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South L.A. tenants forced to vacate building on short notice

Residents say the city ignored complaints about poor condition of the South L.A. apartment complex they are being forced to leave.

April 03, 2014|By Emily Alpert Reyes and Tim Logan

Dozens of tenants are being forced to vacate a South Los Angeles building amid complaints that the city should have acted sooner to help people relocate from the squalid and dangerous apartments.

In recent years, the Hoover Street commercial building was converted into dozens of apartments, prompting a complaint to the city six months ago. But when the city ultimately forced the building to be vacated, its tenants were given little time to leave.

A Los Angeles Fire Department order said they had to be out by Friday, citing "unsafe buildings" and "structural hazards." The March 20 order was not posted at the building until March 27, according to the Inner City Law Center, a legal services group that has been assisting the displaced residents.

Many tenants were scrambling to gather their possessions Thursday before news came that Councilman Curren Price had stepped in, asking the Fire Department to give residents a two-week extension to evacuate while the city secured money to help them relocate.

"In the meantime, we are going to hold this property owner accountable for making sure his space is kept safe and clean until residents evacuate," Price wrote in a statement Thursday. A Fire Department spokesman said the building was being checked hourly to make sure there were no fire hazards.

Residents complained that the building has been deteriorating for months, citing mold and water damage from a leaky hot water heater and broken window locks that led to thefts. Some apartments were windowless. Others were already boarded up. Only three showers served an estimated 42 residents, according to the law center.

Many residents suffer from physical or mental disabilities that crimp their income — part of what drew them to the dilapidated building off Hoover Street in the first place, renting rooms for up to $600 a month. One apartment door bore a sticker: "Every day is a gift."

When Patricia McDowell moved in 2½ years ago, "I'd lost my job. I had no place to go," she said. When she found out she had to leave, "I knew I had to start all over again."

According to Los Angeles County property records, the building is owned by a holding company with an address in Santa Monica. Its registered agent is Ron Perlstein, a real estate broker whose firm, Danco Housing, listed the building for sale on its website in February for $895,000. Perlstein did not return calls for comment Thursday. Calls to a phone number advertising rooms for rent in the building also were not returned.

Los Angeles tenants who are forced to move out of a rental for at least a month are eligible for up to $19,000 in relocation aid, which the city collects from the property owner through a lien if necessary. The Housing and Community Investment Department has a fund for emergency cases like this one. But with so many tenants involved — most of whom are expected to be eligible for the full $19,000 — the payout is large enough to require City Council approval.

Housing Department Assistant General Manager Robert Aldape said his agency was working with the council to push the measure through quickly. Price said he would introduce a motion Friday to allocate the relocation money.

Francisco Covarrubias, director of tenant organizing for the Inner City Law Center, argued that the Department of Building and Safety had dropped the ball, letting problems at the building fester until the Fire Department had to abruptly order tenants out.

"They sat on this," Covarrubias said.

Building and Safety spokesman Luke Zamperini said that although the department had repeatedly handled complaints against the Hoover Street building, the first complaint about "its present illegal use" was received in September, triggering an order to the property owner in October and a hearing in March.

The department "has given this case high priority and has been working as a team with the Fire Department, the City Attorney and the County Health Department to protect the building's occupants while maintaining the due process requirements of the law," Zamperini wrote in an email.

Before the tenants learned they could stay a bit longer, Yolanda Davis and Richard Goward had set up a yard sale to scrape together some cash. More than a dozen pairs of Davis' shoes lined the grass in front of the sidewalk.

"What we don't sell, I guess we'll take with us," Davis said.

emily.alpert@latimes.com

tim.logan@latimes.com

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