YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Inspector Calls Again in Boyle Heights

After complaints by landlords led to a moratorium in the area, housing officials are back to checking rentals for code violations.

November 30, 2005|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

The city housing inspectors were almost done looking for code violations. They had peered under the kitchen sink for leaks and tested the fire alarms, moving from room to room while the tenant restrained her snarling Chihuahua.

Mostly they found minor violations at the Fairmont Street home. Then inspectors Carlos Pelaez and Javier Melendez descended a dark stairway in the hall. Below they found an apartment cleverly constructed from the outside to look like a garage.

"This is illegal," Melendez said, sweeping his flashlight from side to side and then making a note.

Boyle Heights is undergoing its first round of systematic code inspections after a two-year moratorium. Every rental unit in the city is supposed to be inspected once every three years, but inspections in Boyle Heights ground to a halt under heavy pressure from landlords. They complained that too often, enforcement resulted in prohibitively expensive repairs or the ousting of their tenants.

"In Boyle Heights there is a concentration of a type of housing design that has often one house in the front and a couple of units in the back," said Mercedes Marquez, general manager of the Los Angeles Housing Department. "It is not unusual for an elderly couple to live in the front and rely on the income from the units in the back to supplement their income. There was great fear about what would happen if they had to spend money on fixing those units."

So working with former Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, the Housing Department agreed to revamp the program. Today the process is far less adversarial and complaints have plummeted. What has not changed, however, is the upheaval in the lives of people who live in one of the city's poorest and most-crowded communities. Every week now in Boyle Heights, families learn in the flick of a flashlight that their home is illegal and they have to leave.

"I had a family of six that literally was on the sidewalk with all their belongings," said Leonardo Vilchis of Union de Vecinos, a grass-roots tenant-advocacy group. The family had been warned it would have to move, but finding an apartment they could afford was difficult, he said. "They had nowhere to go and I drove them around for hours until we could find some place for them."

In a community where 75% of residents are renters with a median income of $22,652, housing is a source of community tension. One-third of the population lives below the poverty line, and the competition for affordable living space is keen.

Complaining about squalid conditions can have a negative result, as tenant-rights activist Guadalupe Lopez found out.

She had marched in the streets of Boyle Heights, speaking out about the indignity of living in cramped conditions. Four families share the one apartment she lives in -- each living in a bedroom and sharing the one kitchen and one bathroom.

But the building where she lives had been inspected before the moratorium and was not eligible for another. So she filed an individual complaint, as she had been taught to do by Union de Vecinos. Pelaez went to inspect.

The home was filled with code violations, he said, but the entire apartment was illegal. The tenants would have to leave.

"Now we don't know where to go," said Lopez, who has lived in the Mott Street home for seven years. Where else can they live for $350 a month?

Gilberto Lopez, 58, lives in the illegal garage apartment inspectors found beneath the stairs. He was not home at the time, but later he eagerly welcomed company.

The inside is more garage than apartment, with concrete floors and walls and exposed piping. Machine parts and the lawnmowers Lopez uses for work fill much of the space. A bed is off to one side and a chair sits in front of the television. A dozen empty beer cans nestle at his feet.

No one has told him he'll have to leave, he said, so he plans to stay.

Although much has changed about the program in terms of outreach, part of its success, housing officials say, is that the rules are clear and apply to everyone. Landlords have 60 days to bring their property up to code or pay to relocate tenants. Some extensions are granted. Families receive $3,000 for relocation, senior citizens $8,000.

A typical inspection takes about 15 minutes. Inspectors ask tenants about problems -- roaches, mold, electricity -- then check for themselves. And there are landlords who welcome the inspections.

Landlord Virgin Guerra smiled as she greeted Pelaez and Melendez and watched as they checked her Boulder Street units. Melendez was mostly pleased with what he found.

"I've got a security bar release," he said, checking a window, "I've got smoke detectors that work."

What minor repairs it needed could be done by her electrician husband, Guerra said.

"As far as I'm concerned, they're a long time coming," said Rene Chavez, a landlord and member of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council. "The reality is it's going to meet resistance [only] by those landlords who are not being responsible."

At the outreach meetings, many landlords wanted to know if property could be brought up to code before inspection, and whether they would be forced to relocate their tenants, Pelaez said. Not all were upset at the prospect.

One beaming man asked whether he would have to evict his mother-in-law from the illegal garage conversion on his property.

"Because if the city makes me," he said, smiling, "I'll do it."

Los Angeles Times Articles