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L.A. Council offers $322,000 to tenants evicted from unsafe units

January 13, 2012 |  3:24 pm

Google map of 443 W. 49th St., Los Angeles

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details

The L.A. City Council voted Friday to provide up to $322,000 in relocation money to dozens of low-income tenants who must move from a South Los Angeles apartment building declared unsafe by inspectors.

Tenants were given eviction notices last month after city officials concluded that owner John Callaghan had illegally converted what was supposed to have been a three-unit apartment building on 49th Street into as many as 44 units -- a warren of narrow hallways; tiny, shared bathrooms; and communal kitchens, much of it laced with unpermitted electrical and plumbing work.

Housing officials said they intended to demand repayment from the landlord. If he doesn’t pay, the Los Angeles Housing Department will place a lien on the property, making it more difficult to sell.

Still, city officials have no guarantee that they will get the money back. If the property falls into foreclosure -- and ultimately is returned to the lender -- the city will not be able to pursue those costs, said Rushmore Cervantes, the No. 2 official at the Housing Department.

“If it’s foreclosed, then we would be wiped out,” he added.

Tenants and renters' rights advocates expressed relief at the council’s unanimous decision. Without the money, “I could have been homeless,” said tenant Ruben Duran Palafox, 41. Renters will receive  $7,300 to $18,300 per household.

In recent weeks, city officials have also been paying to station an around-the-clock security guard on the property to make sure the unpermitted electrical work doesn't spark a fire, said Sonia Pflaster, a lawyer with the Inner City Law Center.

Neither Callaghan nor his attorney could be reached for comment.

Although the city’s action goes a long way to helping the tenants, council members are still seeking answers about why it took inspectors so long to figure out what had happened at the building -- and how many other properties like it might be out there.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes the property, has summoned officials from the Department of Building and Safety before a council committee next week to explain the building’s inspection history.

“My question is, did anyone notice that the building had an unapproved third floor and 40 units in a three-unit building?” Perry said.

Of particular concern is how Callaghan received an updated permit in November from the Department of Building and Safety allowing occupancy of the building. That permit, which department officials say cleared up a clerical error, was reissued despite repeated orders to correct violations issued in the preceding months by the Housing Department, which regulates multiple-unit apartment buildings.

Earlier this week, the council asked the city attorney to draw up rules that would bar property owners from getting new building permits if they have inspection violations at another location.

Pflaster, who represents 35 of the tenants at the property, said she hopes the city tightens up the rules.

“I’d like to see this not happen again,” she said. “To have tenants end up in this kind of limbo situation, it’s very stressful for them.”


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For the record, 6:49 p.m., Jan. 13: A previous version of this post said the City Council voted Thursday.

Photo: An aerial shot of the building at 443 W. 49th St., where city officials evicted tenants after finding unpermitted electrical and plumbing work. Credit: Google Maps