Tenants of seedy apartments in the US seem to have stumbled upon a way out. They can sue their landlords for compensation, and succeed!
More than a dozen immigrant families who have been living in squalor at a crumbling, once-beautiful Art Deco building near downtown Los Angeles have benefited that way.
A judge approved a settlement this fall that netted each resident more than $40,000 in damages -- amounting to more than $250,000 for some families. It was payment for having had to endure their building's slum conditions, which, according to court papers and lawyers, included bedbugs, backed-up sewage and poisonous levels of lead paint.
It was the Inner City Law Center that won the $3.3-million settlement. Its advocates work with homeless and low-income people on a variety of cases including access to government benefits, landlord-tenant disputes, eviction defense, consumer issues, and referrals to other comprehensive service providers.
Lawyers and tenant organizers for Inner City began talking to tenants in the spring of 2007. They were horrified by what they heard: the mother whose newborn was suffering from lead poisoning; the father who woke up in the night and heard his son talking to the bedbugs. "You can bite me," the boy said. "But please don't bite my sister."
The recent settlement could enable them to move out to better accommodation. Monica Hujazi, the landlord, opted for settlement in another habitability case in 2006 in which she and others agreed to pay 220 tenants nearly $7 million. She also has been convicted of dozens of criminal counts of housing and fire code violations over the years, but prosecutors and advocates say she has done little to improve conditions in her buildings.
Hujazi declined to comment. Other landlords have said they are being unfairly targeted by the city and advocacy groups and blamed for conditions that are actually caused by tenants.
But Adam Murray, director of the Inner City, said the case is part of a new strategy that he hopes will motivate bad landlords across the city to clean up their acts. The group is litigating six such cases; in years past they might have pursued just one.
"We are trying to change slumlords' behavior," he said.
Some tenants, though, might stay in the century-old building despite the award. As part of the settlement, a judge appointed a receiver to oversee repairs. They are proceeding slowly, but things are getting better, many tenants said.
Extracting compensation is not that simple, it may be remembered. It is a time-consuming, labour-intensive litigation. At the end of it all, the landlord, if wily enough, could escape paying anything, leaving the tenant holding the can, notes Jessica Garrison, reporting for Los Angeles Times.
But still given the large number of unsavory apartment buildings in the fabled city, the Inner City might have opened up some avenues for the long-suffering poor.