U.S. marshals seized control of a federally subsidized apartment building in the Oakwood section of Venice Friday and placed it under round-the-clock guard, alleging that the property owner failed to take reasonable measures to stem drug peddling there.
The 16-unit complex is one of 15 Venice apartment buildings that will soon be patrolled by a security company affiliated with Minister Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam.
Authorities who participated in the Friday raid said the seizure will not affect the Nation of Islam's security plans at the 15 buildings, which have been the source of numerous complaints about crime from tenants, neighbors and police.
The apartment buildings, known collectively as Holiday Venice, are managed by Alliance Housing Management of Los Angeles.
The Nation of Islam patrols are set to begin early next month, but in the case of the three-story brown stucco apartment house at 509 Sunset Ave., security arrived early in the form of a caravan of Los Angeles Police Department officers and U.S. marshals wielding a court order.
"We are going to completely eradicate crime in that building," said Sgt. Kirk Albanese of the LAPD.
There were no arrests Friday, but officials said 26 drug-related arrests have been made at the building during the past 18 months.
Authorities--who went door-to-door asking residents to sign new leases--stressed that no one living in the 15 occupied units will be displaced and that rents, which are subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, will remain unchanged.
They said the seizure came after the property owner, despite multiple warnings, "failed to take reasonable action" to improve lighting, fencing and other security measures intended to prevent drug dealing.
U.S. Deputy Marshal Ron Grant said the property is under the control of the U.S. government and that only a judge can decide what will happen to it. If the owner upgrades security to the satisfaction of the court, the building will most likely be returned to the landlord, officials said. Otherwise the property could be permanently transferred to the federal government through a forfeiture proceeding.
Alliance Vice President David Itkin, who was present during the seizure, brushed off the criticisms and appeared to welcome the arrival of federal agents.
"It's probably going to be a help to this whole community," he said.
Itkin criticized tenants for failing to take responsibility for their own security and also blamed the neighborhood's deteriorating social conditions.
"The environment here is made up of a bunch of animals who just don't want to let people live," he said of the surrounding neighborhood.
Meanwhile, HUD officials warned Alliance on Friday that it will also lose the right to operate three other Oakwood properties unless it takes immediate steps to make them safer.
They ordered Alliance to immediately provide round-the-clock armed security at the four complexes, arrange for automatic security systems and remove abandoned cars from the area.
HUD spokesman Scott Reed said department officials will decide in early December whether to withdraw its approval of the management firm.
Reed said HUD learned of the impending seizure early this week. HUD inspectors sent to the buildings found groups of men apparently dealing drugs and no visible security at Alliance properties on Indiana, Brooks and 5th avenues, Reed said. The remaining Alliance-run buildings were found to be acceptable, he said.
Reed denied that HUD had ignored crime and security problems at the complexes, where frustrated tenants have long complained about gang violence and open-air drug sales.
A security firm affiliated with the Nation of Islam last month won city approval to patrol the Holiday Venice buildings with unarmed guards--an arrangement first proposed by tenants.
HUD approved Alliance's contract with N.O.I. Security Agency Inc., and recently permitted Alliance to raise the subsidized rents to pay the $53,676-a-month security bill. The patrols are scheduled to begin as early as Nov. 1.