Landlord Blames Tenants in LA Slum Trial

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – A landlord testified Tuesday that tenants were partly to blame for the slum conditions of an apartment complex that they say was choked with cockroaches and infested with mice and rats.
     Two years ago, tenants of a 26-unit building in South L.A. sued their former landlord Franco Haiem and Bracha Investments in state court, claiming that from 2009 they lived in deplorable and dangerous conditions until he sold the building in late 2012.
     The cockroach infestation was so severe, the tenants say, that bugs crawled across ceilings, over their bodies as they slept in their beds and burrowed into electronics and toys.
     Ninety-one tenants, including children, families and the elderly, say they were also left without running water and lived with broken heaters, peeling lead paint and exposed electrical wires.
     Franco Haiem took the stand on Tuesday morning for the second day of trial in Judge Michael Linfield’s courtroom. He defended his tenure as owner of the building and said that he had used a professional pest control company three to four times.
     Some tenants had refused to open their doors to let pest control in, he told plaintiff attorney Ashley Parris of Inner City Law Center during direct examination.
     “It was never a problem for pest control to be there,” Haiem said Tuesday afternoon. “My hands were tied. The tenants were not cooperating with me.”
     Based on receipts submitted into evidence from the store Food 4 Less, Haiem had bought 77 cans of Raid insecticide and had been invoiced by a professional pest control company for $125.
     But he said that he had bought hundreds of cans during ownership of the building, testifying that his tenants preferred Raid to professional pest control which they perceived as too dangerous.
     In a March video deposition played to the court in the morning by Kirkland & Ellis attorney Sharre Lotfollahi, Haiem testified that he had little experience managing buildings and ran Bracha from his car.
     When Lotfollahi asked him why he thought he was qualified to manage the building, he replied with a smirk and chuckle: “Why not?”
     Haiem testified that prior to buying the building from the previous owner, infamous L.A. slumlord Frank McHugh, he had not had the building inspected.
     He also denied that any of his tenants, who he said were mostly Spanish-speaking, ever complained.
     “There was always a request,” Haiem said. “Never a complaint.”
     Haiem said that he did not pay attention to the notices he received from Los Angeles County housing and health inspectors because he believed the “whole system is corrupted.”
     He said tenants called the inspectors to give landlords a “headache” and because they wanted an excuse not to pay their rent on time.
     Haiem also testified that he looked after the building and cared about his tenants.
     “As a reward they come and put a knife in my back,” Haiem said during the deposition.
     On the stand, Haiem said that he had made a 10 percent down payment on the $1.6 million building financed by McHugh. Though he said that $20,000 of that money had come from one of his businesses, he said he did not recall how he had paid the additional $140,000.
     Testifying in front of the 15-member jury, he said he may have paid by cashier’s check.
     A common refrain during his testimony was “I don’t remember.”
     He described himself as an unsophisticated building manager, claiming that he kept all of his financial records in a box in the trunk of his car. He had kept no ledgers, income statements, records of profit or losses, and no accounting records for the business, he testified.
     “I was just one man, trying to do the best I can,” Haiem said.
     During opening arguments in the estimated 12-day trial, Lotfollahi said that the case, Chavez vs. Bracha Investments LLC, was about Haiem’s “greed and negligence.”
     She said six tenants would testify on behalf of the plaintiffs about the terrible conditions they faced each day in their apartments.
     “This case is important to each and every one of them,” Lotfollahi said.
     Guadalupe Quiroz had moved into the building on Maple Avenue after she lost her home during the financial crisis, Lotfollahi said.
     The attorney said that cockroaches had crawled over Quiroz at night and one had nested in her ear. She had to see a doctor to have it removed.
     “She could feel it squirming and writhing in her ear,” Lotfollahi said, adding that the 77-year-old great grandmother still slept with cotton in her ear, even though the new owner had killed the bugs.
     The attorney said Haiem had received 12 notices from health and housing inspectors and hundreds of citations.
     When residents complained about the rat and mice infestation, Haiem told them to deduct $10 from their monthly rent for traps or poison, Lotfollahi said.
     She estimated that of the $770 Haiem collected in rent from each unit he spent $26 per unit each month on repairs. Tenants were already spending between $30 and $40 to fight the infestations, the attorney said.
     But the landlord’s attorney Kere Tickner of Bremer Whyte Brown & O’Meara said while it was true that there were citations, tenants were partly to blame.
     She said the jury would hear testimony from county inspectors that tenants had failed to keep their apartments clean, that units were overcrowded and that many of the repairs were just cosmetic.
     She noted that Haiem was at the building every day and had gone to Home Depot to pick up materials for repairs. She added that Haiem had installed new carpet and linoleum, upgraded electrics and that all the cited issues were “fixed and resolved.”
     “Bracha and Franco Haiem did everything possible to repair and maintain the building,” Tickner said.
     The tenants are suing for negligence, breach of implied warranty of habitability, unlawful collection of rent, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
     Lotfollahi told Courthouse News this week that the tenants are seeking millions of dollars in damages.
     A first amended complaint seeks $14 million in damages but the firm said that number is not final and could change during trial.

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