The landlord of a residential hotel near downtown Los Angeles who was accused of trying to drive out tenants by cutting phone lines, knocking down walls and ripping out sinks in the rent-controlled building pleaded no contest this week to 10 criminal counts, the city attorney's office announced Friday.
Joon Ho Lee, 47, was placed on probation for three years and ordered to repair the building in the 100 block of East 21st Street within a year, authorities said. Lee also must perform 200 hours of community service, undergo property management training and contribute $20,000 to an approved charity.
The plea agreement "sent a strong message to slumlords that this sort of egregious behavior won't be overlooked or tolerated," said Frank Mateljan, spokesman for the city attorney's office. "This is one of the more [serious] cases that we've ever seen, where the building owner was literally tearing the building down around the tenants."
Lee's attorney could not be reached for comment.
The practice of landlords harassing low-income tenants in an effort to force them out is not uncommon, Mateljan said. For example, community activists filed a lawsuit late last year alleging that tenants of the Alexandria Hotel downtown were illegally evicted or denied basic amenities.
"It's not often we are able to send that message, that being a slumlord is not OK," said Tai Glenn, directing attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which helped represent the low-income tenants in their civil suit. The eight families who lived in the building are staying in temporary residences, paid for by Lee, while the building undergoes repairs.
Residents alleged that after Lee bought the building in September 2005, he began to demolish it "to intimidate the tenants of the building into moving out" in order to secure higher-rent occupants, according to the plaintiffs' complaint.
"I don't think that somebody that wants their tenants to stay" would remove the exterior walls, Glenn said.
According to the city attorney's office, Lee tore out windows, leaving residents exposed to the elements and hazardous levels of lead and asbestos, and stopped garbage collection. City inspectors found a slew of code violations in the building near USC.
Lee faces up to 180 days in jail if he fails to repair the building properly or sell it to an approved nonprofit group for low-income housing.
He cannot sell the building until all the improvements are complete.
Attorneys Glenn and Michelle Manzo are seeking monetary damages on behalf of the tenants and repairs of the building in an ongoing civil suit against Lee, his wife Eunsil Lee, and the building's previous owner, Alvin Lew.
Lee must continue to pay relocation costs for the displaced tenants until they can move back into the building. The tenants who lived there shared bathroom and kitchen areas and paid $200 to $400 a month in rent.
"They are definitely planning on returning," Glenn said.