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Ex-Landlords to Pay Millions to 19 Tenants

Three former owners of a dilapidated building in Rampart area are ordered to return rents.

August 06, 2003|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has ordered three former owners of a dilapidated apartment building in the Rampart area to pay more than $3.5 million to 19 tenants and the state -- the largest such judgment ever won by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

Under the judgment, the three must return to tenants all the rents they collected as owners of the building in the 300 block of north Park View Street. They also must pay tenants $100 for each day they occupied the building, as well as punitive damages. One tenant, for example, is to receive $86,464.

"The whole point of this lawsuit was to send a message to landlords that they can't get away with this," said Tai Glenn, an attorney with the foundation.

The judgment against Manuel Flores, Maria Montes and Sandro Sabatini caps a long legal battle over slum conditions at the 24-unit apartment building.

Attorneys representing the tenants argued that the building lacked hot water, heat, gas and electricity and was infested with roaches and rodents. In some units, ceilings and floors had collapsed and plumbing was inadequate.

"It was very difficult," said Ana Resendez, 36, a housekeeper who shared a single apartment with her three sons. "We had a lot of problems."

The bathroom ceiling caved in -- while her son was inside. Trash was piled outside the building because there was no garbage collection, she said.

She and her sons stayed because they could not find another place they could afford. "The rent is very high if you're poor," Resendez said.

Over the years, the building has been owned by several people and partnerships.

Manuel Flores owned the building a year and a half, Montes and Sabatini about a year and eight months, Glenn said. When Montes and Sabatini owned the building, construction workers began rehabilitating it. Tenants said the work was done shoddily and made conditions worse.

"They destroyed the building with us inside," said Apolinar Yanez, who shared a single apartment with his wife and three children. Yanez said the owner had asked him to move, but had not offered relocation assistance.

"My answer was, 'I'm sorry; I'm paying my rent. If you want me to leave, you know what's the law: You must pay me relocation. You have rights, and I have rights, too.' "

The work created dangerous conditions for residents. Workers did not try to mitigate exposure to dust, even after they had been warned, said Philip Shakhnis, of the Environmental Law Foundation, a plaintiff in the suit.

During the rehab, an expert tested paint chips and dust at the building and found lead levels that exceeded state and federal limits, he said.

"So people were walking around with lead-contaminated dust all over the place," Shakhnis said. "I see this building as a poster child of slum buildings. And these landlords were completely irresponsible and reckless in the way they managed the building."

New studies on lead poisoning indicate the level found at the building was enough to harm children who lived there, Shakhnis said.

Sabatini, Montes and Flores could not be reached for comment.

Investigators from the city's Slum Housing Task Force inspected and found numerous violations.

In 2000, Sabatini pleaded no contest to 10 violations of health and building safety codes; Montes pleaded no contest to three such violations. In 2001, a judge ordered Sabatini to spend 60 days living in an apartment in his building.

The lawsuit by the tenants, filed in 2001, accused the owners of maintaining a public and private nuisance, failing to maintain habitable apartments and violating Proposition 65.

Under that law, a business that exposes individuals to toxic chemicals must provide a warning.

Those that fail to do so are liable for civil penalties of as much as $2,500 a day for each day a warning is not provided.

In 2002, the building was foreclosed on and the new owner, who was not sued, paid each family $12,000 to move, Glenn said.

Yanez and his family used the money as a down payment on the house they now live in on 44th Street.

The lawsuit also named five individuals who had owned the building over the last four years. They settled for $200,000, with each tenant receiving about $10,000.

Flores, Montes and Sabatini did not join that settlement, and Judge Alan Buckner on July 29 ruled against them, Glenn said.

"The judgment was a good decision," Yanez said. "But ... we had to suffer so much. Not only us -- the children."

The judge also awarded the Environmental Law Foundation $100 per day per individual residing at the property during a specified period, an amount totaling $873,000.

Of that amount, about $654,750 is to go to the state, under the provisions of Proposition 65, Glenn said.

Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti, whose district includes the Park View building, said in a statement that "being a slumlord does not pay and will not be tolerated in the 13th District or anywhere in the city of Los Angeles."

Legal Aid attorneys will assist tenants in collecting the money from the owners, at least one of whom has filed for bankruptcy.

"I have high hopes that we will collect on this judgment," Glenn said. "It's going to be time consuming and not a simple task -- then neither was the lawsuit."

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