LONG BEACH — The City Council on Tuesday ordered three landlords to get rid of drug dealing in their central city apartment buildings or risk having the court seize their properties for one year and fine them up to $25,000.
The council declared the buildings public nuisances, marking the first time officials have invoked a new city law that holds landlords and residential property owners responsible for drug activities on their property.
Under the ordinance, the property owners have a month to evict tenants who allegedly buy, sell or use drugs in their buildings. Landlords must also prevent people who do not live in their buildings from engaging in drug activity on the property.
The apartment buildings discussed at Tuesday's hearing are at 1935 Myrtle Ave., 127 W. 14th St. and 1620 Gundry Ave.
Police used a new computerized tracking system that links crime statistics to street addresses to determine that the 14th Street property has been the site of 73 narcotics arrests and 124 emergency calls for help since the first of the year. There were 23 narcotics arrests and 74 calls to the 911 telephone emergency line at the Gundry Avenue property. Police made 30 arrests and fielded 52 calls for help at the Myrtle Avenue site.
City officials said that the landlords were notified of the drug activity on their property. They did little about the problem until they were told to appear at a council hearing and warned that they faced possible court action, officials said.
Deputy City Atty. Robert Shannon said that in such cases, police will mail landlords a letter telling them the number of the apartment where any arrests took place. Shannon said it would be "obvious" to the landlord who the arrested tenant is, and that the tenant should be evicted. Most leases give landlords the right to evict any tenant with 30 days' notice, Shannon said.
Using the ordinance to crack down on the problems in the three central Long Beach apartment buildings was a last resort, according to Councilman Clarence Smith.
Smith exhibited a folder on the properties that was as thick as the yellow pages in the telephone book. The reports contained information about drug dealing at the Myrtle and Gundry avenues properties for at least a year and for two years at 14th Street, he said. "It has been a nightmare for these citizens," Smith told the council.
About a dozen residents and neighbors of the buildings told councilmen that they can't sleep at night because of gunfire, that their children can't play in the streets because it is too dangerous, and that they watch drug deals and other related crimes from their windows.
"I feel like we live in a war zone. My children are prisoners," said Wanda Davis, who lives with her husband and four children in a building near the 14th Street property.
But the landlords said that they also are victims. Attorney Joseph Shemaria said his Myrtle Avenue property is one of a dozen Long Beach properties he owns as an investment and that he does the city a service by providing housing to low-income people.
Shemaria said he has hired private security guards to patrol his property, invested $17,000 to install bars on the windows and make other improvements, evicted tenants and even canceled his Thanksgiving vacation to take care of all this.
He said that the problem is nearly gone. "I apologize to the people who have had to suffer, but I also am a victim," Shemaria said. "I have been losing a fortune in that neighborhood."
Shemaria said it is unfair to expect landlords to get rid of crime that the city and even the federal government can't control. "The intent of the law is admirable," he said. "But it won't be a solution. When I clean this building up, they'll just go down the street."
Sam Emer, owner of the Gundry Avenue property, said he lives in Orange County and was surprised to learn of the arrests. He said that he immediately evicted his problem tenants and that there is no longer a problem.
David Gomez, the landlord for the 14th Street property, was the only one to deny that his tenants sold drugs. Gomez, who said he owned about 50 buildings in Long Beach, claimed that homeless people use his apartment building for their drug transactions. He said he would build a chain-link fence around his property, but that's about all. "Why should I cry about this? It's not my problem. It's the city's problem," he said after the hearing.
But Councilman Evan Anderson Braude complained that he soon may bring another property owned by Gomez to the attention of the council. It has similar problems with drug activity, he said.
City officials said landlords have to do more than simply collect the rent. "A lot of these people are absentee landlords who don't live on the premises and don't care about anything except whether their money is coming every month," said Deputy City Atty. Shannon. "We're saying they have a responsibility, too."