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'Humanitarian Service' Operator Faces Charges : Housing: Attorney who lends elderly Filipino vets money to come here is accused of slumlord violations.

June 04, 1995|LESLIE BERESTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A Los Angeles attorney who brings elderly Filipino World War II veterans into the country on credit and houses them in three aging apartment buildings he owns has been charged with criminal slumlord violations by the city attorney's office.

Salvador Paja, 65, is a native of the Philippines who owns three four-unit buildings at 4106 Oakwood St. and at 338-342 and 339-345 N. Heliotrope Drive. He was charged May 25 with 36 violations of health, fire and building and safety codes for the Heliotrope Drive buildings.

In inspections between January and April, city Slum Housing Task Force inspectors found problems that included broken heaters, a lack of hot water, missing and broken smoke detectors, exposed live electrical wiring, missing light and electrical fixtures, faulty plumbing, peeling paint, missing plaster, and cockroach and rodent infestation.

Paja said he has already made many of the needed repairs. He said he did not make them sooner because he lacked money. Paja is scheduled to appear in Division 83 of Los Angeles Municipal Court for arraignment June 15.

The attorney and landlord said he works with associate Mateo DeCaza, who scouts out impoverished veterans in the Philippines who were granted U.S. citizenship by Congress in 1990 but lack the means to travel here.

Interested veterans receive a loan of about $1,000 from Paja, covering air fare and "services" that include DeCaza's travel expenses. Once they arrive, Paja said, he houses them in his apartment buildings. As many as five men share a one-bedroom apartment.

The veterans are then loaned about $100 to last them a month until they begin receiving their Social Security checks, of which Paja collects 25% until their debts are paid off. The veterans are also charged $115 per month in rent.

Paja calls his operation a "humanitarian service," but he has become the focus of a consumer fraud investigation.

Deputy City Atty. Greg Parham, who has handled the consumer-fraud investigation for the last three months, would not disclose details. but

Deputy City Atty. Lawrence Punter, who is in charge of the slumlord case, said, "I read about this guy before, with great interest," referring to a Times article in January. "I'm glad we finally managed to catch up with him."

Paja, who learned of the slumlord charges against him after returning recently from a two-month stay in the Philippines, said he has already spent more than $40,000 repairing the buildings.

"I began these repairs in March, before I left," Paja said, pointing out fresh plaster and new electrical fixtures in the apartment he uses as his home and office in one of the Heliotrope Drive buildings. "I want my buildings to be updated to code. I have nothing to gain by not doing so."

Paja blamed the lack of hot water not on faulty water heaters but on his tenants' lack of experience using such devices.

"A lot of people don't have these in the Philippines," he said.

Paja said most of the units have already been repaired, and although some units still have faulty plumbing, missing plaster and paint stained by water leaks, new wooden outer stairs have been installed, fresh plaster covers formerly exposed wiring and the exterior paint gleams a crisp white.

He said he has fumigated for pests and has even armed his tenants with boric acid and roach traps.

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