April 30, 2015

 

By BILL HETHERMAN 

City News Service  

An accused slumlord falsely blamed his tenants for problems in a 26-unit apartment building in South Los Angeles, a tenant organizer testified on Wednesday.  Taking the stand in the second day of trial of a lawsuit brought by about 90 tenants against Bracha Investments LLC —owned by Franco Haiem — Amelia Fay-Berquist said she visited the two-story building at 2108 Maple Ave. more than 100 times while working for the Inner City Law Center. She said she witnessed rodent infestation, mold, deteriorated flooring and other filthy conditions. In addition, two on-site maintenance men were often drunk, she testified.

 

Fay-Berquist said she met multiple times with Haiem over a four-year period, trying to convince him to address the tenants’ complaints, but to no avail.

 

“I’m drowning in debt, the tenants are at fault for all of these problems,” Haiem said, according to Fay-Berquist.

 

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the tenants in July 2013. Among the allegations are negligence, breach of the implied warranty of habitability, premises liability, intentional infliction of emotional distress and unlawful collection of rent. In their court papers, defense attorneys say many of the tenants never notified their landlord of any problems and that repairs were prevented when the residents changed the locks on their doors without notifying management. The lawyers also say the residents knew of the conditions there when they chose to sign their lease agreements.

 

According to Fay-Berquist, the apartment building was previously owned by Frank McHugh, a slumlord sentenced to 48 months of probation and forbidden from managing any residential property in the city because of the deteriorated conditions at more than 100 buildings. She said she set up a meeting with Haiem after learning that some of the conditions that tenants complained of under McHugh were not corrected by their new landlord. Fay-Berquist said her first meeting with Haiem took place in 2011 at a Starbucks downtown. She said she told him that tenants were unhappy with seeing cockroaches and rodents running free in the building, that plumbing often failed to work and that his maintenance men were often under the influence.

 

“He said he would deal with their (the maintenance workers’) drinking and offered a $10 rent reduction every month so the tenants could buy a can of Raid,” Fay-Berquist said.

 

Fay-Berquist said she personally witnessed one of the maintenance men drunk and smoking indoors during one of her visits. She said that after she told him to go outside if he wanted to smoke, he threw his cigarette to the carpet and stomped on it with one foot. Fay-Berquist said she did not believe Haiem when he said he had financial problems because he once drove her in a brand new Mercedes Benz.

 

She said he became upset during a visit to his property by city inspectors.

 

“He was really distressed,” she said. “He told me, ‘Just keep the city out of my building, I’ll do anything you say,’” according to Fay- Berquist.

 

Fay-Berquist described for jurors a series of photos she took at the structure, some depicting mouse and cockroach droppings and others showing mold on walls. One photo depicted a mouse at the bottom of a vase.

 

“I saw this thing jumping, so I asked the tenant, ‘Did you guys get a frog?’” Fay-Berquist testified.

 

Another image depicted a resident's unopened bag of rice that was laden with mouse droppings.

 

“The mice still managed to chew their way in,” Fay-Berquist said.

 

A set of steps in another photo were strewn with debris.

 

“They were just really dirty stairs,” she said.

 

Fay-Berquist said she left the Inner City Law Center to pursue graduate studies in public health at UCLA.

Category: Health


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