Roaches and rats: Fannie Mae blamed for 'slum conditions' on Adams Blvd.

March 1, 2012, 3:25 p.m.

Protesters gathered in front of 1139 East Adams Boulevard to protest what they called "slum conditions" in a foreclosed Fannie Mae-owned property. (Credit: José Martinez/OnCentral)

Three families decried their living conditions in a Fannie Mae-owned property on Adams Boulevard as slum-like at a press conference held in front of their home on Thursday afternoon.

A single-family dwelling at 1139 East Adams Boulevard, which a former landlord split into three units without the proper city permits, went into foreclosure in September, which is when national mortgage finance company Fannie Mae took ownership. The property is currently home to 17 residents: three families with a total of 11 children.

Paulina Gonzalez, executive director of tenants' rights organization Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), said that the family has lived without electricity since last July, when the Department of Water and Power (DWP) shut off the electricity due to the previous delinquent landlord's $18,000 bill in unpaid electricity bills.

She also said there is mold in the walls, which she said causes the children respiratory problems; broken windows, which expose tenants to weather conditions; and rats and roaches.

Jyotswaroop Bawa, associate director of SAJE, explained that tenants have a legal right to remain in a foreclosed property.

"It's the law," she said. "Whoever the landlord is should inform them of what is happening with the property." Landlords are not legally obliged to inform tenants of a foreclosure, however -- and many will continue to collect rent from tenants without notifying them. Bawa said these particular tenants didn't know the property was foreclosed until July, when the foreclosure was already in process and the electricity had already been shut off.

"When they went to the [city], they learned the landlord owed over $18,000," Bawa said. "Just because the landlord was delinquent, it should not have prevented the [city] from starting a brand-new account for these tenants, which it did not."

Fannie Mae has been "unresponsive," according to Bawa.

"We're holding the banks responsible," said Bawa, referring to Fannie Mae. "This is actually the bank's legal responsibility as the landlord. They're supposed to make sure the conditions are inhabitable."

Keosha Burns, a senior manager for Fannie Mae's media and external relations, said in a statement sent via email that for this particular property, "standard Fannie Mae processes for establishing tenancy were followed and the occupants were unresponsive to our property management’s multiple attempts at contact." Burns explained that the lack of responsiveness prevented Fannie Mae from "determining the occupants’ eligibility and inspecting the property for interior repair needs."

"We attempted to contact the occupants multiple times with no response," wrote Burns. "Our process for contacting the occupants at 1139 E. Adams Blvd. to establish tenancy is the same process we use in Los Angeles, CA and throughout the United States. Due to the occupants’ lack of response to our repeated attempts at contact, we were left with no choice but to move forward with a foreclosure eviction."

The statement did say that, "given the occupants' recently exhibited interest in engaging in a [dialogue] regarding their status," Fannie Mae will attempt to establish the tenants' tenancy once again within the next two days.

Gonzalez was adamant in disputing the claim that Fannie Mae has attempted to establish contact. "We've been in conversation with Fannie Mae," she said. "We've been telling them exactly what's been happening time and time again. The city has been in contact with Fannie Mae. ... They know exactly what's happening here. They're just refusing to do anything about it."

"We're here to hold Fannie Mae accountable," she said. "Is Fannie Mae going to be Los Angeles' newest slumlord?" Gonzalez said that Fannie Mae was "trying to shirk responsibility instead of doing what's right," and that although the tenants aren't paying rent right now -- "because they don't know who to pay it to" -- they are prepared to do so.

One of those city departments that's been in contact with Fannie Mae is the Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD). Bawa said LAHD "does not want to get involved" because the property on Adams Boulevard is not in its jurisdiction, since it's a single-family dwelling.

Anna Ortega, LAHD's director of rent stabilization, clarified, however. She said that while LAHD does not have jurisdiction over single-family dwellings as structures, it does have jurisdiction over tenant issues. This became a tenant issue last month, when LAHD received three complaints from the tenants of 1139 East Adams Boulevard.

Rushmore Cervantes, the executive officer for LAHD, explained. "Once the Housing Department received three complaints from [the] residents, we notified Fannie Mae as to the situation and gave them instruction to evict the tenants and pay relocation assistance to the three families residing there." Relocation assistance is the money that a landlord is legally required to pay when a building is uninhabitable, forcing tenants to move out.

Cervantes said LAHD has given Fannie Mae this notification in two letters, one on February 27 and one on February 28. These letters gave Fannie Mae until March 8 and March 9, respectively, to give the tenants their 30-day notice that they will be evicted. Two 15-day periods will also begin on March 8 and March 9, during which Fannie Mae must give the appropriate tenants their relocation assistance. All three families were covered by LAHD's two letters.

Burns, however, said that is normal procedure when owners/landlords don't get a response from the tenants. She said if the tenants want to remain in the home, they will get a lease and be able to remain there, with repairs "absolutely" being made "if they stay in communication" with Fannie Mae. Relocation assistance will be discussed if the tenants decide they want to move out.

"That will be a part of the conversation," Burns said. "If they decide they don't want to rent and want to leave the home, relocation assistance is usually part of the deal." Burns said she didn't know the specifics for these tenants' relocation assistance.

Bawa said SAJE also reached out to Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, to no avail. She said the department sent inspectors to the property twice -- the first time the tenants were cited; the second time both the tenants and the landlords were cited. As of press time, the Department of Public Health had not returned a request for comment by OnCentral.

"[That's] one way to intimidate tenants," explained Gonzalez. "They come out here, they cite the tenants and the tenants don't know what's going on."

One of those tenants is Haiyde Clemente, who broke into tears in her interview with OnCentral. "My kids need the light to do homework and projects," she said in Spanish. "How can we do that without light? We need them the city to turn on our lights. Not for us -- for the kids." The families in the building are using a generator, which Clemente said costs $100 a day. One of Clemente's children is nine months old, Gonzalez told those at the press conference, meaning he's spent most of his life living without electricity.

Bawa said the tenants have fallen to wayside throughout this ordeal. "Essentially what we're saying is in this bureaucratic mess there are 11 children, including an infant, all of whom have been out of electricity since July," said Bawa. In what she called a "bank tactic," Bawa said Fannie Mae has been trying to intimidate the families into moving out on their own. If they do, she said, they'll lose their rights to the relocation assistance -- up to $18,000 -- they are each owed.

Another one of the tenants, Jesus Herrera, said this was simply a case of Fannie Mae shirking its responsibility. "There haven't been any results," he said in Spanish. "How it is possible that this kind of thing is happening in a city as world-renowned as Los Angeles?"

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