By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
The 1601 W. Park Ave. complex, for instance, was cited for violations by the Department of Building and Safety at least six separate times since 1986. The latest, 1998 citations were made during Barry Wallman’s probation. On each occasion, inspectors cleared the building, but problems returned again. The Wallmans, however, were never prosecuted.
”We don‘t have the resources to prosecute every building,“ Bobb says.
Even when landlords are charged, it’s generally a misdemeanor, and punishment is a slap on the wrist. Repeat offenders occasionally are sentenced to live in their crumbling buildings, but because of legal loopholes, landlords rarely see jail time, even when tenants are badly harmed or killed.
”If you‘re committing a felony and someone happens to die, you can be charged with manslaughter, but if they are misdemeanor charges and someone dies, you can’t be charged with manslaughter,“ Bobb says.
It‘s this kid-glove treatment of slumlords that infuriates Elena Popp, an attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, who, along with LAFLA’s Tai Glenn, served on a city of Los Angeles task force that recently authored a report on property flipping.
”The main reason there are horrible conditions in L.A. is that conditions have to be so egregious before you prosecute,“ Popp says. ”Would we accept someone running a red light and say they don‘t have to pay the ticket because they didn’t cause an accident? Why do we have to wait until a building collapses or a child is bitten by a rat? We wouldn‘t have cases like this building that collapsed if it was thought of as any other crime.“
Popp proposes ticketing landlords for code violations, and if repairs are made, they can be treated like fix-it tickets. ”No one says we shouldn’t prosecute traffic violators,“ she says. ”Why do we use a lack of resources as an excuse to not prosecute landlords?“
For the time being, it seems that civil suits may be the only way to hold slumlords accountable. ”I think [the Echo Park collapse] demonstrates that we can‘t depend solely on the regulators,“ says Steven Kleifield, an attorney representing survivors of the disaster.
With $5,000 in emergency aid from the city and the potential of relief from their lawsuit, survivors are hoping never to live in slum conditions again. But even if their physical surroundings improve, the psychic scars are proving more intractable.
”I’m still very frightened,“ says Esperanza Matias, a 32-year-old single mother of three, whose legs were trapped under rubble when the building fell. ”I‘m always thinking, is something going to happen? I’m half awake every night listening for noise, and I dream about my building falling. My children too. Any little noise and they say, ‘Should we run out now?’“
Tenant Perez gets choked up when she thinks about it. ”All owners of buildings need to be aware there are lives in their hands. After this, one never recovers.“