RETHINKING LA - Wilma was pretty busy taking care of her dying husband and raising three teenage children when the letter from LA’s Department of Building and Safety arrived in her mailbox.
As Andino lay on his deathbed, Wilma gathered her family around the kitchen table. They read and reread the letter from the City of LA, but it just didn’t make sense.
The children translated the letter into Spanish for their mother but even then she had a hard time understanding why the City of LA would demand $355 for an inspection of their front yard fence and why she was being ordered to remove it.
Wilma called Building and Safety and explained that they didn’t build the fence, it was there when they bought their home ten years ago. “Besides,” she pointed out, “we live in a tough neighborhood.”
The Spanish speaking Inspector who was responsible for the original complaint investigation as well as the non-compliance letter listened to Wilma on the phone and then responded “Pay the inspection fee and cut down your fence.”
Originally from Guatemala, Wilma and her husband came to America in search of a better life for their family. They worked hard to build a recycling and salvage business and they saved their money, eventually buying the old Craftsman home that faced the on-ramp of the 101 freeway and sat square in a gang injunction neighborhood.
The property they bought came with a six foot tall wrought iron fence that did little to block the view but everything to discourage trespassers from wandering onto their property.
Wilma asked why there was suddenly an interest in her fence and the Inspector explained, “There had been a complaint and Building and Safety is legally compelled to investigate all complaints.”
With Andino fighting for his life and her life in turmoil, Wilma now had to contend with the complaint of a self-appointed Code Enforcement vigilante, one who was responsible for 177 Over Height Fence complaints within her neighborhood.
Wilma had no energy for another battle. She wrote the City of LA a check and asked her family to help her resolve the situation by removing the fence.
The wrought iron panels were crudely cut at the base and they are now stored along the side of the house.
Andino has since passed away and was recently buried in Guatemala.
Wilma still lives in the old Craftsman and she wants her fence back. The details of her story are unique but her experience as a victim of Code Harassment is quite common.
The person responsible for the complaint lives in an adjacent neighborhood and he has taken it upon himself to wander surrounding communities, disrupting the lives of strangers while ignoring his friends and neighbors.
The Code Harassment vigilante has ignored the Over Height Fences on his own quiet street but has found the time to focus on those who are the weakest and least likely to fight back.
Mr. Lee lives with his family in a fairly tough neighborhood, close to the small automotive services business he owns and operates on Melrose Avenue.
Originally from Korea, the Lee family came to America in search of a better life.
In a city where only one-third of all Angelenos are homeowners and where two-thirds of the local economy is small businesses, one would think that the City of LA would look at the Lee family as assets, not as liabilities.
But LA’s most active Code Enforcement vigilante saw things differently and began a comprehensive campaign to disrupt the lives of the Lee family.
Mr. Lee’s health is declining, his kidneys have failed and he spends the bulk of his energy struggling with dialysis treatment. His wife is his primary caregiver and she also is now responsible for their business.
Somehow, in the midst of a budget crisis, LA’s Code Enforcement vigilante was able to coerce the City of LA into convening an interdepartmental meeting that looked for code enforcement opportunities targeting the Lee business.
City Planning, Bureau of Engineering, Street Services, the Council District and the local neighborhood council all sent representatives to address the Code Harassment vigilante’s claims of code violations at the Lee’s business.
Missing from the meeting was any sort of outrage from the City Family that valuable staff resources were being consistently commandeered by a neighborhood bully who looks at people in need and simply saw code violations.
Missing from the meeting was any acknowledgment of injustice when the members of the public pointed out that the family who owned the business was never invited to be a part of the conservation.
Missing from the meeting was any effort from those who work for the City of LA and those who serve in positions of leadership to defend the Lee family from the ongoing onslaught of bullying behavior by the Code Enforcement vigilante.
Mr. Lee is not doing well and his wife is struggling to take care of him. Their adult son has returned home and is now running the family business.
As for the Code Enforcement vigilante, he continues to manipulate the City of LA, resulting in a continual barrage of Code Enforcement complaints, most recently using the Housing Department to do his bidding.
The City of LA has been taken to task for its policy of enforcing the Municipal Code based on complaints rather than simple standards. Critics point out that this means valuable oversight goes to noisy complaining neighbors, not to the most dangerous threats to public safety.
The Mayor’s cost recovery mandate further skews the process, resulting in charges for investigations and inspections that come as the result of a complaint.
This complaint driven cost recovery system is the perfect tool for a Code Harassment bully who can manipulate the system and turn LA’s city staff into his own army of enforcers.
Those on the receiving end of the Code Harassment bully’s complaints end up with inspection fees, fines, and penalties that increase dramatically and can lead to garnishment, liens, and other legal actions.
In the first 30 days of 2012, City Council approved more than 60 liens on homes throughout Los Angeles that encumber private property and disrupt the lives of people who need help, not harassment.
This clearly demonstrates that the threat of a lien is no hollow threat.
One of the homes that was the subject of a city council lien action is a lovely five bedroom, two story home built in 1925 and currently valued in excess of $2 million. Two years ago somebody complained about two inoperable vehicles stored behind the house next to the garage.
A Building and Safety inspector investigated the complaint, somehow missing the Over Height Fence violation across the street (no complaint, no investigation, no citation). An Order to Comply was issued along with a threat to assess a non-compliance fee of $550 that would increase by 250% if it wasn’t paid on time.
The vehicles weren’t moved within the 15 days and the $550 non-compliance fee wasn’t paid on time and the bill eventually hit $2,308.62 which then resulted in a lien on the McCadden Place property. It took about two years for the citation to turn into a lien.
The man who had owned the property for decades wasn’t there to challenge the inspection or to move the vehicles. He died years ago at the age of 82. His widow developed Alzheimers and eventually passed away last year. Their middle aged son now lives alone in the house under medical supervision for a severe condition that limits his ability to manage his affairs.
It’s unfortunate that the Building and Safety inspector was unable to examine the code violation in the context of the circumstances that made communication difficult.
It’s also unfortunate that a Code Harassment bully can spend so much time directing city staff on inspections and citations but spend such little time reaching out to those who are obviously in distress.
It’s most unfortunate that the City of LA doesn’t have an ombudsman who can intervene and offer assistance in situations such as these, stepping up to support widows and families in distress.
Now is the time for the City Hall to stop looking as the people of LA as cost recovery solutions and revenue opportunities.
City Hall exists to serve the people of LA and when Code Harassment bullies are able to manipulate the system and turn City Departments into weapons of harassment, it’s time to take a good, hard look at City Hall.
Where is the City Attorney and why did the Neighborhood Prosecutors disappear? Why isn’t the city going after the squatters who live in the abandoned building next door to Wilma in a REAP house under the authority of the City of LA? Is the City Attorney soft on crime?
Where is the City Councilman and why isn’t he standing up to the Code Harassment bully who selectively enforces the code, overlooking his friends and neighbors, but picking on those who can’t defend themselves? Does the City Councilman support neighborhood bullies?
Where is the Mayor and how did he allow city departments to turn into predators that prey on LA’s weakest and most vulnerable? Does he look at LA’s residents and business operators as simply opportunities for revenue?
Most of all, where is the public outrage about the fact that we live in a City where bullies are allowed to direct city departments and control enforcement actions against those who aren’t in a position to fight back.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net.)
Tags: Stephen Box, Rethinking LA, Code Harassment, Los Angeles, bully, Code Harassment Bully, City Hall, Mayor
Vol 10 Issue 9
Pub: Jan 31, 2012