Slum housing still a health problem

Photo via Thinkstock.
Photo via Thinkstock.

Fifteen years ago, Los Angeles city officials reformed building inspections to crack down on slumlords, launching the nation’s first regular, building-by-building, room-by-room checks to make sure apartments met health and safety standards.

That was no mere bureaucratic adjustment. Before, the municipal Building and Safety Department checked up on a landlord only after receiving a complaint, an approach that drew criticism for overlooking abuses. Under the city Department of Housing’s “Systematic Code Enforcement Program” every one of LA’s 120,000 apartment buildings is inspected at least once every four years.

When the regular inspections started, officials identified 150,000 apartment units that failed to meet health codes. Today, the official count is a fraction of that, some 3,400.

Health activists say the dramatic statistical change could too easily lead to complacency. They’re calling for a new push focusing on allergens such as black mold and cockroach waste that they hold partially to blame for high asthma rates among children in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“We know that we have direct control over the indoor triggers that cause asthma and that are making our children sick,” said Jim Mangia, president of St. John Well Child & Family Center.

Mangia said St. John’s doctors must extract cockroaches from the infected ears of half a dozen children a week, and have no choice but to send them home to vermin-infested apartments where they face renewed attacks.

“What we need is more inspectors, what we need is more enforcement, and what we need is for inspectors to be educated about the ways that landlords will cover things up,” he said.

Mangia spoke at a recent press conference sponsored by the Asthma Coalition of Los Angeles County – to which St. John’s belongs – calling attention to the links between what they called poorly maintained slum housing and asthma.

According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, just over 11 percent of the county’s adult residents and a little more than 14 percent of its children have asthma. But those are averages; in most neighborhoods, the asthma rate is from 5 to 8 percent. It’s considerably lower to the west and north, and much higher in the center city and South Los Angeles.

In one Asthma Coalition report, 28 percent of the children living in South Los Angeles’ Figueroa Corridor who were treated by St. John’s had chronic asthma. A survey by another Asthma Coalition organization found asthma rates of 24 percent for the population as a whole in the same neighborhood.

Last year, research by the University of Southern California identified a direct link between proximity to a heavy traffic and the prevalence of childhood asthma. Those findings have started to inform the discussion over air quality regulations. But two years ago, a Columbia University found a correlation as well between exposure to cockroach waste and dust mites and higher asthma rates among children. And activists say they haven’t seen a corresponding toughening of housing inspection rules to address that risk.

Activists and tenants say it’s too easy for slumlords to neglect basic maintenance.

At the Figueroa Corridor building where the recent Asthma Coalition event was held, tenant Gabriel Martinez said he repeatedly asked the building’s owner to repair a leak in the plumbing above his kitchen ceiling, but the problem went uncorrected for months. Martinez suspects the relentless moisture, which soaked a living room carpet, contributed to his three-year-old daughter Dana’s asthma.

“Everything seemed OK when we moved in, but when it comes to fixing problems, they’re not very good here,” Martinez said.

In response to complaints from Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, or SAJE, regarding Martinez’ building, Los Angeles County Public Health investigators alleged 22 violations of county housing laws during an April 24 inspection. The listed problems included mold contamination and cockroach infestation, said Gary Hirschtick, chief environmental health specialist for the health department’s mid-city district.

An inspector can order a landlord to remove the infestation or remove mold and its source, but can’t direct how that is to be done, Hirshtick said. Typically, a property owner will call in a pest-control company to fumigate against cockroaches.

As for moldy walls, “If we saw them painting over mold, we wouldn’t allow that. But after the fact, it’s kind of hard to determine how it was corrected,” Hirshtick said.

Greg Spiegel, public policy director at the Inner City Law Center, wants to see officials giving much more specific direction.

“If it was about the building structure, where the second floor wasn’t adequately supported, you wouldn’t say, ‘Just fix it however you want to,’” he said. “You’d require a certain kind of beam. You’d use the building code.”

As for vermin, he likened spraying poison along baseboards to kill roaches to “hitting them with a hammer. We know from 30 years of research that that only kills the cockroaches it hits or who come along while it’s still fresh. The cockroaches walk around it.”

Instead, Spiegel advocates removing food and water sources – covering trash cans and fixing broken plumbing – then sealing cracks in apartment walls. Using gel baits, which the cockroaches take back to their nests, eliminates infestations at their source, Spiegel said. Activists say they’re determined to ensure that’s what happens in the building where Martinez and his family live.

A Los Angeles city housing department official inspected the building on the day of the Asthma Coalition event, responding to tenant complaints about mold and vermin. The official took photographs, but further results of that inspection are not yet available in the city’s online database.

Paulina Gonzalez, SAJE executive director, said last September, in order to meet a city building inspection, the owner of the 14-unit building fumigated against cockroaches, repainted some walls and removed moldy carpet.

But she said some building walls continued to feel damp to the touch after the work was completed, a common indication that there may be corroded, leaking pipes inside. In such cases, cockroaches typically return after a temporary retreat, Gonzalez said.

Beverly Hills resident Joseph Heffesse, the building’s owner, did not respond to a request for an interview left with his office on May 7. On May 10, a woman who answered the telephone at his office said that Heffesse and his wife Sandra, who is listed on county records as the building manager, would not grant an interview.

Nancy Halpern Ibrahim, executive director of the nonprofit Esperanza Community Housing Corp., an Asthma Coalition member, acknowledged that this building didn’t approach the level of horrific neglect by other property owners that has occasionally sparked political denunciations and official crackdowns.

City records show that this property has cleared some 20 official visits since September 2005. City “systematic” inspections in December 2007 and September 2012 both noted unnamed violations and ordered remediation, which the landlord performed, records show.

But in April, when health activists investigated tenant complaints, they found sufficient evidence in a single day to support ten complaints, Ibrahim noted. Those were the same complaints investigated in the May 7 Housing Department inspection.

“County environmental health does some inspections, the Housing Department does others and Building and Safety is responsible for another kind,” she said. “And what we’re saying is that this is a fractured system.

“There’s a lot of ‘Well, that’s another agency’s responsibility.’”

Spiegel of the Inner City Law Center points to state Health and Safety Code section 17920.3, which describes vermin infestations “as determined by a health officer.”

Housing Department inspectors, not being officially designated as health officers, interpret this as meaning they can’t identify infestations and order them removed, Spiegel said. He says for the public good, they need that authority.

Finally, Spiegel envisions the city and county agencies collaborating on building-by-building problems. He said county inspectors, who check each building yearly, lack the time for follow-through.

“I could see a system where the county’s kind of doing triage, and if think a building’s dangerous, referring it to the city for a more full inspection,” Spiegel said.

“But right now, they don’t coordinate at all.”

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