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City Cracks Down on Living Conditions in Housing Cluster : Inspection: Operation targets 21 owners of 80 bungalows along Western Avenue.


When Rosa Maria Gutierrez Diaz goes to get clothes for her grandchildren, she has to be careful she doesn't scoop up a handful of roaches along with tiny shirts, blouses and socks.

The insects swarm through dressers in the family's South-Central Los Angeles bungalow, scurrying through the kitchen and under the beds. "Sometimes it feels like they're carrying me," Gutierrez Diaz, 41, said through a translator Thursday as building inspectors examined the cramped quarters, which house 14 members of the extended family.

The bungalow, and Rosa Maria's place next door, were among the 80 units that inspectors from the city's health, fire and building and safety departments swept through Thursday in an operation dubbed "Slumbust Plus."

Organized by City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas after neighbors and residents complained about the conditions in the cluster of bungalows along Western Avenue between 94th and 92nd streets, the operation targets the 21 owners of the units.

"No one should have to hover over their infants to protect them from flies and roaches," said Ridley-Thomas, who led reporters through the bungalows. He said the operation would be a "full-court press to force the owners to comply with the law and display human dignity toward these tenants."

More than 60 citations were issued for violations ranging from electrical and plumbing problems to faulty foundations. Owners will face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine if they don't fix the problems, city officials said. But some of the owners say they're not to blame for the poor living conditions.

"I paid extra money for waste collectors to pick up the trash from the property, but the tenants themselves would throw garbage wherever they wanted to," Martha Figueroa, co-owner of four bungalows, said in Spanish. "I live in a rented house and I take care of it, fumigating for cockroaches or fleas when needed," said Figueroa, who owns Gutierrez's bungalow. "Many times it seems that tenants burden the landlords with 100% of the problems."

Tenants will be taught to keep the area clean, said Leo Fuller, a building inspector who added that living in substandard conditions saps tenant morale and discourages them from keeping sanitary residences. The area's upkeep is the responsibility of both tenants and property owners, he said.

Bags of rotting trash and hordes of flies clog the alleys between the rickety units. The grass in front of the bungalows has grown up to knee level, rising over more trash bags left by the sidewalk. Many bungalows have holes in the walls, and some units lack heat and have little, if any, electricity. Residents and police say the area is troubled by gangs and drug dealers as well as by rodents and cockroaches.

"If they can't do anything about it, they should tear it down," said Steve Batiste, 63, as officials toured the slum. Batiste has lived in a nearby house for 31 years, and said the dilapidated buildings used to be tidy and quiet senior citizen residences.

Inside the buildings, tenants said they were frustrated with their living conditions. Uriostosui Villanueva said she and her family of four have had to get along with no running water in their bungalow. She stopped paying the $460 rent in May. When she calls her landlord to complain about conditions, she added, he hangs up on her.

Ron Hicks, a city housing department official, said fixing the problems along Western is a daunting task. "In my other neighborhoods I don't have as dramatic a problem as I do on 92nd Street," he said, citing the "deplorable" conditions inside the buildings.

Because the buildings are technically one-family units, they are only inspected when complaints are filed, city officials said, and none have been filed until recently.

Officer Keith Thomas of the LAPD's 77th Street Division said that while he doesn't know if any residents of the bungalows are drug dealers, the area is a favorite dealing ground.

"It's a place that's bad. Dope dealers say, 'This is so run down, people wouldn't care if we live here,' " he said.

But Hector Canino, Villanueva's landlord who was cited by Ridley-Thomas as the worst offender, said he has tried to improve living conditions in the area, only to see gangs and drug dealers destroy his property and chase out residents.

"There's not a thing I can do unless I take the law into my own hands," said Canino, who added that he once spent a night in one of the bungalows to see if it was as bad as people said, and was terrified.

He complained that police have not responded to requests to stop vandals from ripping out carpeting and appliances, as well as Villanueva's water system. "I cannot have a security guard over there all day," he said, pointing out that he's no longer getting rent from his sole remaining tenant. "I don't know what to do anymore. I am not a millionaire."

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