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COMMUNITY NEWS: MID-CITY

WESTLAKE : Organization Fights for Tenants Rights

August 08, 1993|SANDRA HERNANDEZ

For nearly nine months, Roberto and Eva Martinez walked their children to a neighbor's home so the youngsters could shower with hot water.

The Martinezes' one-room bungalow had been plagued with problems since they moved in last September, including a broken boiler, faulty plumbing and cockroaches.

The family stayed on, occasionally calling the landlord to inquire about repairs. But last week, the couple decided it was time to get help after receiving an eviction notice after they withheld their rent on their $360-a-month unit for several days while awaiting repair work.

"We can't afford to just pick up and move," said Eva, whose family lives off the $800 a month Roberto earns as a restaurant cook. "We've looked at nearby apartments and they require about $2,000 up front to move in. We just don't have that kind of money."

Similar stories are often heard at Inquilinos Unidos, a renters advocacy group that works with Latino tenants in the Westlake and Pico-Union area. For nearly 14 years, the group has worked with people like the Martinezes who are often reluctant to challenge landlords because of language barriers or fear of deportation.

"One of the hardest parts of my job is convincing people they have rights," said Enrique Velasquez, a tenant advocate at Inquilinos Unidos.

Located at 660 S. Bonnie Brae St., the group offers bilingual information, referrals to Legal Aid groups and help in organizing tenants.

Operating on a $35,000-a-year budget, the group relies on a mostly volunteer staff and help from Legal Aid. Velasquez is its only paid employee.

"What we're trying to do is give tenants enough power so they can organize themselves and know their rights," Velasquez said.

While the group makes house calls to some buildings and holds informational clinics every Tuesday night, Velasquez says the group is trying to take on a more active role.

Inquilinos is trying to defeat a state Senate bill introduced by Sen. Quentin L. Kopp, (I-San Francisco) that would create new guidelines under which landlords could evict tenants. Under the proposal, if a tenant refuses to pay rent because a landlord has not made repairs, the tenants would have to post 20 days' rent at the time the landlord files a legal demand for payment.

Opponents of the bill, including Inquilinos Unidos and Councilman Mike Hernandez, argue that the bill would "infringe on the tenant's right to a trial and place an undue burden on low-income communities," Hernandez said.

Earlier this summer, the City Council sent a letter to state Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, saying it opposed the bill because it targeted low-income tenants.

However, Kopp and some landlord associations, such as the Apartment Owners Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, have defended the measure, saying it would save taxpayers money spent on eviction cases without discriminating against low-income tenants.

"I bet I can pick any member of the City Council and I bet no member of the City Council understands the bill or has sat down and talked to me about it," Kopp said. "It's called ignorance."

In the meantime, the Martinezes have talked to Velasquez about how to prepare for their court date. "We don't defend them, but we try and show them what they can do for themselves," Velasquez said.

Information: (213) 483-7497.

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