By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Cracks and even gaping holes in the walls were getting larger. Windows and doors no longer fit in their frames, and the sound of bending wood was making ominous creaking noises.
Right before the building actually buckled on the morning of December 8, Pineda jumped on the phone to the city’s Department of Building and Safety to plead for help. ”I was on the phone, I had a child on each side of me, and the ceiling fell on top of us,“ she recalls. ”It was fast.“
After hoisting her kids out a broken window to safety, Pineda began frantically searching the wreckage for her husband, who had stepped out to smoke minutes before the disaster. Suddenly and with horror, Pineda saw an arm sticking out of a pile of rubble, the rest of the body buried beneath.
”I recognized his shirt,“ she says with an aching calm. Right away, she knew she was dealing with ”the worst.“ Juan Francisco Pineda, her husband of 12 years and the family‘s sole breadwinner, had been crushed to death.
It’s been more than two months since the tragedy, and Pineda is now hunting for work and a place to live. She describes her 3-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter as ”terrified and traumatized. They don‘t ever want to be alone.“ As for her own mental health, ”I’m doing my best to be strong so my children don‘t see me sad,“ she says, ”but I’m destroyed within.“
The LAPD‘s Robbery-Homicide Division, which is handling the investigation, has yet to release its report on the precise cause of the 1601 W. Park Ave. collapse, which not only killed Pineda, but injured dozens and left more than 90 people homeless just weeks before Christmas.
However, residents of the now demolished 77-year-old building are not waiting for the city to take action. They believe the 24-unit complex, which had been cited in 1998 for numerous code violations, including a damaged foundation, finally buckled under from neglect.
Last week the tenants filed suit against the owners of the building, who they claim failed to maintain conditions that were safe and habitable and then tried to hide their ownership to escape responsibility. Pineda is seeking damages for the wrongful death of her husband, while the other tenants are suing for injuries sustained in the building collapse, as well as for suffering endured simply from living in the building before it went down.
The picture residents paint is one of typical slum despair and disrepair: persistent rat, cockroach and flea infestations, structural problems, damaged flooring, broken windows, defective water and gas pipes, crumbling walls and ceilings, faulty plumbing, inoperable smoke detectors, and unreliable heating and hot water.
”The cockroaches were everywhere -- they laughed at us,“ describes resident Judith Perez, who lived in a single apartment with six other adults. When she complained about the roaches, broken faucets and an infestation of flies from the garbage outside, the manager ”never paid any mind.“
Los Angeles has a long history of slum housing problems and one of the toughest code-enforcement programs in the nation. Despite aggressive laws, the Echo Park collapse epitomizes the city’s failure to hold landlords accountable for protecting the low-income tenants who live in their buildings.
In fact, because of a practice called ”property flipping,“ city officials frequently are foiled in their attempts to prosecute owners of problem buildings. When dilapidated dwellings do draw the attention of the city, landlords often transfer deeds to building managers, new slumlords, unsuspecting tenants or fake corporations.
The Echo Park tenants believe they were victims of just such a property-flipping scheme. Police investigators and other city officials also acknowledge that they had a tough time in the days after the collapse determining exactly who owned the building and who might be responsible for Pineda‘s death.
The landlords named in the tenant lawsuit are brothers Barry and Daniel Wallman, who own and operate several apartment properties in Los Angeles. Also named is Desiderio Martinez, an alleged tenant of the Echo Park building, listed on the deed as the owner at the time of the collapse, but who lawyers at the Inner City Law Center and two private firms will try to prove is actually a fictional straw buyer.
The Wallman brothers, partners in the real estate companies City Properties, Manhattan Apartments and Wallman Enterprises, first purchased the two-story, Mission-style wood-and-stucco complex on Park Avenue in 1986.
In the years since then, the Department of Building and Safety has issued numerous orders to repair various problems. In September of 1998, investigators discovered a crack in the building’s foundation, along with a litany of violations, including broken windows, chipped paint, damaged steps, missing smoke detectors, leaking roofs, as well as electrical, heating and plumbing violations.
When the Wallmans failed to promptly correct the problems, the city attorney hauled them into a hearing in May of 1999. One month later, the Wallmans transferred the building‘s deed to Martinez, whose address was listed as Apartment No. 201 in the building. The lawsuit labeled this move ”a transparent effort to continue to reap income from the property while avoiding civil and criminal liability.“
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