Is LA Losing The Fight Against Slum Housing?
As Los Angeles County continues the battle against COVID-19, housing advocates say it’s losing a different war — the fight against slum housing.
During the pandemic, tenants living with roaches, crumbling walls and lack of hot water have struggled to get help from the County Department of Public Health, the same agency responsible for L.A.’s pandemic response.
Even when the department has cited landlords, repairs often don’t happen — and tenants say the county is failing to hold negligent property owners accountable.
These problems aren’t new, but the pandemic has made them harder for tenants to escape, said Oscar Zarate, a community organizer with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), who has been working with tenants living in substandard housing.
“If you're staying indoors 24/7, or for the majority of the day, and there's a rampant roach infestation, it's going to take a toll not only on your physical health, but your mental health,” he said.
Housing advocates are now calling on the county to overhaul its enforcement system, arguing that reforms are long overdue.
We can't wait until a building collapses to take action.
The pressure comes at a time when many low-income tenants are still reeling from the pandemic. Thousands remain deeply in debt to their landlords, and they’ve struggled to obtain rent relief, raising concerns of mass evictions once pandemic-related protections expire later this year.
With tenants in precarious positions, Zarate said the county needs to do a better job of ensuring housing is safe and habitable.
“We can't wait until a building collapses to take action,” he said.
‘I Can Never Get Used To That Kind Of Thing’
On a busy stretch of Atlantic Avenue in unincorporated East Compton, a small five-unit apartment complex sits sandwiched between a smoke shop and a waste disposal company.
Charles Supo-Orija and his wife rent a unit in one of the three single-story buildings here. When they first moved in they had no issues, he said, but conditions have been steadily deteriorating.
“You see the hole?” Supo-Orija asked, crouching outside his apartment to point out a crack in an exterior wall. “This can take a snake inside.”
Supo-Orija, a former radio broadcaster from Nigeria, said pests routinely get inside his apartment: roaches, spiders, even lizards.
I've never seen roaches in microwaves in my life until this time.
Supo-Orija said. “I can never get used to that kind of thing.”
One of his worst encounters happened earlier this month. He was lying in bed, falling asleep, when he sensed a twitch inside his ear.
“I felt something crawling,” he said. “And then I got up. I was trying to hit it out, you know? And it kept going.”
The intruder was a cockroach. Days later, Supo-Orija said it was still stuck in his ear canal.
“Possibly they need to flush my ears,” he said.
‘We Should Be Able To Live With Dignity’
Supo-Orija and other tenants have been complaining about the pests here for a long time. First they went to their landlord, Ramon Rochel. Then they notified the County Department of Public Health.
A county inspector visited one of the units last November and found a long list of problems, including “live cockroaches,” “holes in the wall,” a “bathroom window deteriorating” and “no hot water in the unit.”
The inspector ordered Rochel to address the problems and set a date for a follow-up inspection in December.
But the tenant of that unit, Lourdes Villegas, said eight months later, the problems haven’t been fixed.
“It's heart-wrenching,” she said. “Because we should be able to live with dignity. It's in his power.”
Villegas is a mother of two young children. Her daughter, 8, has a form of muscular dystrophy that requires regular in-home medical treatment.
You're putting tenants in a situation where they will accept really terrible conditions in order to just have that roof over their head.
Villegas said raising her kids in an apartment with so many habitability problems has been stressful — a stress compounded by steep rent hikes in recent years. In late 2018, her rent was $900 per month. By 2020, Rochel had raised it to $1,200.
“He wants me to leave,” Villegas said. “So he's gonna do whatever it takes for me to leave.”
The Landlord: ‘I Am Acting In Accordance To The Law’
Rochel did not agree to an interview and did not answer specific questions we sent him by email. He did email us back to say, “I am acting in accordance to the law as advised by council.”
He said tenants have caused destruction to their units (tenants dispute this) and have not allowed entry for repairs. Rochel said the tenants are retaliating against him for pursuing evictions, but he did not elaborate on that claim.
Last month, the County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs approved Villegas’ application for a rent adjustment.
The department said the landlord violated the county’s rent control laws by imposing annual increases far above the legal limit of 3%, and ruled last month that Villegas does not have to pay rent until the habitability issued in the apartment are corrected.
I am acting in accordance to the law.
Despite citations from the county, the Department of Public Health said Rochel failed to call in for a scheduled compliance review, and that a re-inspection revealed repairs had not been made.
“A referral was made to the district attorney’s office requesting an administrative hearing be held with the owner,” the department said in an email.
The agency added that it has since found problems with other units at the property, and that “a case is being prepared to refer this property to the district attorney and county counsel for enforcement.”
Tenants Caught In A Confusing Web
Supo-Orija, Villegas and other tenants are now suing Rochel, alleging that he has failed to provide habitable living conditions and has violated the county’s rent control laws, along with other counts.
“Right now, a lawsuit really is one of the only recourses that tenants have,” said Katie McKeon, a staff attorney with Public Counsel who is not involved in this case.
McKeon said the situation in East Compton highlights longstanding problems with the county’s approach to housing code enforcement.
She said it’s often unclear where tenants should turn for help.
“Many tenants don't even realize that they live in unincorporated L.A. County,” McKeon said. “They have to go to a different agency than their neighbors across the street who may be in L.A. city.”
Even those who know to ask the county for help may be confused about who to call, because the responsibility for ensuring apartments are safe and habitable is split between two different departments: Public Health and Public Works.
The system isn't set up to deal with these types of issues, especially when they're this egregious.
Tenant advocates say getting one department to visit a troubled property can result in tenants being told to contact the other department. They may end up waiting months for another inspection.
McKeon said the county doesn’t have many tools for holding negligent landlords accountable. Cases can be forwarded to the district attorney, but they often go unenforced. She said that leaves many tenants in a tough spot.
“We cannot ignore the larger housing situation in L.A. County when we're talking about this issue,” McKeon said. “We know that tenants — especially the lowest-income tenants — have an extremely difficult time finding housing ... You're putting tenants in a situation where they will accept really terrible conditions in order to just have that roof over their head.”
Housing Advocates Call For An Enforcement Overhaul
SAJE and other tenant organizations are now pushing the county to reform its code enforcement system. They want it centralized in one department. And they want inspectors to go into units routinely, rather than waiting for tenants to complain.
In the worst cases, they say the county should have a program that would withhold rent from landlords until they make repairs, similar to the city of L.A.’s Rent Escrow Account Program.
This is indicative of the need to strengthen the County’s code enforcement system to be more accountable to our residents.
SAJE’s Oscar Zarate said the failings of the county’s current approach are obvious when looking at properties such as the one in East Compton.
“The system isn't set up to deal with these types of issues, especially when they're this egregious,” he said.
‘No One Should Have To Sacrifice Their Health...To Live In Their Apartment’
County leaders have discussed reforms in the past.
In 2018, when the county passed its rent control law, former Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas put forward a motion asking staff to study how code enforcement could be done more consistently. But those discussions haven’t led to change.
County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who replaced Ridley-Thomas on the board, told us her office is now working with various departments to address the case in East Compton, which falls within her district.
“No one should have to sacrifice their health, safety or well-being in order to live in their apartment,” Mitchell said in an email. “This is indicative of the need to strengthen the County’s code enforcement system to be more accountable to our residents.”
Meanwhile, tenant Charles Supo-Orijia said even with all the problems at his apartment, he hasn’t missed a month of rent.
“There must be some responsibility that should come with that,” he said. “Making sure that properties are hygienic and safe for habitation — that is the least any responsible property owner can do.”
He’s not sure how long it’ll take to make that a reality in his home.