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Poor conditions at LA apartment complex despite 2,000 citations

Maintenance workers installed new vinyl in Ruth Perez’s one-bedroom apartment on floors that sag underfoot. They put a new drain pipe in a sink that always clogs. They screwed new cabinet hinges into rotting wood. And they haven’t yet bothered to replace the stained carpet or the heavy wooden closet doors that keep falling off their tracks.

“It’s just back-to-back issues,” said Perez’s 23-year-old son Yonathan, who lives with his mother and two younger siblings. “They solve one problem, then another arises. We don’t feel comfortable in our own home.

It’s been more than six months since Los Angeles city and county officials pledged to act quickly following a Times article that revealed rampant slum conditions at Chesapeake Apartments, a 425-unit complex dating back to World War II that spans several blocks in South Los Angeles. Since then, code enforcement and public health inspectors have issued more than 2,000 citations to the owner, Pama Properties, for violations including plumbing and electrical failures and infestations of cockroaches and mold.

Now, the bulk of the inspection effort appears to be conclusive, though residents are reporting ongoing issues. Tenants and activists describe the growing resentment and resignation as yet another attempt to make Chesapeake apartments safe and livable that remains unresolved.

“It frustrates tenants to go around in circles on this,” said Sergio Vargas, co-director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, which has been organizing residents of the property since the spring. “We think there should be a complete system change. Obviously, this does not work at all for tenants.

Over the past five years, county public health inspectors had found an average of more than three violations per month at Chesapeake Apartments, the most of all residential properties in LA County during that time, a Times analysis found more early this year Businesses linked to Pama Properties Chairman Mike Nijjar owns over $1 billion in real estate, mostly in Southern California, and many other properties have also had serious health and livability issues, according to a 2020 survey conducted by LAist.

Previous monitoring efforts have failed. In 2017, LA City Attorney Mike Feuer sued Pama Properties and Nijjar over crime issues at the Chesapeake Apartments, which resulted in a settlement that required the complex’s security systems to be upgraded. In late 2021, city code inspectors began an assessment of the entire complex, one required by law every two years, and gave it an impeccable bill of health.

Still, nearly two dozen new complaints came in during and after the review. Chief city inspector Robert Galardi told The Times the assessment failed, blaming challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Galardi ordered a new resort-wide assessment, which would include the county public health department, which began in June.

A large housing complex in South Los Angeles. The complex is owned by a landlord who has come under scrutiny for slum conditions in many of his Southern California buildings.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

A flurry of activity followed. The volume of citations led the owner to make fixes throughout the complex and inspectors returned several times to check on their progress. After a review found numerous instances of peeling paint, the county set up a mobile clinic to test residents for lead poisoning.

Those efforts culminated in a public hearing last month to determine whether Chesapeake Apartments would enter a program for problem landlords. Tenants whose apartments are part of the program receive rent reductions and can pay their monthly rent to the city, which holds the money in escrow to induce the landlord to make repairs. In preparation for the hearing, code enforcers said tenants at the resort could be eligible for rent reductions of 10% to 50% because of the violations.

But as the meeting began, city inspectors said the nearly 1,600 code violations originally identified had been reduced to 84 due to the repairs being made. Pama Properties representatives requested an additional month to make further improvements.

“I’ve seen a lot of these cases,” Thomas Nitti, a lawyer representing the landlord, said during the hearing. “This case was almost closed in extraordinary time.”

The hearing officer determined that Pama Properties was making good faith efforts to comply and gave him more time. Last week, City Code Enforcement and County Public Health cleared all remaining violations from the June initial review.

Jim Yukevich, another attorney for the landlord, said in a statement to The Times that the health, safety and well-being of tenants is the “highest priority” for property managers. The company, he said, has worked diligently to correct any issues raised by the city’s housing department and will continue to do so.

“We will respond as quickly as possible to anything that comes to our attention,” Yukevich said.

But for many residents, last month’s hearing was just another example of the difficulties in securing lasting repairs.

More than two dozen tenants have come forward to complain about persistent poor conditions in their units and expressed frustration with the city’s convoluted process to hold the landlord accountable.

The hearing lasted six hours on a Tuesday morning and afternoon, with the first full hour devoted to swearing in anyone who wanted to speak. The tenants said they did not know what violations had been identified in their apartments and expressed shock when they learned that the city said they had been resolved.

Angel Bivins testified during the hearing that the water in his apartment was turned off regularly, that maintenance workers had not replaced the blinds and screens on his windows and that his smoke detector did not work, among other issues.

“Would you live here or would you like your relatives to live here?” Bivins said. “If a repair was done in this way, would it be an adequate repair in your home? If the answer is no, then guess what, that shouldn’t be an adequate fix in mine either. This thing is 100% unfair.

Part of the concern stems from the continued fragmentation among those responsible for overseeing the complex. Bivens and other tenants complained at the hearing about mold in their units, only to be told the county public health department was dealing with those issues. Recent notes from city code inspectors also show that when tenants said the landlord was harassing them, they were asked to call another city department responsible for those issues.

A man shines a cell phone flashlight on a wall

Yonathan Perez removes wallpaper to show cockroach droppings inside his kitchen at Chesapeake Apartments.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

The challenge was only made greater by the upheaval at City Hall, said Vargas, the tenants’ organizer. Last fall, council member Mark Ridley-Thomas was suspended from representing the district where the Chesapeake apartments are located after a federal indictment for corruption. Ridley-Thomas’ initial replacement, Herb Wesson, was expelled in July after serving for five months when a judge ruled that city term limits prohibited him from representing the district, even on an interim basis.

Vargas said Wesson’s replacement, council member Heather Hutt, initially spoke out in favor of the Chesapeake Apartments tenants. When she met with residents shortly after taking office, Vargas said, she told them she was going to go after their landlord.

“She said, ‘I’m ready to kick Mike Nijjar’s ass,'” Vargas said.

But since then, he said, Hutt’s office has been unresponsive to tenant requests for additional meetings and has done little to help navigate the city’s bureaucracy.

“We see the council member hiding from the meeting with the tenants, with the housing department not going out and meeting with the tenants,” Vargas said. “It looks like neglect on the part of the city of Los Angeles for this vulnerable, black and brown community that is being abused by a big business owner.”

Ariana Drummond, spokeswoman for Hutt, said the board member was on vacation and unavailable for comment.

City and county officials say they have gone to great lengths to protect Chesapeake apartment tenants. Inspectors said their surveillance continued, although they had been paralyzed in part because they said many tenants were not allowing them into their homes. Last month, after obtaining warrants to enter the apartments, city and county inspectors examined another 50 units and found another 650 combined violations that remain under investigation, according to the two agencies.

“The inspection process at the Chesapeake Apartments is far from over,” said a county public health spokesperson who declined to be named in response to written questions from The Times. “Further inspections will be conducted and if the required repairs are not completed in a timely manner, public health will review all options, in conjunction with [the city]to achieve compliance.

Nonetheless, years of trouble left the Perez family cynical about improvements.

Ruth has lived in the complex for five years and her family is in their second apartment after the landlord moved them from the first because it was overrun with mould, she said. Three years ago, a rotting kitchen cabinet door fell off its hinges and hit her on the head, and her son Yonathan had to call an ambulance for help. Cabinets still need to be replaced. Only the hinges are new.

A kitchen cabinet with dirty, cracked paint and new hinges

New hinges have been installed on rotting wood after a kitchen cabinet door broke inside Ruth Perez’s home at the Chesapeake Apartments.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

“They just come and put the same things back even though everything is full of mold and messed up,” said Yonathan, who is a truck driver.

The family pays $1,017 a month in rent and Ruth recently quit her job cutting and preparing fruit at a juice bar 20 miles away after her hours were cut. She now sells household appliances and other products that she buys in bulk online or at street fairs.

The Perezes say they would leave Chesapeake Apartments if they could. But they can’t afford anywhere else.

California Daily Newspapers

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