Lax Enforcement Keeps Slumlords from Cleaning Up Act

slumlordA toddler wakes up with a cockroach lodged in his ear. Cat-sized rats chew through the feeding tubes of a young girl with cystic fibrosis. Conga lines of roaches parade through a house in broad daylight. Leaky pipes and constant moisture breed vast colonies of mold. Inadequately maintained plumbing backs up, causing overflows of sewage. Lead paint chips and flakes, exposing children to lead dust. Walls, ceilings and floors are in severe disrepair – even to the point of collapse.

It is unfathomable that we allow slum housing in 21st century Los Angeles. But we do.

An estimated 48,000 people in Los Angeles get sick each year from living in slum conditions. Slum housing devastates the health and economy of entire neighborhoods. Too often, our children are the canaries in the mine that force us to recognize slum conditions only after it is too late. How well will a child do in school if she is being bitten by rats in the middle of the night? Who pays for the emergency room visits of a young boy whose asthma attacks are triggered by roaches, mold, or lack of heat? Who bears the cost of brain damage to a baby with lead poisoning? How often must parents stay home from work to care for themselves or their children who are sick because of slum conditions?

Despite the devastation caused by slum housing, the last major policy improvements in Los Angeles occurred in the late 1990s. Following news stories exposing the horrors of local slum housing, Inner City Law Center – where I work – convened a Blue Ribbon Citizens’ Committee on Slum Housing, consisting of prominent business and nonprofit leaders. The committee recognized that “a primary goal of housing code enforcement should be timely and effective intervention to prevent standard housing from becoming slum or abandoned housing.”It recommended “routine, periodic inspections of all rental housing, with the frequency and intensity of inspection determined by the conditions of the building and estimates of the risk of deterioration.”

The city adopted many of the committee’s recommendations and implemented a more proactive housing code enforcement system. As a result, much progress has been made in the past decade. Government inspections and enforcement have increased. Private lawsuits also regularly force slumlords to pay multimillion-dollar settlements to their tenants and to take proper care of their buildings. But despite these successes, numerous slumlords in Los Angeles continue to get rich from their criminal behavior.

Hopefully, the recent coverage of the despicable business practices of a particularly notorious slumlord here in Los Angeles will prompt another burst of attention and reform. It may be time to convene another Blue Ribbon Citizens’ Committee, which could detail the tougher prosecution, more vigorous code enforcement and targeted legislation that is desperately needed. In order to end slum housing in Los Angeles, we must demand changes.

First and foremost, we must insist that slumlords be sent to jail for their criminal behavior. Even slumlords who are cited for thousands (yes, thousands!) of health and safety violations are rarely incarcerated. As former City Attorney Ira Reiner said, “We aren’t talking about landlords who are just in over their heads, unable to maintain a building properly. … We are talking about men in the slum business. Men who buy slums and maintain slums. … People who deal in blood money.” Living in slum housing can be so devastating to one’s health that the term “blood money” is unfortunately accurate. And slum housing does not just impact those who live in it.

As Justice William O. Douglas put it so eloquently in 1954 for a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court, in Berman v. Parker, 348 U.S. 26 (1954), “The misery of housing may despoil a community as an open sewer may ruin a river.” Given the gravity of the harms that slum housing causes to the health, safety and economy of our communities, we must insist that prosecutors and judges treat slumlords as criminals who deserve substantial financial penalties and jail time.

Slumlords should be forced to fix underlying and pervasive problems by making high-quality repairs. Too often housing inspectors allow slumlords to pass city inspections with Mickey Mouse repairs such as painting over mold or replacing drywall rather than fixing leaking pipes.

In January, half of an apartment building collapsed in Koreatown despite the fact that housing inspectors had signed off on the building just nine months earlier. Although it is not yet established for certain, it seems most likely that the owner’s cosmetic repairs allowed the building to pass inspection without the owner addressing the underlying water leaks and structural damage that led to the collapse. We must demand a more rigorous inspection process that does not permit slumlords to pass inspection with mere superficial repairs.

MurrayWe must demand new laws that make it unprofitable to be a slumlord. Slumlords are sophisticated business people. Their business model involves collecting rent and paying little-to-nothing for building maintenance. As they milk buildings for rents, the buildings deteriorate with devastating consequences for residents and neighbors. The model is very lucrative – but only so long as the chances of being caught and the penalties if they are caught remain minimal. In order to make this business model unprofitable, we need laws that require owners to purchase appropriate insurance, that make landlords pay treble damages, and that enable courts to transfer ownership of slums to responsible owners.

The first slum housing case that I worked on involved a building with no heat and where most windows had been nailed shut. Leaky pipes produced massive amounts of moisture and lots of mold. Living conditions were so horrible that a baby died from respiratory failure. It is criminal that anyone is permitted to profit from such devastation. I look forward to a day when we do not allow such horrible conditions to exist in Los Angeles.

Adam Murray

Adam Murray is the executive director of Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles, which serves over 2,000 homeless and working poor clients each year from its Skid Row offices. He can be reached at amurray@innercitylaw.org.

Reprinted with permission from The Daily Journal.

Published by the LA Progressive on June 25, 2009
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Comments

  1. Well believe us – the scums are out there renting out apartment properties as well. A big offender in the San Fernando Valley is a man named ******, who makes a habit of buying properties in disrepair and then putting very little back into them and quite in fact tries to make a profit off of tenants in the form of price gouging on extra parking spaces, fixtures inside apartments including screens for the windows, overcharges tenants for unsubmetered water, neglects buildings in severe need of repiping, neglects mold growing into carpets, etc. The list goes on and on and on. He also likes to buy buildings on 1031 exchanges so he can be sheltered from taxes. This guy needs to be thoroughly examined by the IRS and thown in jail.

    And his son’s management company, Franklin Management, is equally as guilty. These S.O.B.’s have go so far as to accept credit cards, debit cards, cash, etc. for rent. The following accurately describes ****** and ******** to a “T”.

    This page is dedicated to the worst among us; the unscrupulous landlords who milk a property without concern for tenants, neighborhoods or their own long term interests.

    The roof leaks: “Humm, I thought I fixed that.”

    The toilet leaks : “Put a towel around it.”

    The front steps are broken: “Use the back door.”

    There are no screens for the windows: “Maybe you can buy something at K-Mart.”

    Can I have my security deposit back: “Oh sure, I’ll be in touch.”

    There are three ways to benefit financially by investing in rental housing: Cash Flow, Appreciation and Tax Shelter.

    Most good and scrupulous investors try to maximize their return on investment by taking advantage of all three possible benefits. They do it with financial and tax planning, careful purchase of each property, good property management while they own it, then professional marketing when they decide to sell.

    However, there are short sighted fools who rape neighborhoods and steal money from a property by chasing cash flow with no thought to the long term ramifications. As a sad result, slumlords destroy buildings, neighborhoods and seriously impact the lives and hopes of poor tenants and their children. They also miss a chance to make a decent profit while building long-term financial security by investing intelligently in rental housing.

    Typically, a slumlord looks for an opportunity to buy a structurally and aesthetically challenged property for little or no down-payment. That kind of deal is all to often available from someone who bought something that was fairly decent, but then “milked” and mismanaged the property until they can no longer stand to deal with the maintenance problems and the kind of problem tenants you get in a problem building.

    A slumlord is happy to take over any junk property they can get cheap, with little or nothing down. Why not, they don’t ever intend to finish paying for it anyway. Their whole goal is to put the least amount of money possible in a property and take the most they can out of it – for as long as they can. A slumlord is not usually concerned about tax benefits, because they try to collect as much of the rent in unreported cash as they can. They are not concerned about appreciation because they intend to abandon the property when it has been finally milked dry.

    When a tenant moves out and leaves a mess, a mainstream landlord cries, cleans, repairs and repaints. Then they try to do a better job screening their next tenant. A slumlord just lowers the rent on a trashed property until some poor soul will take it as is. Then it’s the same scenario with the next tenant, and the downward spiral continues until the cash dries up from the last desperate tenant willing or forced to live in squalor.

    It doesn’t take many derelict buildings to take down a neighborhood. A bad neighborhood leads to more slumlords and more abandoned buildings. The cancer continues to spread and always will unless and until someone stops it.

    Government will. They pass new expensive and burdensome laws. They level old neighborhoods and build public housing, that evolves into ghettos, eventually worse than what was there. Or we can help. We in the business of providing decent, safe and affordable housing at a profit, must educate the short sighted fools who chase a quick-buck while sacrificing a better long-term return. If they won’t learn, we must ostracize them, and help government to weed them out. However we must be forever vigilant because government is always inclined to take over the entire garden instead of just digging out a couple of bad seeds.

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