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SCOTT HARRIS

Betting the Rent on Apartment Complex Security

August 05, 1993|SCOTT HARRIS

If you happen to be looking for an apartment, Anna Garcia is looking for a few good tenants.

There are, in fact, about a dozen vacancies at the Roscoe Venture apartments, two perfectly decent-looking buildings that sit side by side in the 21800 block of Roscoe Boulevard in Canoga Park. Each building boasts a clean swimming pool and security gates. Anna's husband, Julio, does maintenance and quickly paints over the graffiti. What with the recession, rents have come down a bit. A two-bedroom, one-bath unit can be had for $625 per month.

All that she asks is that you don't look like trouble.

Two months ago they were hired to manage this 72-unit complex, having come to the San Fernando Valley's westside to get away from a troubled neighborhood on the Valley's eastside.

The Garcias used to manage a 27-unit complex in Panorama City, living in fear of the resident drug dealers. One night, there was a shooting. That settled it. This, they decided, was no place to raise their 8-year-old daughter, Keyla.

To their dismay, six weeks after the Garcias came to Roscoe Venture, a 16-year-old boy was found shot dead in a carport. Police described the slaying as "gang-related" and "execution-style."

*

Sometimes, Ruth Shapiro is tempted to blame all these troubles on softball.

Shapiro, president of Venture Property Management, first invited me to drop by the Roscoe Venture apartments a couple of months ago, irked by a valentine I had written to a program that was credited for reclaiming Lanark Park from Latino gangs and drug dealers by establishing a co-ed softball league.

What was good for Lanark Park, Shapiro says, was rotten for the many apartment buildings nearby. Drug merchants simply moved across the street, into alleyways and carports. Some managers have reported the discovery of condoms in their laundry rooms, raising suspicions of prostitution. At the Roscoe Venture, you need a key to do your wash.

This phenomenon had not gone unnoticed by police, who have been advising apartment managers on ways of enhancing security. But Shapiro says more help is needed.

She assured me that, at least at the Roscoe Venture, the bad tenants have been weeded out. Shapiro and Anna Garcia pointed out a front apartment where one suspected dealer set up shop and a back unit where another lived. One was evicted, the other moved out.

We paused at the carport where the boy's body was found.

"I've inquired about putting razor wire around the property," said Shapiro, surveying the cinder-block walls. "But it's really expensive."

It's hard to imagine that anyone would want to make their home within a wreath of metal designed to rip human flesh. That Shapiro even considers it is a measure of her distress.

A few months ago, Venture Properties hired a security guard to patrol the complex from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. "I don't want him to have a gun," Shapiro says. "If he shoots somebody, we'll get sued."

Better to hire guards, Shapiro says, than to lose managers who try to assume the role.

She tells of an assistant manager, a woman, who had her teeth rearranged by a gang member's fist. And the husband of Roscoe Venture's former manager was bold enough to tell loitering gang members to get lost.

Death threats created the job opening for the Garcias.

*

The Garcias and Ruth Shapiro have their guard up. Roscoe Venture used to average two or three vacancies, but now they'd rather leave units empty than rent to someone who gives off bad vibes.

"You're supposed to not discriminate," Shapiro says, "but I don't want to rent to anybody who looks like a gang member." It seems unnecessary, but Shapiro takes pains to emphasize that ethnicity is by no means an issue.

"So far, I think we have done a good job," Anna Garcia says. "All the people we have rented to, they seem very good."

Anna mentions, for example, the nice Latino couple who recently moved into a two-bedroom unit with their three children. Just as Anna worries about Keyla, they worry about their children.

A few minutes after they signed the rental agreement, they wanted to back out.

They had become frightened, Anna says, when they had ventured into the carport and discovered the little memorial, since removed, that the homeboys had erected at the spot where their friend had been killed. There had been a cross, some candles, some flowers. From a gray sponge-like material they fashioned a headstone marked R.I.P.

Anna Garcia spoke to them, parent to parent, and persuaded the family to stay. The murder, she told them, could have happened anywhere.

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