LA Landlord Pleaded Poverty|in New Mercedes, Witness Says

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – A landlord faulted tenants for the slum conditions of his South L.A. apartment building and told a tenant organizer he was drowning in debt after driving her to a meeting in a brand new Mercedes, the woman testified Wednesday.
     In 2013, tenants of a 26-unit building in South L.A. sued their former landlord Franco Haiem and Bracha Investments in Superior Court, claiming that under Haiem’s ownership from 2009 until 2012 they lived in studios and apartments unfit for habitation.
     A cockroach infestation was so severe, the tenants say, that bugs crawled over their bodies as they slept in their beds and burrowed into electronics and toys.
     “First, it was the cockroaches,” 77-year-old great grandmother Guadalupe Quiroz told Courthouse News earlier this month. “And then the rats and then the bed bugs. The condition of my bathroom was that it didn’t work. The thing we were going through there was terrible.”
     Ninety-one tenants, including children and the elderly, say the slum property was stricken with exposed electrical wires, dirty hallways, water leaks, mold and vermin.
     The on-site handyman Haiem used to make repairs was often drunk on the job and his work was shoddy, the tenants claim.
     They are seeking millions of dollars in damages for negligence, breach of implied warranty of habitability, unlawful collection of rent, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
     Superior Court Judge Michael Linfield is presiding over a 12-day jury trial.
     On Tuesday, Haiem took the stand and testified that he ran Bracha Investments from his car, keeping financial records for the now-defunct business in a box in his trunk.
     The second witness, Amelia Fay-Berquist took the stand on Wednesday morning for the third day of proceedings.
     From 2009 to 2014, Fay-Berquist worked as a tenant organizer at the Inner City Law Center which is representing the plaintiffs with law firm Kirkland & Ellis.
     She told the three women and twelve men of the jury that she had first visited the apartment building in the Spring of 2011.
     At an initial meeting with Haiem at a Starbucks in downtown L.A., Fay-Berquist says that she and another Inner City Law Center colleague talked through the roach, rodent, mold and plumbing issues she had seen.
     “His response was that he wanted to fix the building,” Fay-Berquist said.
     But she also testified that Haiem blamed his tenants for the state of the building, which he had bought from notorious L.A. slumlord, Frank McHugh.
     At the end of 2011, after conditions at Maple Avenue had not improved, Fay-Berquist says she arranged a lunch meeting with Haiem. She testified that he insisted on driving her from the building to a restaurant in downtown L.A.
     “I felt like I was pleading with him,” Fay-Berquist said of the lunch meeting with Haiem. “Still nothing had been done.”
     In response, Haiem told Fay-Berquist he was “‘drowning in debt'” and wanted to sell the building, she testified.
     The former organizer told Kirkland & Ellis attorney Ben Yaghoubian she did not believe Haiem because he had driven her to the restaurant in a brand new Mercedes.
     Despite collecting $800,000 in rents while he owned the building, Haiem spent just $28,000 on repairs, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
     During her testimony Fay-Berquist talked the court through more than a dozen images she had taken during visits to the property.
     The pictures showed surfaces covered in mold and cockroach feces. One image showed a mouse sitting in a glass flower vase. In another, mice droppings were visible in a bag of rice.
     In his defense, Haiem has said that he fixed and resolved the issues identified by county inspectors.
     While cross-examining Fay-Berquist, his attorney Kere Tickner repeatedly asked the witness if she knew whether or nor Haiem had been cited for the problems depicted in her photographs, or if repair or plumbing work was going on when she took them.
     Tickner also asked Fay-Berquist if she was aware that an L.A. County inspector had testified that unit conditions had contributed to housing code violations at the building.
     Fay-Berquist told Tickner that she did not.
     Proceedings continued in the afternoon with testimony from the plaintiffs’ third witness, former housing inspector Iann Berensen.

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