The nonprofit has agreed to fix an elevator, but other issues remain.
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.
Accessibility is one of the biggest issues facing residents of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) properties. Dayslong water shut-offs frequently occur in the Baltimore and produce clogged toilets, making life difficult for its elderly and disabled residents.
John Carter, who has been living in the Baltimore Hotel for a few years, said having liver cancer has increased his visits to the restroom, which becomes even more arduous when bathrooms are out of order during water shutoffs.
Using his wheelchair or walker, Carter has had to find a restroom blocks away and now has a portable toilet in his room, which poses sanitary and odor issues.
Carter said his healthcare provider wrote a letter to the building’s staff that stated he needs a bathroom in his room because of frequent urination related to his liver cancer. He said when AHF offered a room with this accommodation, there was barely room for his essentials, including his walker and electric chair.
When the Baltimore’s restrooms are down, resident Carlos Brum said he sometimes can’t hold it and relieves himself in a bag in his room.
“With my anxiety, I’m sitting stewing in it because I don’t want to take the ‘walk of shame,’” said Brum, adding that his disability is related to his anxiety and panic attacks. “It’s just degrading. It’s soul-crushing.”
Residents of the King Edward, Olympic, and Sinclair reported similar water outages when maintenance is conducted on the buildings’ plumbing systems.
Other accessibility issues deal with elevator and staircase problems.
Italy Brown, a former Baltimore building resident, alleged she badly injured herself a few years ago when she fell down a flight of stairs without a handrail.
After Brown was rushed to the hospital for surgery, she had enlisted attorney Mary Cochran to help her sue the building. Since the accident, Brown moved out of the Baltimore into temporary housing before finding a better low-income apartment.
At the Madison, months-long elevator outages over the past few years have also made it difficult for residents to move throughout the building. Eighteen current and former residents filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that the lack of accessibility violated their civil rights. AHF settled in February and agreed to permanently fix the elevator. Another class action suit on habitability in the building is pending.
Madison resident Dwane Davis said in a 2022 interview that his biggest complaint about the building is that the elevator is frequently broken.
After 14-hour shifts at work as a security guard, Davis said he “can’t take walking” up the steps. “[Seniors] can’t get to their rooms. It’s sad.”
Handicap accessibility is also a major issue at Cypress Arms, according to Adam Dawson, who said he has been a resident for two years. Dawson claimed people with disabilities are housed on the first floor since there is no elevator. However, if the first floor restroom is in use, they’d have to find a way to get up the stairs to use another restroom, Dawson added.
Andre Lane, a King Edward resident who became disabled after hip and knee replacements, said he struggles to access and utilize the shared bathrooms and showers.
“I wish I had my own bathroom,” Lane said.
Pests Proliferate, Raising Health Concerns in AHF Buildings
Over half of the residents interviewed by Knock LA reported major problems with pests such as bedbugs, cockroaches, and rodents — and slow, if any, response from management. Occasional fumigations have helped, but residents said that the toxins allegedly make it hard to breathe in their poorly ventilated rooms. Still, they noted that infestation problems persist because of other issues, such as infrequent trash pickups.
Johnny Johnson, a maintenance worker who lives in the Baltimore, said his long days on the job often end with horror at home instead of peace.
“It’s really sad. You lay your head down and there’s a bug there,” Johnson said. Although he uses insect bombs to get rid of infestations, Johsnson said that he still has to breathe in the fumes when he comes home from work.
Rachel Houston, a former Baltimore resident, said the fumes led her to try a different method for warding off spiders and roaches at night: sleeping with the lights on. Without this approach, Houston said the bugs would “crawl on you.” When the light fixture in her room failed to work, Houston alleged it took the building’s staff two weeks to replace it.
AHF declined to provide context about that situation and others.
Multiple current and former residents of the Baltimore said the rooms are infested with vermin, even after efforts to exterminate them.
“You grow so immune. One [roach] crawled up my leg, and normally I’m [petrified] when anything with more than four legs touches me anywhere,” Brum said. “And I just looked at it like, ‘Well, that was disturbing.’ I’m like, ‘I should not be adapting and assimilating to this.’”
Missing insect screens are another issue for Brum and other residents. There were 35 reports of missing or ineffective insect screens at AHF buildings, including 15 reports from the Baltimore, according to city inspection data. Some residents with missing screens said they have to choose between getting fresh air and living with pests or sitting in hot, stuffy rooms.
Residents at the Sinclair and King Edward claimed that in addition to roaches and bed bugs, they have also dealt with rats.
“These were big rats,” said Kyle Merritt, a King Edward resident. “There was one that got into my room, and I had to take a rat trap from one of the bathrooms and put it in my room. I ended up killing a rat that way.“
Lavonda Parsee, who has lived at the Sinclair for over a year, reported dead rats in the floors and walls.
“There are cockroaches and bugs everywhere,” she said. “The rodents get inside the wall because the building is old, they eat the poison, and then they die. It gives off a horrible smell.”
If Safe Housing is a Human Right, Here’s What Can Be Done
Los Angeles Housing Department public information director Sharon Sandow said its code enforcement division does periodic inspections of rental buildings and also looks into complaints from individual residents. When the division uncovers violations, it gives landlords 37 days to comply.
Noncompliance could lead to administrative hearings, the landlord having to waive a portion or all of the rent, and even referral for criminal prosecution, which can result in fines of up to $1,000 or six months in jail.
L.A. city officials declined to comment on specifics due to pending litigation but provided information 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 fixing 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.”
In late 2021, AHF requested expedited permits and fees waivers of nearly $3 million for an affordable housing project it wanted to build next to the Madison, according to emails exchanged between city and AHF officials. But it’s unclear if they were approved because AHF and city officials declined to comment.
Some residents suggested that AHF should hire a team to keep better track of maintenance issues in its buildings, as well as create plans with short- and long-term fixes. Housing experts like Gary Painter from USC’s Homelessness Policy Research Institute also said the city could create a fine schedule to make enforcement easier. They also encouraged residents to document issues they encounter in the buildings and repeatedly follow up on their requests for help.
“Beyond going to a city department, tenants can contact city councilmembers. Political pressure does matter and sometimes landlords, if they’re local, sometimes they’ll react to that,” Painter said.
And if residents are reluctant to speak out, policymakers may need to take the initiative to meet with them.
“It’s hard for people in low-income subsidized housing like AHF provides to file complaints about things like leaky faculty or mold or… inadequate heating or cooling systems,” said Gregory Stevens, a public health professor at California State University, Los Angeles. “They don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them.”
Hearing from residents, recognizing their humanity, and ensuring proper oversight is key, especially since many of the alleged safety issues reported in AHF buildings are preventable with better maintenance and investment in the upkeep of existing properties before purchasing new ones.
Stevens said AHF has touted the lower costs associated with its low-income housing, but that could be part of the issue with some of the buildings: “Those costs of renovations are there for a reason. It can take a lot to be up to code.”
AHF is known for its public health work related to AIDS and HIV, so Stevens presumes it would want to address public health issues surfacing in its housing. Plus, its leaders have been vocal about their concerns surrounding the homelessness crisis.
“AHF talks a big game about what it’s doing to address homelessness. But getting people off the streets isn’t enough,” said Annette Harings, an attorney who is representing James Ellis, a resident of the Madison Hotel who was shot by another tenant last July. “It’s about keeping them off with a safe and healthy place to live.
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.