Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Intersections South LA | Tenants score victory against slumlord in South Central

Article I wrote on how we organized our building and beat the slumlord in South Central L.A.

Intersections South LA | Tenants score victory against slumlord in South Central

By Joaquin Cienfuegos

imageThe front gate of the building on W. 49th St., where over 40 tenants shared a single mailbox. (Photo by Javier Cortez)
The tallest building on 49th Street and Figueroa in South Central Los Angeles has gone through a lot of upheaval over the last year. The tall burgundy building located at 443 W. 49th Street might have a renovated façade, but for the tenants who have lived there, it is a place they cannot call home. Their conditions are unlivable, yet for landlord John Callaghan, it is his own personal gold mine (he owns several homes in similar conditions).

I first moved in to the building in June of 2009. What was supposed to be something temporary, became the place where I stayed for about two years. I saw a lot of neighbors, as well as close friends, come and go, but we all had very similar experiences, and above all, similar complaints.

We were all crammed into rooms in an illegal three story building, with over 40 rooms. The house was only supposed to legally have three apartments. All rooms were different sizes and prices, but we all had to deal with similar circumstances.

Most people shared bathrooms and we all shared the same kitchen. In order to get into the third floor one had to go through the second floor. It was obvious it was illegally built. Over 30 people had to share the kitchen. Most of the time we were crammed into narrow hallways as well. The second and third floor had no emergency exits, no heating, no proper ventilation, and faulty fire detectors. In case of a fire, it was a death trap for most of us. The building wasn’t even finished when the landlord started moving people in.

One of the workers, who was eventually let go by John Callaghan (the slumlord), had let me know that what John was doing was illegal. It was initially supposed to serve as student housing for USC students, also part of the process of gentrification of South Central by the university. However, since the house is located so far south of King Blvd., it didn’t work out that way, so John started to rent it out to anybody who needed a cheap and temporary room.

Many of the tenants who moved into the house were people who were working class or even unemployed people of color (Black and Brown). Most were Spanish-speaking and some even had families crammed into rooms.

John “the Slumlord” saw all these factors as an opportunity to exploit and take advantage of people. He always found ways to cut corners on the one hand, and on the other, try to find ways to make more money off of the tenants.

Many friends who moved out never received a cent of their deposit back and John always calculated fake debts to take that money. He overcharged people for late fees and for bills, making a profit off of supposed utility bills.

imageThe tenants shared a community kitchen, where there were multiple refrigerators to fill the demand. (Photo by Javier Cortez)
He forced people to clean common areas (kitchens, hallways and driveways), a duty people felt was his, being the landlord. If people missed a day or were late to clean (for many it was impossible to clean before 10 pm because of their work schedules), he would charge each person in that room $45 extra.

John Callaghan also has a history of exploiting his workers and not paying them. He usually only hires a handful of construction workers, but he doesn’t pay them. He also hires female secretaries, and has physically assaulted at least two women. He harassed many tenants. It was his way to push people out, keep their deposit, raise the rent and bring in new tenants. All this led to people talking to each other and begin to organize themselves into a strong tenant union.

In a communal setting, people made the best of things. On the 2nd and 3rd floor, since they shared a kitchen, they would co-operate with food, take turns cooking, and have many feasts, parties and barbeques for everyone who contributed. This was also a place where people would talk to each other, as well as complain to each other about their common situation.

The majority of people living at 443 W. 49th Street had similar concerns that was later formulated into a leaflet with a list of demands circulated to all the tenants. That’s how the fight against the slumlord began.

This flier was distributed to all the tenants at the building: imageAlong with fliers and meetings among the tenants, housing agencies were also contacted. We understood that the Housing Department, Building and Safety Department and Health Department usually do not take any action without real organized pressure by tenants. So we had to follow up with them several times and tell them we would go higher up if we needed to.

We also contacted community organizations Inquilinos Unidos and the Inner City Law Center, which supports tenants. Organizers and lawyers from the Inner City Law Center still support and represent us.

During this big fight, the landlord retaliated against organizers and tenants by attempting eviction and paying some tenants to intimidate and divide the other tenants.

With the help of lawyers from Inner City Law Center, he wasn’t able to evict any of the tenants. John tried to hold over tenants that he “knew the law” since he went to law school, so at first people thought we couldn’t fight him even on that level.

Eventually for me, John had to pay me $1,000 to move, but tenants were organized enough to continue the struggle against him. They were autonomous and didn’t need to rely on one person to do everything. People were inspired and fought until the end.

With pressure from the tenants and lawyers, the Housing Department (after bouncing responsibility between them and the Building and Safety Department) declared the building illegal and unfit for people to live in.

This one building helped uncover corruption within the state institutions, forcing the City Council to investigate further. At the end, tenants would be relocated with compensation of $10,000 to $18,000 dollars each and there is a law suit pending against the landlord by the Inner City Law Center.

We saw this as a victory, because we fought for respect and dignity as tenants. We want to show to all the slumlords out there that we as a community will not allow them to steal from us and treat us like animals.

John was not able to evict any one of us. His arrogance and greed was his downfall. He might not like any of the tenants, but he will now respect us.
More Stories: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/17/local/la-me-illegal-housing-20111217

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