Fighting Squatters, South L.A.-Style 

A neighborhood pressures a trespasser to move on and creates a stronger community

Thursday, Dec 1 2011

When a quiet neighborhood on the border of South Los Angeles became home to a family of squatters, the peace neighbors enjoyed came to an abrupt halt.

It began nearly three years ago. A man who told neighbors his name was Robert Jones moved with his wife and their three young children into a home at 5301 Goldenwood Drive in the Heights at Ladera, a small community in the shape of a boot, which sits on the edge of Inglewood near La Cienega Boulevard. It is a tight-knit community, two blocks wide and two blocks deep.

The family initially paid rent at 5301 Goldenwood Drive, says Norm Pomeranz, who owns the house. When they were evicted for nonpayment, however, they found a way to stay in the neighborhood — as squatters.

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"It was very painful because there were so many pieces to it and trying to stay on top of it," says Hank Harris, a block captain in the Heights at Ladera Neighborhood Watch. "They were not low-key, as you would expect a squatter to be."

The Greater Los Angeles region has thousands of foreclosed homes, some of which are allowed to sit empty for months. Over the summer, a horrific squatter situation in the San Fernando Valley led to a double murder after the suspect took over an empty home and turned it into what neighbors feared was a drug house. But LAPD officers called to the home by the owners said they had to go to civil court to get rid of squatters. The squatter, Brent Zubek, later allegedly killed two of his housemates and was the subject of a dramatic LAPD manhunt. He is awaiting trial.

By contrast, the family in Inglewood finally left without serious incident — thanks to pressure from the neighbors. Now, residents are assessing how and why their neighborhood came under siege from a single household — and warning other Southern Californians that individuals have to take on these battles because local authorities often won't step in.

"This is what I call the horror story of all squatters," says Harris, who has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 20 years.

He first realized there was a problem in January 2009, when he saw a van in the driveway of 5301 Goldenwood Drive sitting on crates, with no wheels.

"This is a pretty quiet community, so things like that don't happen," Harris says.

Tenant Robert Jones quickly became known as a nuisance, walking the streets of the neighborhood while talking on his cellphone — and using his frequent presence in front of various homes to approach neighborhood women. Recalls Harris: "He would strike up a conversation that seemed odd: What do you do? Who are you?"

Jones began offering for a fee to train local people on how to avoid foreclosures and, with his wife, offered to help people in the community fix their bad credit, neighbors say. Yet Jones' wife adopted a habit of roaming from house to house, asking neighbors if she could borrow money. Some days she wanted $5. Other days she would ask for as much as $40, Harris says.

After dark, says Renett Young, who chairs the Heights at Ladera Neighborhood Watch, "When most residents were inside their homes doing normal activities ... that's when the family came alive."

Jones was contacted by the Weekly via an email address provided by neighbors, but the person responding refused to confirm that he was the resident who had lived in the area, and he also refused to

Jones tried to wrest control of the house from the actual owner, residents say. "He was self-educated in making himself well versed in what needed to be done to try to establish residency," Young says.

When Pomeranz finally evicted the family in 2009, they simply moved into an empty home at 5305 Goldenwood Drive.

Neighbors say Jones borrowed cutters from a worker in the neighborhood, which they believed he used to cut through a padlock on the door of 5305 Goldenwood. He moved in not only his family but also tenants, and soon turned the home into a noisy nuisance. "One person shouldn't be able to dominate 129 homes if we work together," notes Tony Gamble, president of the Heights at Ladera Homeowners Association.

Things took a turn for the worse when two single women were approached by Robert Jones late at night in their driveways, after they'd arrived home from work. Neighbors say one of the women, who declined to be interviewed, was so afraid that she did not go home some nights, opting to stay with friends instead.

But as neighbors began to share information, "We started seeing the power we could achieve as a group," Gamble says.

Andrew Schlegel, executive vice president of finance at Merit Property Management, which manages the Heights at Ladera Homeowners Association, says Merit does its best to keep up with the homeowners in each community it manages — more than 300 statewide — but can do only so much. Squatters are part of a larger issue not limited to South Los Angeles, he says.

"It's really just a small byproduct of a bigger problem — which is banks failing to take action on a timely basis, dealing with their collateral" and instead leaving foreclosed homes empty for weeks, months or perhaps longer, Schlegel says.

Eviction attorney Dennis Block says police have limited ability to rid areas of squatters because "they cannot make the determination that the person is or isn't a trespasser."

Nicholas Tepper, also an eviction attorney, says, "If there is evidence they are living there, the police are powerless."

Trespassers have grown more clever when challenged by cops called to the scene, producing false leases that can be found on the Internet, according to Lt. Mathew St. Pierre, head of the fraud section of LAPD's commercial crimes division. Some are even offered "cash for keys," he says: Banks that own properties offer money to get people to leave the premises.

The bottom line is that with thousands of foreclosed homes in Southern California, many of them standing empty, St. Pierre says, "No resources are available for officers to make an arrest and solve it quickly."

In Inglewood, residents also got little help from elected leaders. Inglewood City Councilmember Judy Dunlap referred the Goldenwood Drive residents to local police, who were largely powerless, and advised them to track down the real property owners, according to Dunlap's council assistant, Nannette Marchand.

After the owner is located, she says, "it becomes a private matter when the owner is involved."

The house was owned by GMAC Mortgage at the time, according to Mark Arico of Arico and Associates Realtors.

However, St. Pierre says elected politicians could take actions that he says would give law-abiding residents leverage over squatters.

Cities can "try to curtail some of this," St. Pierre says, if elected bodies such as the California State Assembly make certain kinds of trespassing a felony and entities such as LAPD start keeping track of rightful owners' names.

In Inglewood, when it became clear the Jones family was about to be evicted, the Heights at Ladera Homeowners Association and the Heights at Ladera Neighborhood Watch joined forces, coordinating nightly surveillance in two-hour shifts. The family finally moved out. It was a time of jubilation in the neighborhood, and residents held a small gathering to celebrate.

Nearly a year has passed, and the community has won back its peace. Neighbors there have some advice for other residents of Southern California: Address the issue before it turns into a squatter situation by involving the property owner immediately and preventing the trespassers from establishing residency.

"If you see something, say something," Harris says , because the community's success in coming together is what made the most difference.

He notes: "If it hadn't been for the way this group works together, [the squatters would] still be there."

"He worked the system," Gamble says of Jones. "He had time to work it, and he worked it for a long time. But eventually the system caught up with him."

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