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Long Eviction Saga Nears an End

Housing: Ex-custodian, family lived rent-free on Boyle Heights school property for 26 years, despite district's efforts to make him leave.

November 04, 2001|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

As squatters go, Eddie Rezendez has a sweetheart deal.

For 26 years, Rezendez and his family have lived rent-free in a two-story house on the grounds of Sunrise Elementary School.

The retired custodian has enjoyed the perk in exchange for working as a night watchman at the Boyle Heights campus.

But Los Angeles school officials fired Rezendez two years ago for failing to do his job, saying among other things that the campus was burglarized 31 times in a four-year period.

They have tried repeatedly to evict him from the house--where he lives with eight other family members and keeps eight dogs in the yard, just feet from a day care center and classrooms.

Unable to force the family out, the district is now paying Rezendez $5,000 to move by Dec. 31 in hopes of ending a two-decade saga that has left parents and school administrators worried about student safety.

In place of the three-bedroom home, officials want to build more classrooms or a parent center, or enlarge the playground for the overcrowded school.

"We're in the business of educating children, not providing housing for free," said Jose Huizar, the Eastside's newly elected school board member, who has made the issue a priority. "The real blame is on the school district for letting this happen from the get-go. We shouldn't have entered into such a contract. It makes no sense."

Rezendez, 52, doesn't understand why the district wants to kick him out. He said he performed his watchman duties well, patrolling the campus regularly as spelled out in his written agreement with the district.

"It's a big conspiracy to get rid of me," he said. "It's kind of sad to get up and leave because somebody doesn't like you. All I ever did was help people."

Rezendez shares the mustard-colored house with his wife, two grown daughters and five grandchildren.

The house, left on the property when the school opened in 1921, looks like any other on Euclid Avenue. Christmas lights hang from the outside walls. A children's slide sits in the front yard. A basketball hoop and a shed are on the side.

Rezendez's oldest daughter, Rosa, 28, said she is distraught at the thought of leaving the home where she grew up. "All we can do is pray that we'll find something [else], hopefully soon," said Rosa, who attended a neighborhood parochial school with her two sisters.

Rezendez Initially Told to Leave Site in 1982

The school district has been fighting with Rezendez over his job performance, and his right to live at the school, for nearly 20 years. District officials have assembled a three-page chronology of the events since Rezendez started watching the school in 1975.

Rezendez initially was told to leave the property in 1982, because his employment was to end, according to the chronology. But he was retained, although the circumstances surrounding that decision are unclear.

In the ensuing years, district officials say, Rezendez neglected his watchman duties, failing to report robberies at the site while letting the house deteriorate. At one point in 1984, Rezendez was asked to remove a broken-down car outside the home.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the school continued to experience vandalism and burglaries, and district officials met with Rezendez to remind him of his responsibilities.

Various administrators lodged complaints about the condition of the school, noting at one point that vagrants were present on the campus.

In 1999, the district canceled Rezendez's contract and sent him the first of several eviction notices. Officials said he ignored them all.

Rezendez said he believed that the notices were only warnings and that the ultimate decision over his family's fate would have to be made by a judge.

As Rezendez and the district have battled one another, the house has attracted attention from public officials outside L.A. Unified.

A group of parents complained to Los Angeles City Councilman Nick Pacheco earlier this year, saying they wanted the property occupied by the house used for the school, which is so crowded that some neighborhood students must ride buses to other campuses.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Department of Health cited the school district last year for poor conditions at the Rezendez home, noting problems with waste from dogs, among other things.

Officials said the property was cleaned up.

But the dogs remain a source of irritation to some in the community, who note that hundreds of students pass the fenced yard each day on their way to school.

"It's dangerous for the children," Teodoro Sanchez said Friday afternoon, as he walked his 11-year-old son home from school. "I need to feel my son is safe."

The Rezendez home has blended into the neighborhood like any other home, except for the fact that it sits behind the school's chain-link fence. Several parents acknowledged they were unaware that anyone lived at the location.

"I've never noticed the dogs when I walk with my daughter and baby," said Marva Pena, who has a kindergartner at the school. "They never bark at us."

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