Edelmira Pineda, a 32-year-old mother of two from Guatemala, knew something was terribly wrong with her Echo Park apartment building before it collapsed.
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.“
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.
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.“