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CES In The News
Los Angeles Daily News

Wednesday June 15, 2006

Front Page

Landlord accused of abusing tenants
Complaint: Deplorable living conditions allowed
By Kerry Cavanaugh, Staff Writer

This Picture Did Not Appear In the Original Version of This Article
For a month, the bathroom ceiling in Mandie Henry's Panorama City apartment was a gaping hole, ringed by greenish-black mold that spread to the bathroom window and sill.

Her landlord finally patched the soggy plaster this week, but Henry was already in the hospital for severe breathing problems - an ailment she says was triggered by the mold, rampant cockroaches, leaky pipes and the general damp condition of her apartment.

"I cannot breathe in that apartment at night. I have to go outside at 4 in the morning," Henry said by phone Wednesday, from the hospital, while her daughter led visitors through the apartment.

"I've never been sick like this a day in my life. I'm only 37 years old."

Henry is one of hundreds of low-rent tenants across the city who endured deplorable living conditions in apartments owned by Landmark Equity Management, according to a criminal complaint filed Wednesday by the City Attorney's Office.

Filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, the complaint charges that Landmark Equity Management lied to tenants, refused to repair unhealthy, dangerous living conditions and illegally raised rents to force out rent-controlled residents and lease the apartments for more money.

City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo called the company and its associates "a criminal enterprise posing as landlords."

"They engaged in illegal behavior meant to chase tenants from rent-controlled units and drive up the rent to enrich themselves at the expense of the city's most vulnerable," Delgadillo said.

Landmark did not return calls to its Van Nuys office Wednesday.

The unfair-business-practices complaint is a joint effort between the City Attorney's Office and tenant-rights groups that collected complaints from Landmark renters.

The criminal complaint asks the court to remove Landmark as the property manager and appoint a new manager to clean up, repair and oversee the buildings.

The City Attorney's Office also wants Landmark to give up the profits earned in unfair business practices and make restitution to tenants.

Landmark, a real estate management company, owns nearly 900 units in Los Angeles, either outright or through limited-liability companies, including Linda Associates LLC, Russell Associates LLC and Horizon Associates LLC.

Most of the one-bedroom units in the Landmark building where Henry lives rent for about $800 a month, and many of the tenants receive Section 8 federal housing assistance.

According to the complaint, Landmark began buying old buildings filled with rent-control tenants around 1999, and then allowed the properties to deteriorate without repair.

Among the problems found at the buildings were faulty plumbing, holes in walls and cockroach and rodent infestations. In some buildings, landlords told residents they were ordered by the Health Department to move out. Some residents were offered $2,500 in relocation money to leave - less than the city-mandated $3,300 for a single person and $8,200 for a family, senior or disabled person.

In other cases owners allegedly threatened lawsuits and even hired gang members to harass renters, according to tenant-rights groups.

By allowing such poor living conditions, the city attorney contends, Landmark sought to encourage long-term, rent-control residents to move out voluntarily so the company could make repairs and lease the apartments at market rate - which were often double or triple the previous rent.

Later, once all the apartments are renovated and leased, Landmark sells the building at a price based on the higher, non-rent-controlled tenants, according to the complaint.

Landmark owns at least nine buildings in the San Fernando Valley, and several recently have been cited for housing- and building-code violations. The company tends to buy properties in low-income and gentrifying neighborhoods, where longtime residents might not know their tenant rights, Delgadillo said.

Across Los Angeles, city leaders have struggled to balance the hot real estate market and the lack of affordable housing. More than 11,000 rent-control units have been taken off the market in the past five years and tenant-rights advocates have pushed city officials to keep a closer watch on landlords who might be trying to evade rent control laws to take advantage of the market.

Larry Gross with the Coalition for Economic Survival
warned that the L.A. housing market is like the Wild West with some landlords willing to openly disregard the law.

"Preservation of safe, affordable housing must be the city's highest priority," he said.

Residents, such as Henry, said they feel powerless to fight their landlords alone.

Lattonnia Kareem and her husband, Ricky, were recently evicted from their Panorama City apartment, owned by Landmark. Their apartment was covered in mold and water dropped from their ceiling when their upstairs neighbor took a shower. Kareem said the city declared her unit unsafe to live in so she stopped paying rent until the problems were fixed. They were never fixed and she was evicted.

"I can't believe the amount of money they charge for these apartments," Kareem said Wednesday when she returned to visit her sister, who still lives in the building.

"The whole building is falling down."

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