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Turning Up Heat on Slumlords

L.A. City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo says owners of substandard property will pay a price. Critics say some landlords are wrongly prosecuted.

August 24, 2003|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

For years, housing advocates have complained that the Los Angeles city attorney's office was being too soft on slumlords, too hesitant to prosecute property owners who ignored warnings about cockroach infestations, bad plumbing, faulty wiring and leaky roofs.

Now, it seems, slumlords have reason to be wary.

Last month alone, the office charged the owners of 11 buildings in the MacArthur Park area with violating fire, building and safety and health codes.

Also in July, a judge sentenced a landlord to 90 days of house arrest in her Pico-Union building. Another owner was sentenced to 45 days in jail this month for his failure to correct deficiencies at a building on King Boulevard in South Los Angeles.

"I'm really hopeful that this time around we are going to see some results from the city attorney," said Clemente Franco of the nonprofit Inner City Law Center. "It seems to be a higher priority for this administration than it was for the previous one. The advocate community is looking at this with cautious optimism."

The case against landlords in the MacArthur Park area is part of an effort to improve housing conditions all over the city, said Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo.

This week Delgadillo is expected to name Victor Sofelkanik the director of the office's Slum Housing Task Force. It had been headed by Bill Cullen.

"We need to ensure that slumlords face stiff penalties, including jail time, if they fail to comply with orders to repair life-threatening and unsanitary conditions," Delgadillo said.

Critics argue that the prosecutions are still just a fraction of what the city attorney's office could do. Their hope, though, is nearly universal.

"I'm hoping we can ride this momentum into a whole new era," said Tai Glenn, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

Not everyone views the increased prosecutions as a positive step. The approach can unjustly penalize some property owners who are victims themselves, said Harold Greenberg, a lawyer who represents about 25 owners facing criminal prosecution.

"It is easy to target a landlord," Greenberg said. "When is the last time they have targeted a tenant from hell who makes life miserable not only for the landlords but for the other tenants?"

The city attorney and housing advocates share an interest in addressing the slumlord problem, but they approach it with different tools. The city attorney can prosecute landlords who fail to maintain property, who raise rents illegally or carry out illegal evictions. Advocacy groups can sue. But such cases tax the resources of the nonprofit organizations and often lack the impact of criminal prosecution.

"Often, with really bad landlords, they tend to not curtail their abusive practices just by a civil attorney filing a civil lawsuit," said Chancela Al-Mansour Matthews of Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County.

For that reason, advocates push for criminal charges against scofflaw landlords, saying they help to preserve the housing stock and keep the most vulnerable tenants housed.

"The city attorney's role in enforcing housing law is crucial," said Elissa Barrett, director of the Sydney Irmas Housing Conditions Project at Bet Tzedek Legal Services. "The housing market is so tight and the incentive for abuse is so high that the city really has to be serious about enforcing its laws."

A year ago, Coalition L.A. took matters into its own hands after its review of the 1st and 10th council districts revealed a large number of buildings that city Housing Department inspectors had cited for code violations -- in some cases years before -- but whose owners had never made repairs and had never faced penalties, said Darla Fjeld, executive director of Coalition L.A.

Members of the advocacy group visited buildings, educated tenants and called on landlords to make repairs. They also asked inspectors to reinspect and document whether work was done. Now, nearly all of the buildings have been repaired or are undergoing the work, she said.

"Our strategy is to shine the light on these bad zones to show the city attorney and the Housing Department that this can be done and that the problem isn't with the laws, but the number of inspections and the number of prosecutions," Fjeld said.

Gary Blasi, a UCLA law professor and expert on housing issues, said the Slum Housing Task Force under then-City Atty. James K. Hahn had been "reasonably effective, especially in comparison to other cities." But the task force was created to go after the worst and the biggest buildings, letting other offenders fall off the radar.

"In a city with a million apartments, there's still a lot of apartments that don't qualify for the task force," he said.

Blasi conducted a survey of cases when the city attorney's office was headed by Hahn, now the mayor. At that time, the office averaged about 60 prosecutions each year, with about 100 open cases at any given time.

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