By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
According to records in the County Assessor’s Office, the building was sold to Martinez for a paltry $20,000 despite an assessed value of more than half a million dollars. Tenants say they have never heard of Martinez, and the building‘s on-site manager, Felipe Ordonez, occupied the apartment listed as his address.
Meanwhile, Dan Wallman applied for permits to fix the building, naming himself as the owner as recently as last March, well after the recorded sale date. The Wallmans also allegedly continued to collect rent from the tenants; they visited the building days before the collapse, and an insurance company representing them appeared on the scene after the building caved in, according to lawyers for the tenants.
Police have been unable to locate the building’s alleged buyer, Martinez, and LAPD Detective Otis Marlow contends, ”There‘s no such person.“
Unfortunately, the Echo Park ownership mess is not an isolated incident. It’s fairly simple for building owners to shield their identities, and the worst slumlords work the system to avoid getting caught.
Newly elected state Assembly Member Jackie Goldberg last week introduced legislation that she hopes will put a dent in the slumlord armor. Modeled on a similar Arizona law, the bill calls for a statewide registry of owners of any multiple rental units. Goldberg says the Echo Park debacle makes it clear that just such a registry is needed.
”The owner was listed as one of the tenants, and that certainly wasn‘t the case,“ Goldberg says. ”Finding who was responsible and deciding whether or not to tear down the building wasn’t possible. This would immediately make it more difficult for them to hide.“
Lobbyists for apartment owners blocked a similar landlord-registry bill last year, but Deputy City Attorney Richard Bobb, who supervises the unit charged with prosecuting Los Angeles slumlords, says a central landlord database is the only way to pin down owners of slum properties.
”No one checks deeds at the County Recorder‘s Office,“ Bobb says. ”If someone wanted to deed their building to Richard Bobb, I wouldn’t even need to know it.“
The Wallmans, through their attorney, declined to comment for this story, and the LAPD‘s Marlow says they are denying ownership of the Echo Park building and have refused to be interviewed by police.
While Marlow acknowledges that ”there’s something funny there,“ he says it‘s unlikely police will recommend that the Wallmans be charged with homicide in connection with the collapse. Marlow’s attitude, in fact, is one of sympathy for the landlords.
”They‘re not slumlords,“ Marlow says. ”They pay their bills. The fact is, they own a lot of buildings. They’re all livable.“
One glimpse of the Wallman record tells a different story. In 1996, Barry Wallman was sentenced to 36 months‘ probation and fined more than $6,000 after pleading no contest to 23 misdemeanor offenses related to his failure to maintain safe conditions at an apartment building at 1830 N. Cahuenga Blvd. in Hollywood.
Wallman also ponied up a six-figure settlement to residents of that building who filed a civil suit, with more than $144,000 going to the building’s children alone. Tenants in that case alleged not only unlivable conditions, but also harassment by the Wallmans.
According to court records, the manager of the building demanded rent while carrying a gun, and after one tenant started complaining about problems, the Wallmans tried to retaliate by almost doubling the rent.
”I remember one thing they did that really ticked me off,“ recalls Lauren Saunders, the attorney at Bet Tzedek legal services, who handled the case. ”Water in the showers would come out scalding hot, and kids were getting burned. So they fixed it by removing the showerheads. They were taking the easy road out.“
In 1995, Home Savings of America FSB initiated foreclosure proceedings against Daniel Wallman, who in 1994 defaulted on a $520,000 loan for a 24-unit building at 420 N. Coronado St. The building in that case was described as having severe deferred-maintenance, physical and environmental defects, extensive building-code violations, health and safety hazards, as well as plumbing and electrical problems.
Despite this history of shoddy building maintenance, the LAPD‘s Marlow remains convinced that the Wallmans aren’t criminals.
”Everybody drags their feet when the government is looking over their shoulder and Big Brother‘s telling them what to do,“ he says. ”If we didn’t have buildings like that, poor people would have nowhere to live in this city.“
Marlow‘s identification with the plight of the landlord, rather than the tenant, may seem crass, but his attitudes are not atypical. Los Angeles slumlords get away with their crimes because they know their poor and often Spanish-speaking tenants are less likely to complain. Even when residents do speak up, building inspectors, judges and jurors frequently see code violations as a minor white-collar crime and their low-income tenants as responsible for problems or less deserving of safe conditions.
”Judges are sympathetic to landlords,“ says Deputy City Attorney Bobb. ”Defense attorneys cross-examine tenants and ask for their green cards.“
Sometimes inspectors clear buildings without fully examining them, and landlords are often given chance after chance to fix problems without being prosecuted. Because of this, buildings remain substandard and continue to deteriorate for years.