South L.A. Tenants Allege Slum Conditions

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – The German cockroach infestation was so severe, a mother sprayed insecticide on her children’s bed. When it rained at night, water dripped into a sleeping tenant’s bedroom. Mice and rats were a common sight.
     These were the indignities poor, Spanish-speaking families say they had to endure in their studio and one-bedroom apartments in a building in south L.A. Their complaints went ignored. Instead, they say, their landlord would greet them with three-day eviction notices.
     “First, it was the cockroaches,” said Guadalupe Quiroz in a downtown law office, with another tenant, Georgina Najera, sat to her left. “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.”
     Through an interpreter, Quiroz said she paid $600 for a studio apartment while living in the dirty and dangerous conditions, and frequently had to go without running water.
     Now, the two elderly Mexican women are hoping their former landlord Franco Haiem and his company Bracha Investments will compensate them for the time they lived in the building from 2009 to late 2012.
     They are joined by close to 90 tenants who claim their landlord ignored the rat and cockroach infestation plaguing residents.
     Tenants paid up to $1,100 to live in the 26-unit building on 2108 Maple Avenue, according to their attorneys at the Inner City Law Center, and Kirkland & Ellis.
     After two years of litigation, their claims for negligence against previous building owners will be heard during a 12-day jury trial that begins this week in Superior Court Judge Michael Linfield’s courtroom in downtown L.A.
     On Monday morning, Quiroz and Najera were present, along with more than a dozen other plaintiffs, as attorneys for both sides made opening statements to prospective jurors.
     Inner City Center attorney Ashley Parris said that despite collecting $800,000 in rents, Haiem spent $28,000 on repairs to the building that was cited hundreds of times.
     As Parris spoke, Haiem was seated to her left, wearing a baggy, brown suit jacket and gray pants. He is expected to take the stand as the first witness on Tuesday.
     His attorney Kere Tickner of Bremer Whyte Brown & O’Meara said while it was true that there were citations, tenants contributed to the conditions. At times, up to nine people could be found in a single unit, she said.
     “Each and every one of those citations were corrected,” Tickner said, adding that Haiem had personally gone to Home Depot to buy materials to make repairs.
     Before a lunch break, Tickner asked Linfield to declare a mistrial and discharge the jurors.
     The attorney said she took issue with the judge’s introduction to jurors in which he had mentioned several historical figures, including Martin Luther King Jr., labor leader Cesar Chavez, civil-rights figure Elizabeth Jennings Graham and Japanese-American Fred Korematsu.
     Tickner called the statements biased and prejudicial against Haiem, “a white male.”
     Linfield denied the motion.
     The attorney declined to comment during the lunch break. Bremer Whyte Brown & O’Meara did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
     “We always try to work with landlords prior to suing them. These were landlords who knew what was happening but just didn’t care,” said Sonia Pflaster, an attorney specializing in housing litigation at the Inner City Law Center.
     During an interview at the Kirkland & Ellis office in early April, Pflaster said that conditions for the families in the apartment building are still harsh but getting better.
     The vermin and cockroaches were gone and the new owner had started to remodel the apartments to remove mold, and rat and bug feces, she said.
     A July 2013 lawsuit also named an entity called 2108 Maple, which owned the building ten months before the tenants filed suit. Maple has reached a confidential settlement in the case, according to Kirkland & Ellis.
     Los Angeles County Health Department Inspector reported in 2011 that the cockroach infestation was so bad the bugs had crawled over tenant’s bodies and into their ears, the tenants say.
     “These vermin spawned in plaintiffs’ refrigerators, electronics, children’s toys and beds and left plaintiffs’ food and possessions choked with roaches,” the 42-page complaint states.
     Building owners were cited from the mid-2000s, the tenants say, but failed to bring the building up to code.
     Tenants say they were left without running water and out-of-commission bathrooms, broken heaters, peeling lead paint, broken smoke detectors, and inferior electrical wiring.
     Kirkland & Ellis attorney Sharre Lotfollahi said a mother who lived in the building had testified in a deposition that she sprayed insecticide on the bed where her children slept.
     “She obviously knew it wasn’t healthy to be around that much Raid,” Lotfollahi said during the interview at her firm’s offices with Pflaster and Parris. “Their backs were against the wall. They did whatever they could with the limited means that they had.”
     Pflaster said Haiem had bought the apartment building from Frank McHugh, a landlord who was criminally convicted and forced to sell his buildings.
     “What is striking to me is that my clients will say the building wasn’t as bad, their lives weren’t as bad, under McHugh – who we know is one of L.A.’s most notorious slumlords,” Pflaster said.
     Quiroz, who lives in a studio apartment with her son, said the high costs of relocating prevented her from leaving.
     “In order to move you need two months’ worth of rent,” Quiroz said.
     Pflaster said the defendants had targeted low income families “knowing that these were people who wouldn’t go to the government and wouldn’t complain.”
     Parris said her clients are victims of a “slumlord model.”
     “You’re targeting folks who you know maybe are low income, maybe undocumented. And you
     make them afraid that they will lose their housing – that they will be living on the streets with their children if they complain to a government agency,” Parris said.
     The tenants are suing for negligence, breach of implied warranty of habitability, unlawful collection of rent, nuisance, retaliation, premises liability, unfair competition, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.     
     Lotfollahi told Courthouse News on Monday 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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