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Renters, With Court's Help, Get Some Relief

Residents living in a substandard Santa Ana apartment building win $500,000 in repairs.

November 26, 2005|Susana Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

The windows are boarded up, and the gaping hole on a side wall is surrounded by graffiti.

The floors inside are uneven, carpets are stained, and electrical wires dangle from the moldy, sagging ceilings. Door and window locks are broken, and so are the plumbing and the fire alarms. Hot and cold water are a luxury, and holes in the walls serve as entryways for cockroaches and rats.

The mostly poor, Spanish-speaking residents of 333 S. Flower St. in Santa Ana had asked their landlords for repairs for years. Hoping to put pressure on them, Luis Garcia Jr. started paying half the rent. Five months later, he was faced with eviction.

So the family got a lawyer.

In an unusual action last month, Orange County Superior Court Commissioner Jane D. Myers found the 20-unit apartment building in such bad shape that she appointed a receiver to take control from owners Bruce and Judy Kao and to correct the 261 health and safety code violations that county building inspectors found.

If the owners make the repairs, they will get the building back. If they don't, the receiver can sell the property with the court's permission.

"It's very unusual for this to happen at the request of tenants," said receiver David Pasternak, an attorney.

Three contractors are in the process of submitting bids for repairs, which Pasternak expects will cost at least $500,000. The building may not be up to code until late next year, he said.

In the meantime, tenants have been told not to pay rent until the repairs are made.

Santa Ana is one of the most densely populated cities in the country, and 20% of its residences are considered substandard.

According to state law, residences must have weather protection, working plumbing and gas, hot and cold running water, heating facilities, lighting, appropriate garbage receptacles and undamaged floors, stairways and railings. It must be free from "debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents, and vermin."

"It is clear that this landlord has not done what the law requires," said Ken Babcock, executive director of the Public Law Center in Santa Ana, co-counsel for the tenants.

Before filing the lawsuit April 29, Kelly A. Leggio, another of the tenants' lawyers, said her office sent letters to the Kaos asking them to make repairs. But the little work that was done wasn't good enough, she said.

According to public records, the Kaos have owned the building since 1997.

The couple may own as many as nine other properties in Santa Ana, Leggio said. The lawyers are investigating whether there are code violations at the other properties.

City officials may seek an injunction that would prohibit the Kaos from managing their property or may file criminal charges against the couple, said Lorena Penaloza, a Santa Ana assistant city attorney.

The Kaos could not be reached for comment. Theodore Frank, an attorney who Leggio said was representing the couple, declined to comment.

Olga Lopez, 44, has lived in the building three years. She said that she asked the Kaos repeatedly for a year to replace her leaky kitchen facet. Frustrated, she replaced it herself and deducted the money from her rent.

"The owner got mad," said Lopez, who was paying $830 a month for the one-bedroom apartment. "She told me not to fix anything anymore."

She says that when she takes a shower, she doesn't know whether the water will be hot or cold -- it's never in between. And, when she finishes, she will find that the water will have leaked downstairs into her kitchen cabinets, where she uses a plastic dish to collect it.

Unlike Lopez, the Garcia family knows what to expect when they turn on the shower in their one-bedroom apartment: water so hot they have to fill the bathtub with it and let it cool before they bathe.

The family doesn't leave food in the refrigerator because the cockroaches get into it, and they don't use the kitchen sink because the pipes leak and water gets all over the floor.

The family of nine moved into the apartment more than a year ago, after the house they were renting was sold. They thought it would be temporary, but then it started raining and Garcia, a construction worker, couldn't work.

About five months ago, one of the kitchen cabinets fell on his father's head, rendering him deaf in one ear and unable to work, Garcia said.

And two months ago, he said, the oven door fell off and landed on his mother's foot.

Garcia's year-old niece breaks out in a rash whenever she rolls on the carpet, and his 4-year-old daughter was hit by a board in the hall outside their apartment and cut her forehead, he said.

"When we first moved here, the owners said they would fix everything," Luis Garcia Sr. said. "That was a lie. All this time, it's just been one lie after another."

Family members say they can't afford to move. They say that all they want is for their apartment to be fixed.

"We're worse off here than when we were in Mexico," said Lucia Garcia, who came with her husband and three children to the United States more than 20 years ago from Michoacan state.

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