‘I would rather be homeless than go back there.’
This story is part of Housing Hazards, an investigation into low-income apartment buildings owned by the nonprofit group AIDS Healthcare Foundation and its housing arm.
The story is based on interviews with more than four dozen former and current low-income housing residents and employees, and an analysis of calls to police, photos, inspection and court records, and security footage from the buildings. It was edited by Knock LA with reporting from Cal State LA’s UT Community News students and their professor.
Content warning: This project includes descriptions and content that includes violence. Please exercise self-care before choosing to view the story.
A man who had been intimidating and threatening low-income, long-term residents of the Madison Hotel apartments in downtown Los Angeles also had employees on edge.
In multiple incident reports filed between October 2021 and July 2022, employees described the man allegedly making threats in the lobby with a butcher knife in hand, threatening to “kill” someone, and making “life-ending threats.” Although the employee reports note that police were not contacted, the man was arrested briefly in April 2022 after he threatened a woman with a gun, according to security footage and employee incident reports.
By May, staff members were writing him up again for allegedly walking into the lobby “highly upset, screaming profanities and racial slurs,” banging a chair against the cage that surrounds the front desk, and threatening to get a gun.
Building residents claimed that no new security measures were imposed following this incident.
Later, on the night of July 26, the man was captured on the building’s security video shooting another resident, James Ellis.
Ellis survived and is suing his landlord, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), a nonprofit group that owns more than a dozen buildings, including the Madison, with more than a thousand low-income housing units. The suit, filed in late 2022, alleges that AHF was negligent about the lack of effective security in the building and did not take measures to prevent foreseeable harm.
Many preventable health and safety hazards were identified in low-income buildings owned by AHF and its housing arm, the Healthy Housing Foundation, through a broad analysis of city inspection data, police calls, public records, and interviews with dozens of individuals who have recently worked or lived in the nonprofits’ buildings.
These hazards include security breaches, accessibility issues that affected elderly and disabled residents, faulty electrical wiring, missing or broken smoke and carbon dioxide detectors, pest infestations, frequent leaks and water damage, and mold.
Our reporting found that AHF buildings were rampant with habitability issues, including:
- Serious inspection violations: More than a quarter of the city’s 912 inspection records noting violations in five AHF residential buildings between mid-2018 and mid-2022 were classified as “high” in severity, and another 65 were considered “medium.” Some of the inspections with violations noted most frequently included safety issues, including 175 involving issues with fire doors, smoke detectors, and carbon monoxide detectors; 75 related to door and window maintenance; and approximately 65 related to problems with walls and ceilings. Multiple inspections noted violations over the same issue for some units if, for instance, they were not fixed by the time it was re-inspected.
- Frequently reported crime: People in five AHF low-income buildings called police for help almost 2,100 times — more than a dozen calls per week on average — for disputes, disturbances, prowler complaints, battery, alleged assaults with a deadly weapon, burglary, and theft, according to data obtained from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for calls placed from late 2019 through 2022.
- Disenfranchised tenants: More than half of the 50 current and former residents and on-site managers interviewed reported problems with bugs, pests, and rodents; broken or leaky plumbing; and frequent power outages. About two dozen of the individuals interviewed reported issues with frequent water shut-offs, as well as crime inside and around the building. Many interviewees also reported issues with suspected mold. Dozens of residents who were interviewed said their complaints to staff and building managers went unanswered, or they faced weeks- and months-long delays in resolving the complaints.
Last year, AHF called itself the largest provider of HIV and AIDS medical care in the United States, with operations in 45 countries and in at least 15 U.S. states. It brought in $198 million in net operating income in 2021 and reported $357 million in net property and equipment as part of its assets, according to its audited financial report for 2020 and 2021.
As a nonprofit, it is exempt from many taxes. AHF reported over $70.6 million and $72 million in grant revenue in 2020 and 2021, respectively,
including 12% or about $8.5 million each year from Los Angeles County, according to the report. Additionally, AHF reported $161 million and $164 million in net Medicare and Medicaid premiums for its HMO arm in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
In the past 20 years, AHF has also spent over $100 million on ballot measures, candidates, and political committees, according to an analysis of campaign finance data in California and Ohio. Three of its top employees and board members hold positions on local or state government boards; another employee served as the deputy attorney general for the California Department of Justice; and another AHF board member is a City Council member in Florida, where the nonprofit has expanded its housing network.
Despite recently settling a couple of tenant lawsuits and facing several new complaints, there’s no sign AHF is slowing down.
Earlier this year, the nonprofit purchased a $21.3 million, 12-story office building at 318 W. Ninth Street to be converted into 251 affordable apartments, according to the Real Deal and KTLA. Early last year, AHF held a groundbreaking ceremony for a 15-story building with 216 extremely low-income housing units that it is planning to develop on a lot next to the Madison Hotel. In September 2022, it also announced plans to build a 375-unit affordable housing site in Hollywood.
“Where is all this crazy money from? Who’s deciding where to use the money?” said Jewels Long Beach, who is an AHF donor and patron of its thrift shops. “If you’re claiming to help – and we definitely need the housing and… transitional housing — then why [don’t] the buildings work? I have a lot of questions.”
In an email, an AHF official mentioned three single-room occupancy and hotel properties the nonprofit has or is currently developing in Florida, New York, Texas, and Georgia. When provided details about the story, another executive declined to comment and has not responded to specific questions and allegations.
City of Los Angeles officials declined to comment due to pending litigation with AHF, but Housing Department officials provided records showing that violations in recent years in five AHF buildings — the Madison, Baltimore, Olympic, Sinclair and Cypress Arms — resulted in hearings and at least one extension after the nonprofit missed deadlines for address them. One issue at the Olympic was sent to the city attorney’s office for prosecution, but “the case was closed several months later due to compliance.”
“Somewhere in the system between the city and AHF, someone decided that this is good enough for people on disability,” said Baltimore Hotel resident Carlos Brum. “And that’s not OK.”
Public policy experts and community activists say the nonprofit should be more accountable to the public, considering it received millions of dollars in government grants and Medicare.
“If you’re misbehaving and using government resources in the process… you should be held accountable for that,” said Gary Painter, a public policy professor at the University of Southern California and director of the school’s Homelessness Policy Research Institute.
AHF Safety Protocols Called Into Question
Residents say crime and even shootings that have happened in AHF buildings seemed like they were preventable. At the Madison, the man who was seen shooting Ellis had been allegedly targeting other residents for almost two years.
Grace Antisdel claimed in a 2022 interview that he had been “intimidating and threatening” her for months, and she reported the behavior to management with no action.
“When he comes around, I listen to my home church [on TV], so I focus on that,” said Antisdel, who moved to the building hoping for a peaceful retirement after working as a nurse and nanny and getting sober.
One employee alleged in a report that the man called himself “the drug dealer” of the building and saw “a noticeable amount of drugs” in his room, although he noted the police were not called.
In November 2021, the man allegedly fired a gun outside the building, ran into the building, and was taken into custody by LAPD, according to Ellis’ lawsuit. However, another alleged incident occurred a month later when the same man waved a gun toward an AHF employee. He was also accused of sexually assaulting a female tenant in May 2022, according to the suit.
Ellis, who lived in the apartment across from the man, said he had complained to AHF staff about the man allegedly physically assaulting a woman in the unit, but an employee asked him why he didn’t do anything about it himself.
Fast forward to the night Ellis was shot. Instead of calling the police, an AHF employee contacted his manager in another building, who then called the cops. According to the calls obtained by Knock LA, the manager could share few details with police since he wasn’t on-site, such as a description or name of the suspect.
Karla Leiva, a former partnerships and relationships manager for AHF who later helped organize tenants, said that employees sometimes felt pressured to check with their manager before phoning police because they “wanted to make sure not to fall on their [managers’] bad side.”
On the night he was shot, Ellis left a trail of blood from his third floor apartment, down the stairs, and through the lobby in an attempt to get help, according to security video footage and LAPD photos obtained by his attorneys through a subpoena.
“I went across the street, rang on that door, and dropped to the floor. They saved my life,” Ellis said.
The shooter fled and was only detained when he later showed up to bail an associate out of jail, alleged Annette Harings, an attorney who is representing Ellis. LAPD did not respond to a request for general comments and for details about the arrest and its timing.
According to Ellis and Harings, the bullet went through his elbow and remains lodged in his abdomen. “I got a lot of pain,” Ellis said. “I have heart problems and the bullet made it worse.”
Ellis is not the only resident who said he has witnessed a shooting on an AHF property.
Darnell Moses, a former mechanic tech inspector who lives at the Madison Hotel, alleged he was almost shot one night in early 2022 by another resident. He described the incident in a March 2022 interview, pointing out gunshot holes in his door and air conditioning unit. In an interview in April 2023, he said the building staff turned the gunshot hole into a peephole last summer.
Moses said his dog, Max, saved him. “He was barking, and I went down to see what was wrong with him. Then, the bullet fired and went through my door,” hitting the window air conditioning unit, Moses said.
Residents also described another shooting at the Madison Hotel in late April, when two non-residents allegedly got in a fight in the lobby while the security guard was on another floor. Part of the safety problem, according to several residents, is that security in the building was reduced to one person in recent years.
“The guard will be upstairs letting someone into their apartment,” leaving the lobby unattended, said Madison Hotel resident Edwin Linwood. He also alleged that trespassing and thefts are common in the building because the side door is frequently left open.
In some cases, residents say the employees themselves make them feel unsafe. Several lawsuits have been filed in recent years about security issues posed by employees at AHF buildings, including an alleged sexual assault by a guard. King Edward Hotel residents said their property manager was arrested in June 2022 after allegedly holding someone hostage with a gun. A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department record confirms the arrest.
Knock LA obtained and analyzed 911 call data from five AHF-owned buildings. Between 2019 and 2022, 2,098 calls were placed, including:
- 650 disputes and disturbances in the buildings, including 15 reports of weapons
- 218 complaints about prowlers
- 193 alleged batteries
- 174 suspected assaults with a deadly weapon
- 167 burglaries, thefts, and robberies
- 30 requests for an ambulance, including four calls related to “possible death investigations”
About 170 of the calls for incidents like disputes and assaults were coded by LAPD as “life-threatening emergencies.”
While AHF purchased the 150-room King Edward Hotel in April 2018, about six months after it acquired the 208-room Madison Hotel, it had the highest number of emergencies: over 840 calls, including approximately 65 reports of assaults with a deadly weapon; 86 potential batteries, attacks, or domestic violence incidents; 138 prowler complaints; and 250 disputes or disturbances.
Resident Kyle Merritt, who moved in the building in March 2019, alleged he was attacked on his first day there. “I was actually attacked trying to come into the building,” he said. “It was my first day and I had to hold the door shut, and the guy’s arm was in the door.”
Despite the building having a gate box that requires a code, residents say there is little to prevent non-residents from entering the building, whether by following someone in or getting the code from another resident.
Merritt said he was recently diagnosed with cancer and is considering moving to a building outside of AHF.
“Honestly, I feel like I will have a better time healing somewhere else other than here,” he said. “There’s been a lot of issues. People on my floor scream all hours of the day and I feel like the way tenants are treated here aren’t up to par. I don’t feel safe down here at all.”
Holly Stevens, another King Edward resident, said she feels constantly on edge hearing neighbors scream at all hours, creating an unsettling environment that makes it hard to be home. “I can’t even explain it. It’s like some kind of old horror movie,” she said. “It definitely does something to your mind.”
Stevens said she stays at King Edward because it’s safer than being on the streets: “I don’t think I have the DNA to be out there in a tent because that’s not safe for sure.”
Jeff Kelly, a resident of 15 years, said the building feels unsafe in recent years: “After AHF took over the building, they [seemed to] stop vetting people.” Kelly alleged that another resident hit him in August 2022 with a baseball bat, breaking the ring finger on his left hand. The 70-year-old said he has since armed himself with bear spray.
At the Whitley in Hollywood, residents said the main front door sometimes doesn’t lock properly and people also leave the back gate open.
“We are supposed to have someone at the front desk, but there is hardly ever anyone there during the day, and after 4 p.m. there is nobody at all,” resident Curlin Haggerty alleged. “So if something happens, there is a number we can call, but they don’t show up or show up [until] hours later. One time they didn’t come until 10 p.m.”
Ryan Phillips, another Whitley resident, said the reduction in security personnel is fairly recent.
“There were attendants there that were around the clock,” he said. “Everything just started going downhill… They let go of around-the-clock management, so they only have one person there. And that management person hardly stays at the front desk.”
“Now that people have been seeing that in the building, it gives them a free-for-all to do what they want to do, like bring in strangers that [are] not really safe for the building to have in there,” Phillips added.
There’s a similar situation at the Pride Hotel, according to residents. Resident Raul Olague said the key-code-protected front gate is often left open, allowing anyone to come in. “People will go in and try to get into your room or go to the restroom and do what they gotta do: Shower, make a mess,” Olague said, adding that he stays “out of the way” by working as much as he can.
Tenants at some AHF buildings are only allowed to have one visitor at a time, but that does not stop some residents from bringing in more, according to an AHF property manager who has worked in several buildings and requested anonymity. They said they fear confronting tenants who allegedly bring “dangerous people” with drugs and weapons into the buildings.
“You get emotionally drained working here. Sometimes it is dangerous,” the manager said. “We are like puppets. We can’t really do much, only what is within our power, our job position.”
Cal State LA’s reporting team includes Julie Patel Liss, Anne To, Marcos Franco, Denis Akbari, Leslie Magaña Arias, Victoria Ivie, Alyssah Hall, Erik Adams, Gavin Quinton, Asha Johnson, Priscilla Caballero, Erick Cabrera and Oscar Torres. Knock LA editor Morgan Keith and photo editor Ben Camacho also contributed to this report.