Tenant Paints Harrowing Picture of|Mice and Roaches in LA Slumlord Trial

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – A resident of an L.A. apartment building on Thursday told jurors about the slum conditions his family faced under a landlord fighting a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by dozens of his former tenants.
     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 under his ownership from 2009 until 2012 they lived in studios and apartments unfit for habitation.
     Fernando Refugio, 25, took the stand in Judge Michael Linfield’s courtroom, with his two boys Fernando Jr., 6, and Hector, 5, and his wife Isabel present.
     He told the court that living in the apartment had taken an emotional and physical toll on the family.
     The younger Fernando was just a toddler when the family first lived in the unit, and he suffered rashes that covered his whole body.
     The child was vulnerable to conditions in the unit because he was born prematurely, Refugio said. Noting that Fernando Jr. was just one pound six ounces when he was born, the father said he noticed his son got sick more often after they moved in.
     “I believe this was triggered because of the feces from the mice and cockroaches,” Refugio said.
     Hector was so anxious about mice and roaches that he bit his fingers until they bled, Refugio said. His son was two years old when they first moved in.
     “For my kids, it was hard not being kids in their own house,” Refugio said, noting that he believed that Fernando Jr. got the rashes after playing on the carpet.
     “They were afraid of going into the kitchen” Refugio said. “They were afraid to encounter mice or even cockroaches.”
     He said that Haiem had leased the apartment to the family for $750 per month in March 2012, speaking of his wife’s happiness at finding an affordable apartment.
     Refugio said they paid between $200 and $300 as a down payment so the building manager could make repairs to the apartment.
     When they moved in, Refugio said the family found that the unit was still in a state of disrepair and that carpets had not been cleaned.
     The family, who slept at night in the living room, soon realized the unit was infested with cockroaches and mice, he told the court.
     He first discovered the severity of the infestation when he took out a jacket to wear to a baptism and discovered cockroaches had nested inside.
     “As I opened it they just started flying off the jacket,” Refugio told the court, adding that “there were just too many to count.”
     When he complained to a building manager, the family was told to deduct $10 per month from rent for traps, Refugio – who still lives at the property on Maple Avenue – said.
     He said he had to spend an additional $30 to $40 a month for traps and also bought a house cat called Whiskers to tackle the mice infestation.
     At night, Refugio said his children were afraid to go into the kitchen to get their sippy cups because of the mice and bugs.
     The family could hear cockroaches scratching against the aluminum foil Isabel used as a cover for the stove, he testified.
     “We could hear mice biting through wood,” he said.
     Refugio, who worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, making banners in the city of Hawthorne, often stayed up late watching his two boys.
     “They couldn’t go to sleep without thinking a cockroach would be crawling on them, or a mouse,” Refugio told Inner City Law Center’s Sonia Pflaster, an attorney representing the 91 plaintiffs alongside the firm Kirkland & Ellis.
     Isabel built a makeshift maze with boxes and wood to try and guide the mice out of the unit, Refugio testified.
     They had to throw out food and a futon stained with mice urine and droppings, he said.
     Despite the family’s complaints, Haiem did not hire professional pest control, Refugio said, noting that the present owner has eliminated the roach infestation, ripped out the dirty carpet and remodeled the family’s bathroom.
     “The damage that’s been done to us physically and emotionally is still there,” Refugio said.
     Haiem, who took the stand Tuesday and Wednesday, provided a contrasting picture to the court.
     He said he put his “heart and soul” into the building and treated his tenants like family.
     “As a reward they come and put a knife in my back,” Haiem said during a video deposition played to the jury of three women and twelve men on Tuesday.
     His lawyers at Bremer Whyte Brown & O’Meara have defended his tenure at the building, telling jurors that while it was true there were problems, tenants were partly to blame.
     They had failed to keep their apartments clean, units were overcrowded and many repairs were just cosmetic, Haiem’s attorney Kere Tickner said this week.
     On Thursday, Bremer Whyte’s Lanetta Rinehart asked Refugio if the mice infestation was under control after he bought the cat.
     “It was not dealt with but it was being dealt with,” Refugio said, confirming during cross-examination that it was four months before he bought a vacuum to clean the unit.
     Refugio told Pflaster that he collapsed and suffered an anxiety attack because of the stress of living in the building.
     “When you had your collapse, Bracha had not owned the building for more than a year, correct?” Rinehart asked.
     Refugio confirmed that he suffered the attack in 2014, after Haiem had left.
     The plaintiffs’ property management expert Stephen Donell told the court on Wednesday that tenants were exposed to raw sewage, water leaks, mold and a mice and roach infestation.
     Even though roaches are typically nocturnal, Donell said that bugs were visible at the property during the day, indicating a severe infestation.
     He said that Haiem had used a slumlord business model to lure tenants. Under that model, tenants are not required to pay a security deposit, rents are low, and landlords to do not require background checks.
     “It was an easy building to get into,” Donell told the court. “There were low barriers of entry.”
     The tenants 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.
     Testimony will continue Friday morning.

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