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Tenants Organize to Enter Neglected Apartment Complex Into Rent Escrow Program

Winstar Properties let the Asbury fall into disrepair — this renters’ protection program could be tenants’ last hope.

Image: Google Maps/Google Earth

Built in 1925, the historic Asbury Apartments is a 13-story rent-controlled complex towering over the heart of MacArthur Park. Over the years, it has fallen into severe decline due to longstanding structural and maintenance issues that drove desperate tenants to pursue an inspection of the building by the Housing and Community Investment Department of Los Angeles (HCID).

In January of 2020, HCID building inspector Brian Barragan found seven violations at the Asbury, including structural hazards, unsanitary conditions in common areas, inadequate weather protections, plumbing issues, and maintenance failures. During a follow-up inspection, HCID discovered the permits for both the building’s elevators had expired.

“I don’t know how much more I can take, but I can’t abandon my neighbors,” says Robin Lifland, speaking on behalf of the Asbury Tenants Association (ATA) and the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU).

Landlords are typically given 30 days to fix their building’s HCID violations before the department carries out a reinspection. However, due to the spread of COVID-19, the reinspection was delayed until October 14 — tenants lived in these dangerous conditions with the city’s knowledge for over 10 months.

Winstar Properties LLC declined to comment.

 

A flimsy board covers this drainage pool in a tenant’s parking spot. (photo by Josh Rosen | 9/16/20)

Although HCID has executed their inspection, few details about the department’s findings are available to tenants. Asbury residents can track HCID’s inspection process by inputting their case number into a code enforcement website, but tenants will have to wait until the city schedules a General Manager’s hearing to learn more information.

Sandra Mendoza, a public information director speaking for HCID, confirmed that the Asbury still has several outstanding violations.

“Staff is currently in the process of reviewing the case details in preparation for referring the case to a General Manager’s hearing,” said Mendoza.

According to Mendoza, inspection staff found during their visit that the permits for both elevators had expired. HCID opened an additional complaint and issued a notice-to-comply.

A General Manager’s hearing could send the Asbury into Los Angeles’s Rent Escrow Account Program (REAP).

REAP is a renter protection program that reduces tenants’ rent by 10–50% when their landlord refuses to make repairs. Instead of paying their landlords, tenants can pay into an escrow account managed by HCID. This puts pressure on the landlord, who can only get the money in the REAP account once repairs have been approved by the city.

If enough of a landlord’s units are in REAP, and building residents are taking care of the common property bills, tenants can petition a court to turn the building into a co-op. The Asbury is owned by Winstar Properties LLC, who bought the complex in 2019.

Asbury tenants were supposed to wait up to six weeks for a General Manager’s hearing, where the city will determine whether the apartment complex is eligible for REAP. The six weeks are up, but no date has been set.

Even after the hearing, Winstar can appeal the city’s decision and potentially drag the battle out for several more months — it’s not a guarantee residents will get the help and repairs they need in a timely manner.

“The system is completely rigged in favor of the landlords,” said Lifland. “The city allows them to do the bare minimum and let expensive, dangerous [violations] go on forever.”

Frustrated tenants in the ATA believe their apartment complex is so mismanaged by Winstar that the building has a better chance of being repaired in REAP than it does under current ownership. Residents say that although the firm had over ten months to resolve their HCID violations, they waited until the final weeks before the inspection to begin repairs.

“It’s not about the tenants [for Winstar],” said Marlene Dermer, who has lived in the building for 27 years. “They spent all this money repainting and taking care of superficial stuff. For instance, they replaced some [flooring], but left the carpet on the stairs, which is like the filthiest thing in the whole building.”

In their report, HCID cited Winstar thrice for unsanitary conditions in the common areas, including “heavily soiled” carpet on stairways.

“[Winstar] buys all this cheap furniture, but at least once a month, we’re out of water for the day,” said Dermer.

 

The ceiling of the parking garage shows years of severe mold and water damage. (photo by Josh Rosen | 9/16/20)

Winstar Properties is an LLC headquartered in Los Angeles that defines itself as a real estate investment and management firm. They claim to engage in “value enhancement and value creation” through renovation and property improvement.

Tax documents indicate Winstar began managing the Asbury Apartments in April 2019. Winstar currently owns and manages 276 rental properties throughout LA County. According to the LA Housing Partnership, 60% of the units at the Asbury are income restricted — they’re rented to households earning 50% to 60% of area median income, which was $26,757 according to the most recent available data from 2008. The remaining units are unrestricted, and Winstar Properties charges new tenants between $1195 for a bachelor studio and $1675 for a 1 bedroom.

When Winstar took over the Asbury, it inherited the building’s structural and maintenance issues. When tenants tried to inform new management of these problems, they say they were ignored.

There is one maintenance worker and one part-time cleaner for all 200 tenants, 97 units, and 13 floors of the Asbury. Employee turnover is high, and tenants say they’ve had six different apartment managers in the year and half that Winstar has owned the building. Though there are office hours posted on the apartment manager’s door, tenants say she has virtually no contact with them.

“Just like she ignores calls and emails, she refuses to even acknowledge [us] when we knock on her door and call her name,” says Lifland.

Over time, tenants’ manageable concerns grew into major obstacles to everyday life. Many tenants are elderly and disabled, and rely on Section 8 housing at the Asbury. The Asbury’s structural issues have made the building difficult for them to navigate.

As late as September, structural damage stemming from inadequate weatherproofing in the two sub-basement parking lots was clearly visible. Many tenants complain the space by the doors is often flooded with filthy water that periodically bursts forth from exposed rusty pipes. It has permanently stained the walls, concrete, ceilings, and even the cars of the residents who park under the failing infrastructure.

 

The parking garage curb prior to repairs. (photo by Josh Rosen | 9/16/20)

 

The freshly repaired curb just a few weeks before HCID’s reinspection. (photo by Josh Rosen | 10/8/20)

Lifland parks where corrosive water has eaten away significant portions of the concrete curb, walls, and ceiling around her car. Pointing to the emblem on the back of her Mini Cooper — faded past recognition from years of corrosion — she explains that she and the tenant with the spot next to her once tried to protect their cars with a plastic tarp. Another frustrated tenant of 8 years explained that he began parking on the street, rather than risk damage to his car in the garage.

Tenants report they tried informing Winstar, but the company did not take action until just a few weeks before HCID’s inspection.

 

Tenants complain the parking garage is regularly flooded, making the lower levels dangerous to navigate for mobility-impaired tenants. (photo by Josh Rosen | 9/16/20)

Over time, corrosive water wore away fist-sized chunks of the curb by the door leading into the building, exposing the rebar skeleton. Nearby, a narrow PVC pipe plugged into the curb drew water away from the door and towards an exposed drainage pool cut out from the concrete underneath one tenant’s parking space.

The curb and the drainage pool were two of the violations noted in HCID’s report. It is currently unknown whether HCID approved repairs made to the parking garage. Tenants say that the basement has flooded again since the October inspection.

Problems with the building’s plumbing are not just confined to the basement. For one tenant, sewage periodically backs up into his apartment, flooding his living space with inches of wastewater, damaging his belongings and endangering his health.

The tenant reports he repeatedly asked apartment managers at the Asbury to fix the issue. In July, Winstar repaired the resident’s water-damaged floor while he was hospitalized for health issues he says are related to the sewage. According to him, sewage continues to back up in his apartment to this day.

 

Water draining over the dumpster makes waste disposal difficult. (photo by Josh Rosen | 9/16/20)

HCID inspectors did not inspect residences during their reinspection on October 14.

Currently, members of the ATA are building their case in anticipation of a General Manager’s hearing. Despite fear of retaliation from Winstar, tenants continue to document structural issues in the Asbury and are careful to save records of all communication with Winstar. Given the opportunity, tenants believe that they can make a strong case for the Asbury to enter REAP, the first of many steps to making their building livable again.

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