On Thursday morning, April 12, nearly a dozen people woke up in new surroundings at a motel in Long Beach after being relocated by the city of Los Angeles out of a filthy, dilapidated house on Crenshaw Boulevard.
The men and women, including 56-year-old former comedian Vincent Cook, were facing eviction and sudden homelessness after what they and their attorney are calling a room-for-rent scam run by a woman who claims to operate transitional housing.
Their property manager, Giovanna Wilkerson, who was months behind on rent, abandoned the house in November, prompting the landlord to file papers in court to legally evict her, the tenants’ former attorney, Elena Popp of the Eviction Defense Network, said at the time.
While fighting their eviction, the tenants continued to live, with no gas or hot water, in the nearly 5,000-square-foot home on the border of Inglewood in Los Angeles. They said they had filed complaints with several city departments about the condition of the house, which at one time was home to as many as 40 men and women.
A 19-page city inspection report dated Feb. 20 shows dozens of violations at the house, including broken windows, plumbing blockages, termites and dry rot, broken or missing electrical switches, hazardous, defective or missing room heating appliances and dampness in rooms.
After hearing about the condition of the property, the Los Angeles City Council voted on March 27 to provide relocation funds to the tenants. “The slum conditions are inhumane and inexcusable,” Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson said. “I am grateful that we were able to secure relocation assistance for these residents.”
The tenants have vouchers to stay at the Long Beach motel over the next week while they work with the Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System (HOPICS) on short- and long-term housing options.
Cook, who was handpicked by comedian Richard Pryor and singer Luther Vandross to be their opening act during their respective tours, was all smiles as he got into the HOPICS van on Wednesday.
Cook had rented from Wilkerson after suffering a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and on disability. “I’m just glad to be leaving here,” he said. “That woman is a bad person and what she did wasn’t right. I’m thankful for everyone who came to our rescue and helped us out of this jam.”
Wilkerson did not return calls seeking comments for this story.
City and county officials have spent months determining who should help the tenants. The property owner said he’s not responsible for them and their issue is with Wilkerson.
Landlords can evict everyone living in a home just by serving notice to one person — even if that one person doesn’t tell the others, which appears to be the case with Wilkerson and her subtenants, Popp said. For her part, Wilkerson has stated that the residents are not tenants and therefore landlord-tenant law does not apply to them. “I'm the Housing Director, they are participants,” she said via text message in February.
The tenants claim Wilkerson promised them transitional housing that included a clean living environment, meals and even job assistance. They were asked to sign transitional housing agreements and gave Wilkerson access to their government assistance and bank accounts so she could check each month to see when and how much money they received, they said.
Wilkerson said she provided the services she promised. “We provide month-to-month housing. Guaranteed refrigerator and stove.”
Ayasha Chenoa and her 24-year-old son, Chris, moved into the Crenshaw house after witnessing a drive-by shooting on East 67th Street in South Los Angeles at another home where they were renting a room. Chenoa said the shooting deeply affected Chris, who is autistic, and she had no choice but to move.
“I thought this was a going to be a safe place for us to go and it wasn’t,” Chenoa said Wednesday. “My son and I have slept on the floor on a twin mattress with bedbugs for the past year. Today we have the opportunity for a new beginning and hopefully one day soon a small place of our own.”
The tenants — who include the developmentally disabled, mentally ill, a stroke victim and working adults who can’t afford the high cost of rent in Los Angeles – said they paid between $175 and $1,000 a month in rent to Wilkerson. They said Wilkerson solicited them online, in front of the Department of Public Social Services, and on Skid Row at homeless shelters including the Downtown Women’s Center.
U.S. Rep Maxine Waters made an impromptu visit to the tenants on Monday to see the conditions of the house firsthand. She spent the evening working with them to make sure they had short-term housing available and would not be homeless once they left the Crenshaw house.
Waters directed her staff to make finding the tenants temporary housing a priority.
Earlier, at an April 3 press conference in front of the ramshackle house, the tenants, along with their attorney, Nana Gyamfi, and Solomon Rivera, Harris-Dawson’s chief of staff, described the condition of the house and what they called an elaborate and ongoing scam by Wilkerson.
Gyamfi and the tenants urged City Attorney Mike Feuer to investigate Wilkerson’s rental practices. “This is not the only place Ms. Wilkerson has done this,” Gyamfi said. “These are not the only people who have been victimized by this scheme. She’s done it before. She’s doing it now, and unless she’s stopped, she’s going to keep doing it.”
Wilkerson is running what she calls transitional housing or sober living programs in several other homes in South L.A., according to an investigation. In one home she’s housing as many as 40 adults in two five-bedroom apartments on the same property. In another home in Watts, where she keeps her office in the garage, Wilkerson is housing adults and families. Calls to the landlords of these properties were not returned.
A search of court documents showed that beginning in 2009, Wilkerson has had seven unlawful detainers filed against her — almost one every year. Since the story broke about the tenants of the Crenshaw house, several previous landlords and tenants have come forward to talk about Wilkerson. Several landlords detailed how Wilkerson ran her business in their homes and then skipped out on paying the rent.
“Not really concerned what the public thinks,” Wilkerson told L.A. Weekly via email in February in response to some of the allegations.
The tenants say they fear that if nothing is done, the city could be facing another similar situation where tenants are left behind in an abandoned house.
Attorney Gyamfi says the city attorney was informed more than a month ago about Wilkerson but hasn’t done anything. “This city is facing one of the worst affordable housing and homelessness crises in the country,” she said. “The city attorney has a responsibility to make sure that people who are just trying to keep a roof over their heads are not taken advantage of, and he’s not doing that in this case.”
Councilman Harris-Dawson agreed. “In a time of severe housing and homelessness crises, we cannot allow people to take advantage of the most vulnerable without repercussions.”
A native of Los Angeles, Jasmyne A. Cannick is a nationally known writer and commentator on political, race and social issues.