tenants' health and safety.

The building on Carondelet Street, along with another a block away, have been on the list for about a month. At the second building, a 14-year-old girl let Sautner through a security gate and into a dimly lit entrance way.

"Has the landlord been doing any repairs?" Sautner asked.

"No," the girl replied. She then recited a litany of complaints. The manager, for instance, won't let the children who live in building's 50 or so tiny apartments play in the halls.

A good thing, perhaps, considering that on at least one floor, a child might easily toddle down the unlighted hall, over the exposed floor and sub-floor, through a doorway with no door and onto an exposed fire escape, free-falling through a large hole to the dirt lot below.

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