South LA seniors face poor conditions, unfair evictions

CES HUD tenants meet with CES Tenant Organizer Valerie Lizárraga at an apartment complex near USC to discuss maintenance problems such as cracked-deteriorating bathroom flooring, missing bathroom vents, broken appliances and a cockroach infestation. | CES Facebook

HUD tenants meet with CES Tenant Organizer Valerie Lizárraga at an apartment complex near USC in 2013 to discuss maintenance problems such as cracked-deteriorating bathroom flooring, missing bathroom vents, broken appliances and a cockroach infestation. | CES Facebook

By Lauren Day

Juana Vasquez has lived in her West Adams apartment for 20 years, and despite making regular requests for her refrigerator to be replaced, the appliance has been leaking water since the day she moved in.

“They never replaced nothing,” said Vasquez’s son, Carlos Rezabala, who helps his mother translate from Spanish. “It’s still the same… We’ve been asking for a long time.”

Vasquez and her son have had to settle for unhurried maintenance, making her living conditions “filthy,” said Rezabala.

He described his 82-year-old mother’s carpet as “disgusting.” He said the windows of the apartment, part of a senior housing complex subsidized by the city, have broken from age. But the property managers “don’t want to change, they don’t want to replace nothing,” he said.

Carlos Aguilar, from the Coalition for Economic Survival, said property managers of rent-controlled or affordable housing often take advantage of their tenants. Senior citizens are among the most vulnerable, he said, “because of their age and lack of knowledge and awareness of what their rights are.” So are people from “marginalized or ignored communities,” such as South L.A.

Aguilar said he saw one woman forced out by “constructive eviction” – a legal term meaning the tenant was obligated to leave because her residence did not meet basic standards.

“Owners refused to do the repairs and maintenance,” said Aguilar. “The property got to such bad condition that the place was deemed uninhabitable.”

His coalition organizes Los Angeles tenants in rent-controlled and subsidized housing that face harassment, illegal evictions, illegal rent increases and slum housing conditions. CES also helps to educate tenants about their rights and encourages them to make sure those rights are honored by their landlords. The organization is also working on programs to preserve affordable housing units in the City of Los Angeles.

The looming threat for seniors, if these battles are not fought, is homelessness, advocates said.

In 2013, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority counted a total of 2,300 homeless people in District 8 – nearly 775 people above the L.A. City average. South L.A. as a whole had the highest number of homeless senior citizens – roughly 950 people. In contrast, East Los Angeles had the least number of homeless seniors, totaling about 185. The organization does not keep data on the number of seniors who became homeless as a result of evictions.

Vasquez, the tenant with the leaky refrigerator, lives in HUD-subsidized senior housing in District 8. But that’s no reason for the property to be substandard, Aguilar said, adding: “It has everything to do with who manages and who owns that property.”

Vasquez made little headway with the latest property manager of her apartment complex. Her kitchen light was out for more than a year before the building’s management fixed it, said her son.

Affordable housing is crucial in areas like Vasquez’s where the average annual salary is $33,360, according to the city’s 2013 Economic Report – nearly $24,000 below the city average. The median rent where Vasquez lives was $1,086 in 2014, whereas the average rent in Los Angeles was $1,463, according to the RED Capital Group, a lending institutions specializing in housing.

Most buildings built before 1978 in Los Angeles are rent-controlled properties, including many South L.A. neighborhoods.

Current tenants of rent control properties are only subject to limited annual rent increases, monitored by the city. But illegal rent increases still occur “because if a tenant doesn’t know,” the person is “never going to challenge it,” said Aguilar.

Landlords must comply with the 14 eviction requirements of the L.A. Rent Stabilization Ordinance. However, some conduct constructive evictions, which are not legal, but rather “sheer harassment, intimidation or lack of repairs and maintenance,” Aguilar said. Tenants in these circumstances are often “so frustrated that they just move out.”

Rezabala said he is not willing to give up the fight for his mother, adding: “They’re abusing us, that’s what they’re doing.”

Some housing rights attorneys believe their clients are targeted just because they are easy to evict. According to Nick Levenhagen, an attorney at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, tenants in Section 8 housing that is subsidized by the city typically “hate to complain” because they fear losing their housing.

For Section 8, landlords generally have the legal right to decide whether they want to accept Section 8 vouchers for the following year. However, in rent-controlled properties, landlords must comply with the “just cause” eviction requirements of the Rent Stabilization Ordinance when terminating a Section 8 tenancy.

But landlords often try to work around that regulation. The daughter of an elderly couple with a Section 8 subsidy, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the building owners told her parents they did not want to accept Section 8 vouchers any more, aiming to remodel and eventually increase the rent. The move was illegal, according to Levenhagen, the family’s attorney.

The couple eventually agreed to a settlement: They would move after 17 years of living at the apartment in exchange for a payout from the landlord.

Wrongful evictions put low-income seniors at risk of homelessness, according to Levenhagen.

“Unless you have an advocate who represents you, then you’re just going to go,” he said.

Such was the case for Rezabala and his mother, who are grateful for Carlos Aguilar’s help. “There was nobody… until we found Carlos,” said Rezabala.

Los Angeles does not posses enough affordable housing to accommodate all elderly residents on fixed incomes, according to Aguilar. It’s impossible for seniors whose sole income is social security or disability checks to make market price rent. “You end up having elderly homeless people,” he said. “That’s a side of the story that doesn’t get discussed.”

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Opinion: An open letter to the Los Angeles Police Department

imageJasmyne Cannick

Christopher Dorner is dead.

Whether you agree or disagree with Dorner’s actions preceding his death or even how he died, one fact can’t be changed—he brought forth serious allegations of racism and discrimination within the Los Angeles Police Department. Dorner’s allegations have been publicly co-signed by both retired and terminated Black LAPD employees—and in private by those currently serving within the department but too afraid to cross the blue line.

Many are asking, where do we go from here, but I’m more concerned with where we don’t go from here.

To both the LAPD and the community—it can’t be business as usual.

Town hall meetings and community forums to discuss a problem that we already know exists are a waste of time and accomplish nothing. Sure—the media will cover it and there will be no shortage of people coming forward to express outrage and mistrust towards the LAPD. The LAPD in turn will sit there and take the verbal abuse because quite frankly they’re being paid to be there and it’s what they do when there’s a surge of strong public outrage directed towards their department—and when it’s all over everyone will go home.

But if it’s really a new day in the LAPD and the organization is as transparent as it tells us it is, then it’s time for the LAPD to sit down with the LAPD. That’s the discussion that needs to take place.

Dorner’s manifesto wasn’t written to call attention to police brutality. He was trying to call attention to the systemic institutional racism and discrimination that he experienced as a Black police officer when trying to report police brutality to his higher-ups. He was trying to clear his name and blow the whistle on what is happening inside the department everyday, including today, to Black police officers. Don’t get distracted.

You tell me what’s easier—investigating the firing of a dead ex-cop or addressing the issue of rampant racism in the department that was presented by the dead ex-cop.

Dorner wasn’t the first Black police officer to lose it after separating from the department and as others have said, he won’t be the last unless something changes.

Fred Nichols was a Black man who was the LAPDs chief expert on use-of-force tactics. In 1991, Nichols was suddenly reassigned in an apparent retaliatory move by the department for testifying before the County Grand Jury in the Rodney King case and for later sharply warning the Christopher Commission about the department’s routine misunderstanding of excessive force. He was taken from a very prominent position within the department to what he considered a “less prestigious position.”

According to the L.A. Times, the department denied that the reassignment was retaliatory, describing the move as part of an overall redesign of the training program. The incident marked the third time that the department’s high command has been accused of punishing supervisors who spoke out against the LAPD in closed sessions before the Christopher Commission.

Nichols, in an interview with the The Times, said he’d suffered severe stress-related problems, including anxiety, insomnia and vomiting, since he was advised that he was being removed.

“I can’t work. I can’t sleep,” he said. “There’s not one minute that I don’t think about it. Sixteen years of working in specialized units, doing my tasks, and now, because I’m honest and fair, they do this to me.

“What career do I have left? It’s gone. If you make waves in this department, it becomes close to impossible to ever promote again.”

Fred Nichols checked into a hotel that following May and shot himself.

Retired in-good-standing sergeant Cheryl Dorsey recently came forward and explained how when she was going through her own Board of Rights hearing that involved the same charge as Dorner—giving false and misleading statements to an Internal Affairs investigator —she seriously contemplated just jumping off the third floor of the Bradbury Building.

Married to another LAPD officer at the time, Dorsey says that she was a victim of domestic violence and after details of incidents at her home found their way into the department, she was charged with six counts of unnecessarily causing the response of an outside agency for the six calls she made to the sheriff’s department from her home in Altadena. The charge of giving false and misleading statements was tacked on when questioned by Internal Affairs.

She believes that having come forward since Dorner and finally speaking out that she’ll face some sort of retaliation from the department.

Fired LAPD police officer Brian Bentley said that he had a manifesto too—not a list of those to kill, but those who had wronged him during his 10 years with the department. He was fired for writing the book One Time: The Story of a South Central Los Angeles Police Officer, a book that documented his experience with racism, discrimination, and police brutality inside of the LAPD.

And there’s another Black officer who has a lot to say but tells me that he’s too worried about his family to come forward.

So you see, this time it isn’t about us per se—it’s about the Black men and women who have suffered over the years the type of racism and discrimination as described by Dorner and echoed by many of his colleagues in the days since.

The community’s job is to push forward and stand with those Black police officers willing to come forward and give credence to Dorner’s claims. It’s very easy to discredit someone who’s never worn the LAPD uniform, but it’s not so easy when it’s one of your own, and that’s the discussion that needs to take place publicly. It’s the first real step towards ending police brutality on the streets and in the department.

I want to see the relationship between Blacks and the LAPD improve and I believe that it has. But I also believe that we just took a huge step backwards with Dorner and no amount of community meetings with civil rights leaders and the LAPD posing for cameras is going to fix that.

It can’t be more the same.

Christopher Dorner was a game changer.

Chosen as one of Essence Magazine’s 25 Women Shaping the World, Jasmyne A. Cannick writes about the intersection of race, politics, and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Housing and Tenant Services in South LA

imageLos Angeles Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc.
Los Angeles Neighborhood Housing Services believes that strong neighborhoods can be achieved through quality affordable housing options.  It offers financial education workshops to workshops in an attempt to curb foreclosures and provide financial independence for low-income families.  Los Angeles Neighborhood Services also lobbies for the development and maintenance of affordable housing in communities of need.

imageFair Housing Foundation
Founded in 1964, the Fair Housing Foundation seeks to end discrimination in housing and to provide equal access to housing options to everyone regardless of race, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age, socioeconomic group and any other characteristic protected by law.  It also provides services in dealing with tenant/landlord issues.  The Fair Housing Foundation serves South Los Angeles, Compton, Lynwood, Huntington Park, Bell and their surrounding communities.

imageBroadway South Neighborhood Revitalization Project
Broadway South is a collaborative effort by Beyond Shelter and the Beyond Shelter Housing Development Corporation to provide an affordable housing complexes in South Los Angeles.  The program not only offers Section 8 housing but also seeks to address the socioeconomic needs of its residents.  It currently has housing complexes on 74th and Main, 79th and Broadway and 51st and Broadway.

imageHousing Rights Center
The Housing Rights Center provides housing services to residents throughout Los Angeles County.  It combines legal action with educational services to end housing discrimination.  Telephone and in-person counseling for both tenants and landlords is available.

imageLos Angeles Community Action Network: L.A. Right to Housing Collective
The Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) engages in community and public policy activism in the South Los Angeles and Skid Row communities.  It’s Right to Housing Collective advocates for tenants’ rights at City Hall.  Among the Right to Housing Collective’s latest action was a protest outside of Councilmember Wesson’s office demanding changes to the city’s rent-control laws.   

Office for Civil Rights investigates LAUSD for discrimination

The federal Office for Civil Rights will investigate whether low academic achievement of African American students results from discrimination by the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Los Angeles Times reported.

In a letter to community groups, the Office for Civil Rights disclosed the probe, with details about the investigation. The group will look into services provided to students who are learning English.

Black community leaders welcomed the news at the Southside Bethel Baptist Church in South Los Angeles, but also felt disappointed that the investigation did not come at an earlier time.

“To initially focus on one group and exclude others could have been divisive and counterproductive to overall reform,” the Rev. Eric P. Lee said prior to the forum. “It is unfortunate that it required the civil rights community to demand from the Department of Education that children be provided educational equality.”

The group will focus on English learns because the Los Angeles Unified School District has about 220,000 students, which is more than any other school system in the country. English learners, most of them Latino, make up about a third of students. Black students make up almost 11 percent of enrollment.

Federal officials said they will also pursue potential discrimination concerns involving black students in other parts of the country. They added that their evaluations should benefit all underserved students, but black community leaders are not satisfied. Civil rights leaders have also argued that black children never achieved the equality promised by past reform efforts.

“The message being sent to Los Angeles’ African American community is that the devastation to black students being caused by the failure of public education is of little consequence to you or your department,” a coalition of black leaders wrote in a letter to the federal Department of Education.

Federal analysts have been examining how English learners are identified and when they are judged fluent enough to handle regular course work. Officials will also look at whether English learners have qualified, trained teachers.

The investigation will compare five largely black elementary schools in Carson, View Park and Hawthorne with five largely white elementary schools in Bel-Air, Tarzana, Studio City and Encino.

“Our administration is committed to responding to communities and the civil rights issues they confront for all students,” Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote in her letter to community leaders.

Federal officials have stressed that poor academic results do not, by themselves, prove discrimination. But federal officials also said discrimination does not have to be intentional to be subject to federal remedies and sanctions.