Mold and plumbing problems linger in South LA apartment complex as city pledges to act

Problems with mold and vermin, broken tubs and showers and other slum-like conditions continue to escalate at a huge South Los Angeles apartment complex, even as politicians, housing officials and public health undertake to hold the owner accountable.

City and county inspectors plan to reevaluate the 425 units of Chesapeake Apartments in early June, following a Times article in April that revealed numerous tenant complaints and public health violations, including leaks sewage and gas and electricity outages.

“This is not acceptable,” said Robert Galardi, the city’s housing department chief inspector. “The building needs some major renovations.”

Galardi said the resort-wide inspection could be the precursor to sanctions against the building’s landlord, Pama Properties, including enrollment in a municipal program that withholds rent from landlords to force them to repair degraded conditions.

For years, housing inspectors and others tasked with overseeing Chesapeake Apartments have missed obvious warning signs of its severe deterioration and other buildings owned by Pama Properties and Pama Chairman Mike Nijjar. The World War II-era Chesapeake complex spans several city blocks in the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw area, with nearly two dozen two-story buildings built around courtyards and open-air parking lots.

County public health officials have found 205 violations at Chesapeake apartments since 2017, an average of more than three per month and most of all residential properties in LA County during that time, according to a Times analysis. Violations have included mold, rat, and plumbing issues. During the same period, more than 100 complaints were filed with city housing inspectors regarding property conditions, including missing and faulty carbon monoxide and smoke detectors and gas and oil issues. electricity, according to a review of city data by The Times.

Nijjar-related businesses own 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 survey by LAist. Five years ago, LA City Attorney Mike Feuer sued Pama Properties and Nijjar over crime, reaching a settlement that required safety and livability upgrades.

In January, LA housing inspectors completed an assessment of Chesapeake apartments that is required every two years. Officials identified 71 violations during this inspection, but said all were corrected and gave the resort an impeccable bill of health. Galardi acknowledged that the review failed and about half of the units were never reviewed.

Many tenants had placed notices on their doors advising inspectors not to enter their units, Galardi said, and the COVID-19 pandemic has posed challenges. The evaluation began in November, just as the wave of infection of the Omicron variant hit Southern California.

“I wouldn’t say the system is down,” said Galardi, who toured the property and met with tenants and organizers last month. “I would say the timing of the pandemic had a big impact on [inspecting] such a large community.

Jim Yukevich, an attorney who represented Nijjar in litigation with the city, did not respond to a list of questions from The Times. Previously, Yukevich said his client takes health and safety issues seriously at all of his properties and makes repairs when notified by tenants.

Since the Times article published last month, staff members of federal, state and local officials who represent the area, all Democrats, have met to discuss conditions at Chesapeake Apartments.

County Supervisor Holly Mitchell called the situation “horrific” and said the severity and long-standing concerns about the property compelled state agencies to penalize the owner and ensure prompt and comprehensive repairs.

“We are now at the point where this strong, clear and decisive action needs to be taken,” Mitchell said.

U.S. Representative Karen Bass, State Senator Sydney Kamlager, Assemblyman Isaac Bryan and Los Angeles City Councilman Herb Wesson declined or did not respond to Times the interview requests. After the publication of the first Times article, Bass, a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, called on Nijjar businesses to immediately repair the Chesapeake apartments, relocate tenants until the work is complete and give them the right to return to the renovated property.

Chesapeake tenants say conditions have remained, if not worsened, since April as Pama Properties rushed to respond.

Milton Morris, 39, has lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the property for six years with his wife and 13-year-old daughter. One afternoon last week, an air purifier the family just bought hummed as his wife used a breathing machine and his daughter held her asthma inhaler while doing her science homework. Morris said he had been complaining about problems for years.

An environmental contractor hired by building management in late April found numerous mold spores in Morris’ apartment at levels that exceed federal environmental guidelines, according to a report Morris shared with The Times. The contractor also found structural damage to the living room, bathroom and kitchen which he described as “unacceptable”.

“There’s nothing they can say to justify that,” said Morris, a home health care worker who pays $1,346 a month in rent. “Many people’s lives have been ruined living here.”

In other cases, tenants say the landlord’s recent efforts to make repairs have left them without basic necessities.

Maria Gonzalez didn’t have a working bath or shower for days after workers responded to complaints about a foul smell emanating from the plumbing. She was further angered when she said a maintenance worker entered the one-bedroom flat she shares with her husband and 16-year-old daughter without permission when the teenager was home alone. To clean up before her job as a janitor at a local hospital, Gonzalez had to fill a bucket with water from the sink.

“Another day without a bath,” said Gonzalez, 50, raising her hands in her bathroom on a recent afternoon after five days without a functioning shower. “When are they coming to finish?”

Another tenant said her shower had been offline for more than two weeks while undergoing repairs. She had to wash her 5 year old son in the kitchen sink.

Tenants said they want the landlord to relocate them during major construction work in their units and assure them that all contractors are licensed and take adequate protections when working with lead paint and other risk for the health.

Galardi, the city’s chief inspector, said tenants should lodge complaints with the housing department if bathing facilities are inaccessible or if they believe unlicensed construction is taking place, and the service would respond immediately.

“We don’t have the resources to oversee day-to-day repairs on the property,” he said. “We have the resources to respond to a scenario that could impact tenants in the short or long term.”

To date, Galardi said, the city has not ordered the relocation of any tenants or declared any apartment in the complex uninhabitable.

Over the past month, Chesapeake residents have taken to City Hall to plead their case in person and also protested outside the Pama Properties headquarters in El Monte.

Morris said tenants must keep up the pressure because history shows public bodies have not helped them.

“The question is still there how the hell did this place pass inspections all these years,” he said.

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