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COVER STORY : They're Cleaning Up in Court : Neighbors Sue Landlords to Get Rid of Drug Dealers and Troublemakers

March 03, 1994|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She is an unlikely savior, an unemployed accountant leading a grass-roots crusade against drug dealers and their hangouts.

Instead of crunching numbers, Betsy Bredau spends her days teaching frightened residents how to reclaim their streets. Neighborhood block captains revere her. Long Beach politicians refer constituents to her. Police chiefs in other cities want to pick her brain.

Her message is simple: It's up to property owners to get rid of drug dealers and other troublemakers. If they don't, neighbors will take those owners to court and probably win thousands of dollars in damages.

What began as Bredau's fight to clean up a drug-infested duplex on her street has ballooned neighborhood-by-neighborhood into a new war on drugs in Long Beach. In eight months, she has helped residents win more than $53,000 in judgments.

In some instances, just the threat of a lawsuit has prompted owners to act, neighborhood leaders say. At least 13 landlords have voluntarily fixed up their buildings or evicted problem tenants after Bredau contacted them.

Some landlords complain they are being punished for a problem that is beyond their control. But police say Bredau has found an effective way to clean up trouble in neighborhoods. Community groups that have worked with her say they see results in weeks, a fraction of the time it can take the city to clean up buildings with suspected drug activity.

"She's made certain blocks in the city safer," said Lt. Don First, who is in charge of community policing for the Long Beach Police Department's south division. "To my way of thinking, she has accomplished a great deal."

Bredau gets landlords' attention by hitting them where they are most vulnerable--in the pocketbook.

Residents in a neighborhood near Bixby Park recently won $25,000 after a judge concluded that the owner of a building at 465 Almond Ave. had ignored complaints about frequent gunfire and people openly drinking and smoking marijuana, among other things.

Karen DeYoung, who lives next door to the two-story apartment building with wrought-iron bars over the windows, said she frequently cleared hypodermic needles and used condoms from her driveway.

Residents said the landlord, Bunrith Lor, ignored their complaints. Frequent visits by police also failed to deter the criminal activity, they said.

They sought help from City Councilman Alan S. Lowenthal, who referred them to Bredau. She told the group to keep detailed logs of incidents at the building for at least a week. The residents documented several incidents, including shots fired and suspected gang members loitering in front of the building.

Bredau sent Lor a stern letter asking that he hire a security guard and get rid of problem tenants, even if it meant paying them to leave. When Lor did not respond, the residents took him to Small Claims Court, alleging that the incidents had created a public nuisance.

"Our situation was so dangerous that we knew we were heading for a (deadly) shooting," said DeYoung, 41, who sent her 17-year-old son to live with relatives in Arizona for two months last summer. "It was either get help or go to one of our own funerals."

Lor, who lives in Cypress, said he could not afford to meet the group's demands, but that he has been evicting problem tenants since he took over the building last May. He also said he cannot afford to pay the judgment, and has appealed. Nevertheless, Lor and the community agree that much of the trouble has been eliminated.

Bredau's approach is patterned after a program developed five years ago by an Oakland resident.

The idea was to take property owners to Small Claims Court, where it costs just $15 to file suit, cases are heard within 30 days and individual judgments can reach $5,000. Several residents could file suit, increasing the potential amount of awards. Litigants may not be represented by an attorney unless the case is appealed to Superior Court.

In Oakland and other cities in the San Francisco Bay Area, resident groups have won more than $760,000 in judgments since 1989, said Molly Wetzel, founder of Safe Streets Now!, the organization that pioneered the strategy.

Bredau read about Wetzel's group in a newspaper article while experiencing problems in her neighborhood near Bixby Park about two years ago. Cars cruised the street at all hours, stopping at a run-down duplex across from Bredau's Rose Avenue house. Strangers milled around--drinking, fighting, yelling at neighbors.

For months, Bredau, who lives with six cats and two dogs, had complained to the property owner, but he ignored her pleas, she said.

She frequently called police, who made two drug-related arrests. She even confronted the strangers, who threatened her and heaved bricks through her windows in the middle of the night, she said. She keeps photos of the damage.

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