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Tenants' Lives Upended in Blaze

Families displaced by Westlake building fire suspect their savings went up in flames.

June 07, 2005|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

Delia Garcia stepped out of her single-room Westlake apartment to take her daughters to nearby MacArthur Park for paleta popsicles Sunday afternoon. She had $10 in her pocket.

A short while later, she looked back to see smoke and flames spewing from the top of her building at 720 S. Westlake Ave. She raced to the building but was unable to get inside.

"Shoes, backpacks, everything. My daughter lost her glasses. Without glasses she can't do anything; $350 they cost me," Garcia, 45, said Monday.

Her family also probably lost its entire savings, about $4,000, although for much of Monday, Garcia was not able to get back inside the building to check.

It was out of custom -- "and out of ignorance too" -- for Garcia and many of her undocumented neighbors to keep their savings in cash in order to avoid banks, she said.

"What's going to happen?" she asked Monday.

The fire that gutted the top two floors of the crowded three-story apartment building on Sunday in the immigrant-heavy district west of downtown left no one seriously injured. Two firefighters escaped injury after falling through the roof while fighting the blaze, fire officials said.

The blaze left more than 250 tenants with troubling questions about where to relocate and how they would rebuild their lives.

"We're out on the street now," said Pedro Carlos, 23, an immigrant from Mexico City who works in construction. "We don't know if they're going to give us help, where we're going."

Carlos sat with his wife on the grimy sidewalk in front of the building Monday as firefighters led tenants one by one into the building to collect small belongings in donated plastic trash bags.

Residents returned carrying plastic jugs filled with quarters, bags of clothing and bedding, piles of papers, a cage holding a pack of rabbits -- a few of them already dead -- and a bowl of hardy turtles in shallow water.

Word spread quickly among the tenants outside the building that one man was able to salvage his life savings, $8,000. He quickly left the area holding a heavy leather knapsack.

Another displaced tenant, Antonio Jaurez, also of Mexico City, said he and two roommates who shared a single room probably lost $2,500 in cash. They pooled their money to send back to their parents in Mexico every month. They didn't use banks "because we don't have IDs," Jaurez said.

Authorities were still investigating the cause of the blaze, but were able to determine that it started on the third floor, possibly due to an electrical problem, said Los Angeles Fire Department spokeswoman Melissa Kelley.

Fire Station No. 11 is two blocks away on 7th Street, and crews responded quickly and were able to prevent the fire from spreading to the building's first floor or to neighboring buildings.

Still, city inspectors declared the building uninhabitable.

Many tenants said the fire was the culmination of neglect and abuse on the part of the building's owner, Ramin Akhavan, and manager, Victoria Jacobo. Some residents said that as many as eight people were crammed into single rooms.

Akhavan could not be reached for comment.

"I'm on the street now too, just like them," Jacobo said Monday, dismissing tenants' accusations that she had ignored repeated requests for repairs, fumigation and hot water. "The owner hasn't shown his face," she added.

Akhavan was apparently out of town when the fire struck. His wife, Aida, donned a heavy yellow firefighter's jacket and helmet to inspect the building Monday. "I'm just here for support," she said.

The Akhavans are the latest owners of the building, which has 82 rooms and 31 bathrooms, and is officially designated a "hotel-motel," according to county records. Rents range from $280 to $630 a month, Jacobo said. She said she now feared for her safety after several tenants threatened her Monday morning, demanding that their June rent be returned.

The building is in one of the most densely populated areas in the nation. The area ranks in the top 1% of census tracts in the United States, according to the 2000 U.S. census. The bulk of residents in the area are from Central America and Mexico, most of whom arrived in the 1990s. More than a fifth of households in the area have five or more members, and the median household income is $15,369, according to the census.

The American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles set up a temporary shelter at John Marshall High School in Los Feliz and pledged to keep it open until all the displaced tenants found alternative housing.

Tony Perez, a spokesman for City Councilman Ed Reyes, said the councilman would push a motion in the council today to secure about $600,000 in relocation funds for the Westlake tenants.

"Unfortunately, we're not completely unfamiliar with these kinds of things in our district," Perez said. "When you have the density levels we have, the age of the housing stock, a lot of things can combine to make these fires."

Many displaced tenants said their primary concern was recovering whatever they could from the building. "We live there out of necessity," said Ernestina Manriquez, 70, of Guatemala. "We're the ones who work, and we have to eat and pay rent."

Times staff writer Andrew Wang contributed to this report

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