A dozen tenants say they are facing eviction in South Los Angeles after a room-for-rent scam.
Why the laughter stopped
If you ask Vincent Cook about the first 56 years of his life he’d probably tell you his proudest moments were were being handpicked by the late comedian Richard Pryor and singer Luther Vandross to be their opening acts during their respective tours. But mention former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Cook lights up and smiles as he recounts opening for Clinton during one of his California Primary appearances.
Today, sitting on on an old rickety porch swing in front of a dilapidated boarding home in South Los Angeles, the words don’t flow as easily for Cook who, as an accomplished comedian and actor, was never at a loss for words. But after a debilitating stroke in 2014, he’s never been the same.
“I’m a wild–I’m a wild–wow you look at me and say ‘he’s old!’ I am 56 years old.”
Cook is one of about a dozen tenants living in nearly 4,600 square foot home on the border of Inglewood in the city of Los Angeles that’s been abandoned by the property manager after she failed to pay rent causing a court to order her eviction.
Facing an inevitable eviction after falling prey to a room-for-rent scam, nearly all of the tenants in this home–that was sold to them as transitional housing–are on SSI or disability benefits and public assistance–most receiving just $221 per month. The rent? Well the tenants say that depends on how much you are receiving each month.
According to the tenants, residents receiving General Relief pay between $175 to $200 of their $221 monthly benefits for a bed bug infested mattress on the floor in a shared room. The accommodations they say for those who receive more money isn’t any better–they’re just charged more for it. Cook pays $350 to sleep on the floor of a room he shares with a stranger.
And while it may sound like a good deal to avoid being unsheltered, the house that recently served as home to as many as 40 men and women has no heat and only one working toilet and shower out of 4 full bathrooms. Water constantly leaks downstairs into the living room and every room in the house has signs (and smells) of mold. And then there are the broken windows, rats, roaches, mold, plumbing issues, bed bugs and stray cats.
Still, it’s seen as a deal for those who can no longer afford to rent an apartment in sixth most expensive rental market in the U.S. where in 2017 the median price for a one-bedroom in Los Angeles was $2,077 while for a two-bedroom it was $3,099.
And even though he is on the verge of being homeless, Vincent Cook is the house’s most optimistic resident believing that he can get back to where he was at the height of his career.
Once at the top of his comedic game, today Cook lives off of his meager Social Security monthly allowance–the bulk of which goes towards rent.
Boasting an impressive resume, it’s hard to believe that the one time accomplished boxer, comedian, actor and filmmaker who was once an in-demand entertainer found himself homeless.
“I came to California to be rich,” Cook says with a smile. “And I said I was going to be rich and guess what? I was rich.”
An online search on Cook revealed that he was once featured in Starz Entertainment’s stand-up comedy series, Martin Lawrence Presents 1st Amendment Stand-up. As a popular comic, Cook was tapped to perform on the groundbreaking television shows as The Apollo Comedy Hour, BET’s Comic View, HBO’s Def Comedy Jam and Showtime At The Apollo. Once a contributing writer on BET’s hit comedy soap opera Blackberry Inn, Cook was chosen for the starring role of Jewel in the series. His silver screen appearances included B*A*P*S, Tears of a Clown and after being personally selected by Ali director Michael Mann, playing Jimmy Ellis, Muhammad Ali’s famed sparring partner and former heavyweight champion of the world. During the making of Ali, Cook, whose bio online says that he once won a gold medal for the United States Boxing Team and was proclaimed a Golden Gloves Champion, realized a childhood dream when he received the opportunity to meet his boxing idol Ali.
Veteran actor John Amos hired Cook to co-star as the zany attorney Cousin June Bug in Amos’ 2004 film The Watermelon Heist. His last listed film credit on the Internet Movie Database was five years ago for a film he wrote and directed titled Up in the Club. He suffered a stroke in 2014 shortly after its completion.
The details of when and where it started to go wrong for Cook he can’t quite articulate.
For a minute his demeanor changes as he talks about the death of his friends comedians Ricky Harris and Reynaldo Rey. Harris died in 2016 from a heart attack, Rey from complications of a 2014 stroke in 2015.
He mentions a wife. A brother on crack cocaine that he lived with in downtown Los Angeles for a few months following his stroke. He says his brother was evicted.
A Go Fund Me campaign from nearly four years ago set up by his brother says that Vincent was in a coma for ten days and has medical bills of over $250,000, including therapy and seven medications, that won’t be covered by medical insurance. In updates on the campaign’s page, a smiling Vincent can be seen alongside his wife and 10-month old daughter.
Attempts to locate Cook’s wife and brother have failed.
When asked how he ended up at the house on Crenshaw Boulevard Vincent says that the hospital he was in arranged it.
Struggling to say the name of the hospital, “New Way–Norwa–they arranged it,” he explains.
“They asked where I wanted to be dropped off and I said that I didn’t have a place to be dropped off. I told them if they had a place that I would look forward to being there and they said okay. So they called up a woman. Her name was Giovanna Wilkerson. The first thing she asked me was did I have any money. I said hold up a minute and I gave them back the phone and I said I didn’t know her. She told the hospital they would work with it out with me. That was the first time that I talked to her.”
He continued, “The second time I saw her she asked if I had any money. I said sure and I gave her the little bit of money I had in the bank. So she said she was going to get me a receipt and I’ll see you shortly. Shortly turned into two weeks. I hadn’t saw her for two weeks and she came and asked where’s the rest of the money. I asked if she wanted me to get it and she said yes. So I went back over there and got all the money out of the window and gave her the rest of the money. She said, ‘I am comfortable with you now.’ She came up with a receipt and some kind of guarantee and that was that. I was here.”
“What she’s doing is probably illegal, but what choice do we have?”
Cook, along with a dozen or so residents all claim that Giovanna Wilkerson promised them transitional housing that included a clean living environment, meals and even job assistance. Residents were asked to sign Transitional Housing Agreements and made to give Ms. Wilkerson access to their government assistance and bank accounts so she could check each month to see when and how much money they received.
Shalana Little, 30, who has been living at the same South L.A. house as Cook for over a year added, “Whoever collected any type of government assistance–whether it’s SSI or GR–she would ask for your card number and the number on the back just in the event you were late on your rent or whatever–she would check. She would have the number to check and see if you were lying or not and if you didn’t pay your rent. She always asked for everyone’s information involving any type of income.”
Little, who has been living in the house for just over a year, says that it was mandatory for residents to disclose to Wilkerson their debit card numbers, pin codes–including for their Electronic Benefit Transfer or EBT which is used in California is to issue food stamp and cash benefits to recipients.
“What she’s doing is probably illegal, but what choice do we have,” ponders Little. “When I came here I didn’t have money. I couldn’t afford rent anywhere. I have job today but I still can’t afford to save the amount of money it takes to move into an apartment and even if I could I couldn’t afford the rent anywhere. That’s why I rent a room. I saw a card on the Metro Blue Line for this place. The card said that it was a transitional housing program that accepted all income. That’s how I got here. She lures you in with the promise of help and a place to rest at the end of the day indoors. But I’ve never been at peace here.”
“We just took it because we didn’t want to be homeless”
Drive-by shootings is bad,” quips Chris Chenoa, the 24-year-old autistic son of Ayasha Chenoa. “I didn’t want to come back out her to Los Angeles. I didn’t want to. I didn’t have no choice. L.A. is a bad area.”
The Chenoas moved into the Crenshaw house after witnessing a drive-by shooting on east 67th Street in South Los Angeles at another home they were renting a room in. Ayasha says that the shooting deeply affected her son and she had no choice but to move.
“It was a really nice house similar to the ones that she’s renting people,” Ayahsa says. “The guy just put anybody in the house just to get money just like she’s doing, you know.”
Ayasha says a woman belonging to a nearby church recommended the shabby house on Crenshaw as a possible place of refuge after the shooting.
“We just took it because we didn’t want to be homeless, I took it because of what happened over there with the drive-by and he wanted to get out of there cause he never been through anything like that–neither have I. I been in California since 1980 and I ain’t never been through anything like that.”
Chris chimes, “Drive-by is bad out here in L.A. I don’t like that. I don’t want get killed. I don’t want to die. I’ll survive. I will survive forever.”
His mother responds, “Well you know God got you.”
Before renting rooms Ayasha says that she was living with her daughter and grandchildren for six years in Long Beach in an apartment. After her daughter was diagnosed with stomach cancer and forced to get on state disability she said that the apartment they were living didn’t want to work with them on the rent.
“They didn’t want to rent to her anymore because you know she was getting paid twice a month and they want their payment upfront in full at the beginning of month.”
Her daughter eventually passed away.
“She was pronounced dead at 6:30 p.m. on May 5, 2014,” Chris adds. “My mom started crying. I had to kiss her on the face and say goodbye.”
Ayasha says that her daughter’s death is what led to her being homeless.
“It put us homeless. We couldn’t find anyplace to go.”
As her son’s caregiver, she and Chris survive off of his social security paying $500 to share a twin mattress on the floor of a room where they use a hot plate for heat.
Ayasha says that at one time Giovanna Wilkerson tried to separate her from her son and put him in a room full of men and her women and she refused.
Indiscriminately rents to registered sex offenders
Before the eviction from the house on Crenshaw, Wilkerson entrusted the management of the house and tenants to Brent Rice. Rice is a registered sex offender who was convicted in 2010 of going to an arranged meeting with a minor with the intent to commit a specified sex offense. Rice refused to comment for this story when contacted. He is currently managing another one of Wilkerson’s room-for-rent homes located on 91st and Main Streets where another registered sex offender who was living at the Crenshaw house moved to, but is still registered at the house on Crenshaw.
According to tenants, Wilkerson was known for indiscriminately renting to anyone who had money, often times putting drug users, registered sex offenders, disabled and the elderly in the same room.
Wilkerson was known for squeezing as many as eight people into one room as evidenced by the numerous bunk beds located in the bedrooms of the house on Crenshaw. Each bed would net her between $175 to $500 depending on the income of the person. Her rate for General Relief recipients–who receive a monthly cash benefit of $221–was $175 per month.
A grainy video shows a wheelchair bound man in kitchen who residents say was trying to wash himself in the kitchen because there were no bathrooms on the first floor of the home that he could access.
Tenants in smaller homes where Wilkerson rented out rooms say that the living room was also rented out and oftentimes divided with sheets for privacy.
A mental hospital dropped her off
St. Patrick’s Day will make one year that 32-year-old Wendy Wilson has been living in South Los Angeles. The only white person in a house full of African Americans, she says that after she was institutionalized for a nervous breakdown at the Silver Lake Medical Center, an acute psychiatric hospital and mental health center in Rosemead, the hospital dropped her off in South Los Angeles at what was supposed to be a transitional housing program.
The former Disney employee says that she had a hard time dealing with the 2015 death of her mother and then the death of her grandfather the following year–both from lung cancer.
“I had been their caregivers for the past five–six years and it just took a toll on me,” Wilson explains. “ I’ve always had depression and it kept mounting and mounting. I started to go to work at Disneyland for a while to slap the bandaid on myself for a bit. Ignored it. But then it got to be too much. And then I had an issue at work. I just quit my job. After that I was suicidal for a bit and so they institutionalized me for about two weeks and that was pretty much it.”
Wilson says that she has two older brothers–one in prison for life and the other in a substance abuse program.
She survives on $221 in cash benefits from General Relief–$175 of which she pays Wilkerson for a bed in a shared room.
“So that leaves barely forty-six bucks for bus, toilet paper and basic necessities,” Wilson says. “Food stamps is really the only way that I get by.”
“I could deal with the mess instead of being on Skid Row or some shit”
Unique Brooks, 29, says he came to Los Angeles from New York to see his children after they were moved here by their mother. He ended up at the Greyhound Bus Station in downtown Los Angeles and from there Skid Row.
“I moved out here because my kids are here,” Brooks explains. “I met Giovanna through her kid’s father Omar Pitts. I met him out here the first time I came and I had got arrested. I had a warrant. I had got stopped. I was extradited to Connecticut. Once I got out of jail out there, I came back for my kids. I ended up here through through Omar.”
Brooks and the other tenants of the Crenshaw house confirm that Omar Pitts was at one time a tenant of Giovanna’s when she took a liking to him. They ended up having a child together.
“I was staying in a room with him back there at first and I was helping him clean up. He introduced me to his kid’s mom. She told me to be the house manager. I helped clean up everything. I cleaned up the room back there. She was saying she’d take it off the rent but I gave her money a couple times for my rent. That was a blessing. I could deal with the mess instead of being on Skid Row or some shit.”
Also on General Relief, Brooks says that he paid $175 a month for a bed he shares in a room with Vincent Cook. He’s been living at the house since December of 2017.
“I was pretty much happy to help but I didn’t know she was doing people like this,” he laments. “Once I cleaned out the back she moved in like a few other people. I got all of the text messages I have with her. Like I could see what game she was running.”
Authorities slow to act on room-for-rent scam
After a notice to vacate was posted, the residents say that Wilkerson collected rent and disappeared. The house on Crenshaw is believed to be one of several similar businesses she runs in South Los Angeles including one in Watts.
A Los Angeles Times profile on Wilkerson and her then husband show that she had early ambitions of owning property in South Los Angeles.
Two of Wilkerson’s previous landlords in the city of Inglewood said they had evicted Wilkerson for non payment of rent. Lauren Sutton rented her three-bedroom home on 2nd Ave. in Inglewood to Wilkerson in 2008. Sutton says that Wilkerson stopped paying the rent forcing her to evict her–but not after she stayed in the home for several months without paying rent.
Via Facebook Sutton commented, “So sad to hear this woman is still causing damage….this person Giovanna Wilkerson owes me $8,000 which was won in a court judgement for past rent and damages to my property she rented. Needless to say, I never saw a penny of what she owed me. Jasmyne Cannick thank you for your work revealing revealing the truth about this parasite and helping those people in need of assistance.”
Another one of Wilkerson’s landlords says that Wilkerson was receiving thousands of dollars a month from the government as a caregiver for people with autism and other disabilities through the South Central Los Angeles Regional Center when she stopped paying the rent. Both landlords said she left their property in horrible condition.
After news reports surfaced, residents at a property Wilkerson sublets rooms out in Watts became concerned and worried that they could end up in the same situation as the tenants in South Los Angeles on Crenshaw. They also fear retailliation if they speak out about it but plan to speak to the owner of the property Wilkerson rents from.
Last year, City Attorney Mike Feuer said that slumlords should be ordered to live on their properties until the problems are resolved.
Requests for comment from City Attorney Mike Feuer’s office–who is responsible for prosecuting slumlords–were referred to the Los Angeles Housing + Community Investment Department (HCIDLA).
HCID Director of Rent Stabilization Division Anna Ortega said that they couldn’t comment on any investigations regarding Giovanna Wilkerson but did confirm that she had been in touch with the property owner’s attorney who told her he was willing to work with the tenants.
“We have been in contact with the property owner’s attorney who informed us this past Friday that they are not proceeding with the eviction at this time,” Ortega said. “He also expressed a willingness to consider payment of relocation assistance to the tenants, who are now represented by a private attorney, so relocation issues would need to be worked out with the tenants and their attorney. We only recently learned of the pending eviction for non-payment of rent and alleged role of Giovanna Wilkerson.”
Currently Wilkerson is associated with renting beds in shared rooms at numerous properties throughout South Los Angeles. The County of Los Angeles lists Wilkerson as the contact for the Monroe’s Heavenly Blessed Care Home on Vernon Ave. and Hands Helping Hands II in Inglewood.
In addition to Giovanna Wilkerson, she’s known to use the alias’ Giovanna Clark, Giovanna Leigh Cromartie Wilkerson and Giovan’na LC Clark. Her business names have included “Hands Helping Hands,” “Hands Helping Hands II” and “WeeCome2U Transportation.” Her preferred clientele appears to be the physically disabled, persons with developmental disabilities, elderly, and others on public assistance unable to afford the high cost of rent.
Fighting the Good Fight
Attorney Elena Popp with the Eviction Defense Network represented the tenants in court Monday as they try to fight their removal from the premises.
Popp confirmed that the previous owner rented the property to Wilkerson. Wilkerson failed to pay the rent and the new owner served her with a three-day notice to pay rent or quit.
“Ms. Wilkerson did not pay the rent in response to the three-day-notice and was served a Summons and Complaint,” Popp explains. “Attached to the summons and complaint was a Prejudgment Claim of Right to Possession. No prejudgment claimants came forward because Ms. Wilkerson withheld the information. She agreed to give up possession in a Stipulation for Judgment. Because a prejudgment claim was served with the Summons and Complaint, even though Ms. Wilkerson never told any of the tenants about the service, there is no way for any of them to bring themselves into this litigation.”
Breaking Popp’s response down in not-so-legalese, a landlord can tell the process server who serves the summons and complaint on the named defendants on an unlawful detainer lawsuit to ask whether there are other people living in the unit who have not been named as defendants. If there are, the person serving the summons and complaint can serve each of the so-called “unnamed occupants” with a blank Prejudgment Claim of Right to Possession form and an extra copy of the summons and complaint.
Popp sheds light on an old law that says landlords can evict everyone living in a home just be serving notice to one person–even if that one person doesn’t tell the others, which appears to be the case with Wilkerson and her subtenants.
“This is a defect in the law,” Popp continues. “It is a complete violation of due process. The history of it is complicated but yes, our State Legislature has seen it fit to pass a law that allows a landlord to collude with a master tenant to evict all of the tenants and subtenants without due process. The owner knew or should have known that there were 12 tenancies here but was allowed to only serve Ms. Wilkerson. The court is taking the position that as subtenants, their claims are against Ms. Wilkerson, not against the owner. The owner has offered 60 days to move out if the tenants waive all their claims against the owners including any claims for relocation assistance.”
She’s not really concerned about what the public thinks
“Not really concerned what the public thinks,” Wilkerson said in an email on Tuesday, Feb. 27. “The house on Crenshaw is in horrible condition, but it helped a lot of people. Some people loved the idea of being in a mansion, some grateful to being off the street, various situations.”
Wilkerson says she had an agreement with the landlord to leave in November. She says she took the tenants’ rent money and rented another home on 91st Street in South Los Angeles.
The tenants say she demanded that everyone move to the new rental house and that Wilkerson posted a notice on the wall that said a moving van was coming on Nov. 19 and those that didn’t go would be left on their own.
Some left the Crenshaw house and went with her, while others stayed, citing concerns about crimes, their safety and the distance of the news place from their job and other resources.
When asked why she told the residents they had to move or would be left behind, Wilkerson said, “This is what they told you. [It’s] not accurate. I got 91st for them as we agreed in the meeting.” A sign posted in the house from Wilkerson to her tenants, says otherwise. The video above shows that she did in fact take the same bed bug infested mattresses to her new location.
Wilkerson contends that residents are not tenants and therefore landlord-tenant law does not apply to them.
“I’m the Housing Director, they are participants,” she said via text message.
When asked about the services clients say she promised she responded, “What services? We provide month to month housing. Guaranteed refrigerator and stove.”
Wilkerson says that she took over the property after the previous owner lost it due to “physical structural damages.”
“They pulled the license, removed the clients from the home–but yet he still had a rent of $5,700 to be due monthly,” she explains. I tried to help him out since it had been in the family for some years I heard. Before my folks came over I painted every room including every bathroom with the exception of the kitchen on my own. I put ads out for volunteers but the work was too much for anyone to do with no money. I got quotes from plumbers to determine what needed to be done as there were no working bathrooms. Due to there being two main lines, the quotes were in the double digits. The living room carpet floor needed to be repaired but didn’t make [sic] since until the owner repaired the two bathrooms that affected the leaks. I did what I could. I paid plumbers, handy men, exterminators, etc. Wasn’t my responsibility, but I tried to make it as comfortable as possible as I humanly and financially could for my participants. I was glad when one of the guys made a complaint to the city, because I got no help from the owner–none. Just grievance if I was late on a payment. No care of leaking hot water, power issues. Nothing.”
Wilkerson adds, “The house on Crenshaw is in horrible condition, but it helped a lot of people. Some people loved the idea of being in a mansion, some grateful to being off the street, various situations.”
When asked about why she’d entrust a registered sex offender with running the house she replied, “Everyone knows because its [sic] in the agreement, as well as reminded when people attempt to have visitors under the age of 18. He is not in a place where kids are. Wouldn’t dare do that. He became a manager because he saw organization was needed. He kept the place clean, and people felt comfortable talking to him about whatever issues they had around the house. He was like the rest of the other participants. Took a chance with no managerial experience and stepped up to managing strangers from all backgrounds. And has done a marvelous job!”
Below is a copy a current tenant’s agreement executed and signed by Wilkerson in 2017 for the house on Crenshaw and there is no mention that 1) registered sex offenders live on the property or 2) that a registered sex offender is the house manager at the Crenshaw house.
Asked why she stopped paying rent Wilkerson says, “I had agreed to be gone for November 2017, as per what we agreed to do in the house meeting. He [the landlord] was okay with that and then I get a notice of him filing the [unlawful detainer]. I took the money and got them 91st…Everyone else relocated. Decembers rent came, did they not realize that by still being there [the landlord] would need his rent to be due?”
Wilkerson continued to collect rent from her tenants on Crenshaw after she vacated the property. The tenants say that she collected rent in January and some of their rent in February.
“All I really know is she took February’s rent and then two days later I come back home to a money order on my bed returned in full,” shared Shalana Little. “She told one woman not to pay for February but she took another guy’s rent this month but only gave him half back or prorated he said.”
Wilkerson says her tenants are required to disclose their EBT information (pin code, card number) because people become dishonest.
“We don’t ask to [hold] onto cards as most program do. They will say their funds didn’t hit the card, and attempt to live for free, smoke or drink their money up. Poor choices rather than housing being a priority.”
I have no idea what’s going to happen with us yet,” says Ayasha Chenoa. “But we don’t want to be homeless. We don’t want to be out there and that’s the position she put us all in.”
Sitting on the porch Vincent Cook reminisces about his famous past and lost riches.
“I didn’t own any of the shows. You know, I didn’t own any of the shows. I was on BET. I played a lot of characters. I was good. I was really good.”
Currently the City and County of Los Angeles are trying to figure out who’s responsible for what. L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer’s office says that no case against Giovanna Wilkerson has been presented to them for prosecution consideration. The property owner says he’s not responsible to the tenants and their issue is with Wilkerson.
All of the tenants of the Crenshaw house are currently facing displacement. A Go Fund Me campaign has been established to help them raise money for their legal fees and relocation assistance if none is provided to them by the city or the property owner.
Wilkerson posted on Facebook, “…if they are able to work something out with the owner, the city, whomever, that is to their discretion…If they are able to get him finally fix all that is needed….awesome…I wish them all the best. gn.”
Meanwhile, rent is still too damn high in Los Angeles, Giovanna Wilkerson is still in business and it’s the first of the month.
Do you know Giovanna Wilkerson? If you rented to Ms. Wilkerson or rented from Ms. Wilkerson and you’d like to share your experienceplease click here to contact me. If Ms. Wilkerson solicited you to rent from her or to rent to her, please click here to contact me.
Jasmyne Cannick is a nationally known writer and commentator on political, race and social issues. She was selected as one of ESSENCE Magazine’s 25 Women Shaping the World, one of the Most Influential African-Americans in Los Angeles Under 40, one of Los Angeles’ Most Fascinating Angelenos by the L.A. Weekly and one of 40 People Under 40 by the Advocate. She’s worked in the U.S. House of Representatives and at all levels of government helping to shape public opinion and encourage civic engagement while advocating for underrepresented and marginalized communities in the political arena. Learn more here.