The poor living conditions in the LA apartment complex persist, despite 2,000 citations

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Maintenance crew installed new vinyl in Ruth Perez’s one-bedroom apartment over floorboards that sag underfoot. They put a new drain line in a sink that is still clogged. They screwed new cabinet hinges into rotten wood. And they haven’t bothered to replace the stained carpet, or the heavy wooden closet doors that keep coming loose.

“It’s just back-to-back issues,” says Perez’s 23-year-old son, Yonathan, who lives with his mother and two younger siblings. “They solve one problem and then another pops up. We don’t feel comfortable in our own home.”

It’s been more than six months since LA city and county officials vowed swift action in response to a Times story that exposed rampant slum-like conditions at Chesapeake Apartments, a 425-unit World War II complex stretching across several blocks in South Los Angeles. Since then, law enforcement and public health inspectors have filed more than 2,000 charges against the landlord, Pama Properties, for violations including plumbing and electrical failures and cockroach and mold infestations.

Now most of the inspection efforts appear to have been completed, even as residents point to ongoing problems. Tenants and activists describe growing resentment and resignation as yet another attempt to make Chesapeake Apartments safe and habitable remains unresolved.

“It frustrates the tenants to go in circles about this,” said Sergio Vargas, co-director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, which has been organizing residents at the property since the spring. “We think there needs to be a complete change of the system. This clearly does not work for the tenants.”

Over the past five years, county public health inspectors had averaged more than three violations per month at Chesapeake Apartments, the largest share of all LA County residences at the time, according to a Times analysis found earlier this year. President Mike Nijjar owns more than $1 billion in real estate, mostly in Southern California, and many other properties have also had serious health and livability issues, according to a 2020 LAist study.

Previous surveillance attempts have failed. In 2017, LA City Attorney Mike Feuer sued Pama Properties and Nijjar for crime problems at Chesapeake Apartments, resulting in a settlement that required an upgrade of the complex’s security systems. In late 2021, city code inspectors began a review of the entire complex, a legal requirement every two years, and gave it a clean bill of health.

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Still, nearly two dozen new complaints came in during and after the review. City superintendent Robert Galardi told The Times the assessment had failed, blaming challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Galardi commissioned a new complex broad review, one that would include the provincial public health department, which began in June.

A large residential complex in South Los Angeles. The complex is owned by a landlord who has come under heavy scrutiny for slum-like conditions in many of his buildings in Southern California.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

A wave of activity followed. The number of citations prompted the landlord to repair the entire complex, and inspectors returned several times to check on their progress. After an assessment found numerous cases of peeling paint, the county set up a mobile clinic to test residents for lead poisoning.

These efforts culminated last month in a public hearing to determine whether Chesapeake Apartments would participate in a problem landlord program. Renters of apartments in the program receive a rent discount and can pay their monthly rent to the city, which holds the money as an incentive for the landlord to make repairs. In preparation for the hearing, code enforcers said tenants throughout the complex could be entitled to rent reductions of 10% to 50% because of the violations.

But at the start of the meeting, city inspectors said the nearly 1,600 code violations originally identified had been reduced to 84 because of the repairs made. Pama Properties representatives requested an additional month to make more improvements.

“I’ve seen a lot of these cases,” Thomas Nitti, an attorney representing the landlord, said at the hearing. “This case was almost completed in an extraordinary amount of time.”

The Hearing Officer determined that Pama Properties was making good faith efforts to comply and gave it more time. Last week, city code enforcement and the county’s public health department cleared all remaining violations from the June initial review.

Jim Yukevich, another lawyer for the landlord, said in a statement to The Times that the health, safety and wellbeing of tenants is the “top priority” for property managers. The company, he said, has worked diligently to resolve every issue raised by the city’s housing department and will continue to do so.

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“We will respond to anything brought to our attention as quickly as possible,” Yukevich said.

But for many residents, last month’s hearing was just another example of the difficulties of ensuring long-term repairs are made.

More than two dozen tenants attended to complain about the continued poor conditions in their units, expressing frustration with the city’s complicated process of holding the landlord to account.

The hearing lasted six hours on Tuesday morning and afternoon, with the entire first hour devoted to the swearing in by the Hearing Officer whom everyone wanted to see. Tenants said they were unaware of the violations found in their apartments and were shocked to hear they had been resolved, according to the city.

Angel Bivins said during the hearing, among other things, that the water in her apartment is regularly turned off, that maintenance workers have not replaced the blinds and screens on her windows and that her smoke alarm did not work.

“Would you live here or would you let your loved ones live here?” Bivins said. “If a repair were done that way, would it be an adequate repair in your home? If the answer is no, guess what, it shouldn’t be an adequate repair in mine either. This thing is 100% unfair.”

Part of the concern stems from the continued fragmentation among those responsible for overseeing the complex. Bivens and other tenants complained about mold in their units at the hearing, but were told the county public health department is handling those issues. Recent notes from city code inspectors also show that when tenants said the landlord was harassing them, they were directed to call another department in the city responsible for these issues.

A man shines a flashlight from a mobile phone on a wall

Yonathan Perez takes down wallpaper to reveal cockroach droppings in his kitchen at the Chesapeake Apartments.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

The challenge has only been compounded by unrest at City Hall, said Vargas, the organizer of the tenants. Last fall, Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was suspended from representing the district where Chesapeake Apartments is located following a federal indictment over bribery charges. Ridley-Thomas’ first replacement, Herb Wesson, was forced out in July after serving five months when a judge ruled that city terms prevented him from representing the district, even on an interim basis.

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Vargas said Wesson’s replacement, Councilman Heather Hutt, initially strongly supported the Chesapeake Apartments tenants. When she met the residents shortly after taking office, Vargas said, she told them she would hire their landlord.

“She said, ‘I’m ready to kick Mike Nijjar’s ass,'” Vargas said.

But since then, he said, Hutt’s office has not responded to tenant requests for additional meetings and has done little to help navigate city bureaucracy.

“We see the councilman hiding from meeting tenants, while the housing department doesn’t come out to meet tenants,” Vargas said. “It feels like neglect by the city of Los Angeles for this vulnerable, black-and-brown community that is being abused by a big landlord.”

Ariana Drummond, a spokesperson for Hutt, said the council member was on vacation and unavailable to comment.

City and county officials claim they have made significant efforts to protect Chesapeake Apartment tenants. Inspectors said their surveillance continues even as they are partially paralyzed as they say many tenants won’t let them into their homes. Last month, after obtaining warrants to enter apartments, city and county inspectors investigated another 50 units and found another 650 combined violations that are still under review, according to both agencies.

“The inspection process at the Chesapeake Apartments is far from complete,” said a county public health spokesman who declined to name them in response to written questions from The Times. “Further inspections will be conducted and if required repairs are not completed in a timely manner, public health will consider all options, working with [the city]to gain compliance.”

Nevertheless, the years of trouble have left the Perez family cynical about improvements.

Ruth has lived in the complex for five years and her family lives in their second apartment after the landlord moved them out of the first because it was overrun with mold, she said. Three years ago, a rotten kitchen cabinet door fell off its hinges and hit her in the head, and her son Yonathan had to call an ambulance for help. The cabinets need to be replaced. Only the hinges are new.

A kitchen cabinet with dirty, cracked paint and new hinges

New hinges were installed on rotting wood after a kitchen cabinet door broke at Ruth Perez’s home in the Chesapeake Apartments.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

“They just come and put the same things back, even though it’s all full of mold and junk,” says Yonathan, who is a truck driver.

The family pays $1,017 a month in rent and Ruth recently quit her job as a slicer and fruit maker at a juice bar 20 miles away after her hours were cut. She now sells appliances and other products that she buys wholesale online or at street fairs.

The Perezes say they would leave Chesapeake Apartments if they could. But they can’t afford anywhere else.

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