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Housing: Abysmal living conditions included cockroaches, mice and mildewed walls. Violations were discovered through a program instituted by the police chief.

February 14, 1993|EMILY ADAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MONTEBELLO — Francisca Hernandez has seen the mice: running across her kitchen floor, lurking against the living room wall, on top of her sleeping children.

She and her neighbors also live with cockroaches, leaky plumbing, holes in the ceilings and walls, and mildew that seems to spread over everything in their Montebello apartment buildings. They complained for years to the apartment manager, but little was done, they said.

Finally, things may change. Their landlord, Mark Bent of Huntington Harbour, was convicted last week of charging rent on substandard housing. He also was found guilty of five other misdemeanor housing code violations.

Montebello Municipal Court Judge Henry Barela suggested that Bent hire professionals to install a new roof, replace all the plumbing and faucets and seal all windows and walls in the 36-unit complex before his sentencing March 30.

Montebello Deputy City Atty. Peter E. Langsfeld said he had never seen a building like Bent's apartments on Greenwood Avenue.

"There were children playing on wet carpets. The smell was appalling," he said. "Nobody should have to live like that."

Langsfeld said he will request that Bent be sent to jail and that control of the property be given to a property management company.

Bent, 72, who represented himself in the three-day trial, called the charges nit-picking. Describing himself as David to the city's Goliath in opening statements, he said, "I have my slingshot at the ready and my hands are steady."

Bent, whose affluent lifestyle became an issue at his trial, was charged with 93 misdemeanors--a number he called repetitive and capricious. During the trial, Langsfeld offered seven bags of cockroaches gathered from the Greenwood Avenue apartments into evidence.

After visiting the property, Judge Barela merged the 93 counts into 14, then found Bent guilty of allowing cockroach and mice infestations, installing unsealed windows, allowing a dirty swimming pool to remain open, ignoring leaky and substandard plumbing, allowing a leaky roof and permitting mildewed walls.

Barela went door-to-door at the apartment complex Wednesday, poking his head into bathrooms and kitchen cabinets as the tenants pointed out the poorly patched ceilings, leaky faucets and cracks where cockroaches emerge in their two-bedroom apartments. The children, two women said, suffer from chronic sore throats due to the damp carpets where they play.

The residents have lived with the vermin and moldy carpets for years, but few speak English, city officials said. Their plight was not known until it was uncovered by a city program instituted by Police Chief Steve Simonian.

NIPET--Neighborhood Improvement and Police Enforcement Team--sent police officers, code enforcement officers and inspectors from the Building and Safety Department and the County Health Department into neighborhoods targeted as trouble spots last summer.

When Meg Perry, Montebello code enforcement officer, first arrived at Bent's apartments in July, she said, she became increasingly angry as she went from one apartment to the next, collecting mouse droppings, photographing holes in the ceilings and the trails left by cockroaches.

"These people are paying $580 a month for these conditions," she said. "And most are very low-income people, too poor and too intimidated to move."

Bent, who used to work as a Health Department inspector for Los Angeles County, was told to correct a list of problems, Perry said, and was called in for a conference with Perry when he didn't comply.

Bent insisted that he and his son, Alex, were correcting the problems. Alex Bent is general manager of Bent's apartments in Montebello, Norwalk, Bell Gardens, Bell and Pico Rivera. But Perry said the repairs were poorly done, merely Band-Aids to the problems.

"Some of the work he did was so poorly done, the repairs themselves became a violation," Perry said. "The biggest problem we have with Mr. Bent is that he's cheap."

Bent typically patched old plumbing with strips of rubber and leaks in the roof with tar paper, even though additional leaks would appear, causing walls and ceilings to mildew and then virtually disintegrate, Perry said.

Bent, however, said the walls and window sills were mildewed because too many people slept in the small bedrooms, causing high humidity.

When holes appeared in the walls and ceilings, Bent patched them with plaster but did not sand or repaint the patches, tenants said.

While Bent was slapping Band-Aids on his rental properties, Perry said, he was also maintaining an expensive Huntington Harbour home with a 51-foot yacht moored at his private dock. Photographs of the boat, house, and a Mercedes-Benz, bearing the personalized license plate, "BENT," were introduced by Perry as evidence--a move Bent called "totally irrelevant."

Bent acknowledged that he had been prosecuted in Montebello once before for problems at 1249 and 1253 S. Greenwood Ave. In 1985, he pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of property maintenance violations and was sentenced to one year of probation and a $600 fine.

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