The Los Angeles city attorney's office Wednesday filed 34 criminal charges against a landlord who allegedly removed pipes, tore out windows and cut off power to his building south of downtown, putting his tenants' health and safety at risk.
The charges, which could send Joon Lee and his wife, co-owner Eun Sil Lee, to jail for up to 17 years if they are convicted, follow a lawsuit filed by the tenants accusing Lee of waging an illegal campaign to drive them out of their graceful but dilapidated building to replace them with higher-paying residents in a gentrifying area.
"This is one of the worst cases this office has seen in a long time," City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said. "You could see windows gone, and children were there, with open windows with drops of up to three stories."
But Lee, who said he bought the building last year as a retirement investment, said Wednesday that he was the one being victimized by unreasonable tenants and a "communistic" city bureaucracy.
"I purchased the building. I tried to remodel. The tenants stopped me," he said.
The tenants then teamed up with activist lawyers, who in turn pressured the city to keep him from making improvements, he said.
"They tied my hands, and now they are playing with me," he said. "I feel like I'm a victim."
It is a conflict that advocates say is occurring -- although not always so dramatically -- in buildings in gentrifying neighborhoods across the city.
Many landlords could get far more rent on the open market than they can charge longtime tenants under the city's rent stabilization laws, which limit rent increases to 4% a year for many buildings constructed before 1978.
Some property owners, meanwhile, contend that the rent control law is unjust, depriving them of property rights and forcing them to subsidize tenants who could pay more.
Still, Delgadillo said what happened at 103 E. 21st Street is a crime.
"These individuals ... started ripping the building apart and put these tenants in a deplorable situation," he said. "You're breaking the law. You're criminals. And we hope you will receive your just deserts."
Built in 1904 as a residential hotel, the 15-unit building near USC was never particularly nice.
It was home to immigrant families and was also littered with crack vials and sometimes used as a place of prostitution.
Some of the most recent tenants paid $200 a month or less.
A previous owner was also charged with several criminal violations three years ago, Delgadillo said, but then brought the building back up to code.
Lee bought it last year. He said he wanted to remodel it to make it nice.
Tenants complained that the landlord ripped out pipes, forcing them to put buckets under the sink.
Then workers tore the siding off the facade and ripped out windows, bringing drafts of cold air, they said. Lead paint dust filled the air, and cockroaches ran wild.
Many tenants left, but several families refused to go. In October, after teaming with the tenants rights group Strategic Actions for a Just Economy and lawyers from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and the private law firm McDermott Will & Emery, they sued.
Delgadillo said his office found out about the building from tenant advocates and media reports.
The Lees are scheduled to be arraigned Feb. 27.
Joon Lee said his lawyer is out of town.
If convicted, the couple could face six months in jail for each of the 34 counts -- although it is unlikely they would serve that much time.
They could also be ordered to pay more than $100,000 in fines.
That does not include penalties that could come as a result of the tenants' civil case, which has not yet gone to trial.
On Dec. 5, the city's housing department relocated the remaining tenants. Today Delgadillo said officials will recommend that no one enter the building because it poses a safety risk.