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New Law Targets Substandard Rentals : Santa Fe Springs: Ordinance provides penalties to force owners to repair units.


SANTA FE SPRINGS — City officials acknowledge they were spurred by conditions at one apartment complex when they passed a law last May requiring an annual inspection of all rental housing in the city.

Last week, armed with flashlights and checklists, inspectors entered 11711 Florence Ave. for the first time under the law designed to upgrade dilapidated apartments.

At the Florence Fountain Apartments, inspectors found a wide range of health and safety violations, including dangerous substandard electrical wiring, roach infestation, inoperative smoke alarms and water damage to bathrooms and kitchens, said Fernando Tarin, the city's director of housing and community preservation.

One apartment has lacked hot water for more than a year, the tenant said. Dirt has replaced grass in several landscaped areas. And water splashed from the pool runs up to the front doors of some units.

"I wasn't surprised with what we found, to be honest with you," Tarin said, "considering the number of complaints we received."

Such complaints had prompted the City Council to pass its ordinance requiring an annual inspection of every apartment in the city. The program pays for itself by charging owners an annual inspection fee of $50 per unit, plus $25 for reinspections of units that are not up to code.

Under the law, repairs at the 81-unit Florence Avenue apartments must begin immediately or its owners--Florence Realty Fund Ltd. of Los Angeles--face utility shut-offs and criminal penalties of up to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine per violation.

Repairs could also prove costly, up to $100,000, the building's management estimated. The landlord has sent notices that inspection fees will be passed on to renters.

"It will be worth it," tenant Sheila Guzman said, "if they fix this place up."

Guzman, a 36-year-old mother of two, regularly applies a heavily scented freshener to compete with the smell of roach spray permeating her kitchen and living room. All her pasta and cereal sits in sealed plastic containers above her refrigerator.

"I spray for roaches every night before I go to bed," she said. "I lost my fish over it, but you got to do it or live with bugs crawling all over you."

In her bathroom, water damage has bubbled and discolored the walls. With a tug, Guzman can pull plumbing fixtures out from the wall.

Guzman and her husband pay $775 a month for their two-bedroom, two-bath apartment. "It's got to get better around here for the prices we're paying," she said.

Although some apartments needed comparatively minor work, not one unit completely passed muster last week, when Tarin and city inspector Wayne Morrell looked over several apartments with Tom Flores, who represents Incomvest Properties, the management company.

Flores said many of the building's deficiencies existed when his management company and the current owner took over more than two years ago. "We bought the building in as-is condition," he said.

Flores likened the 26-year-old complex to a used car that seemed to run well in the showroom, then fell apart a few months after purchase.

The heating system, which breaks down easily, would never be installed in a new building, Flores said.

The city's Tarin told Flores that the bathroom plumbing, which has caused severe water damage, will probably need replacing.

Wiring under the sink must also be fixed, Tarin said, in part because repairs had been made by unlicensed contractors.

"We're very fortunate someone didn't get electrocuted," Tarin said.

Incomvest has also had electrical wiring problems at a 106-unit apartment complex it runs on North Cerritos Avenue in Azusa, said Dave Rudisel, Azusa's community improvement manager.

Santa Fe Springs modeled its inspection ordinance on Azusa's, which was the first Southern California city to begin annual rental inspections. Azusa officials declared the local Incomvest complex a public nuisance in January.

Rudisel said Incomvest became more cooperative after realizing that the city planned to enforce penalties. "Apparently, only some minor problems remain," he said.

In Santa Fe Springs, the renovation has already begun, Tarin said, motioning toward the sparkling pool, in which about a dozen children frolicked. "A couple of months ago, that pool was green," he said.

In addition, the outside of the complex's buildings has been repainted.

Flores said his company intends to cooperate with city officials in both Santa Fe Springs and Azusa. He showed off several renovated apartments. "As they become vacant, we either put in new carpet or change the drapes to vertical blinds," he said.

Flores said bad tenants, including some with gang ties, have caused much of the damage.

Tony Caminos, 33, the new on-site manager, pointed to where an evicted tenant punched three holes in a door before departing.

"He even stole the apartment numbers off the door," Caminos said. "I had just got the fountain working, and the day he moved out, he knocked it down."

Tarin said despite initial costs, the inspections should ultimately benefit landlords by documenting which tenants trash apartments.

He said the city would support the eviction of renters who damage property: "We'll be able to help them get the problem tenants out."

Caminos said he intends to screen potential tenants more thoroughly than previous managers. In an interview earlier this year, his predecessor had said the same thing.

"Do me a favor," shouted 15-year tenant Mary Jo Haller to Caminos and Flores. "Rent the apartment above me to a nice, single person."

A family with six children had previously rented the two-bedroom apartment.

Tarin said: "These used to be some of the nicest apartments in the city. We were surprised to find they went downhill so quickly.

"We don't expect it all to be fixed in 30 days. As long as they're making progress. . . ."

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