Nearly one dozen tenants in South Los Angeles are still facing sudden homelessness after participating in a mediation with the City of Los Angeles and the landlord trying to evict them.
The Mar. 27, mediation between the landlord and the tenants was organized by 8th District Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson and included the City of Los Angeles’ Housing + Community Investment Department (HCIDLA), which includes the Regulatory Compliance and Code Bureau responsible responding to code violation complaints and conducting inspections for each of the 760,000 rental units in the City of Los Angeles.
The tenants are in the process of being evicted after a woman running a transitional housing scam in a dilapidated ramshackle house in Los Angeles on the border of Inglewood failed to pay rent to the landlord Izydor Wilchfort. Giovanna Wilkerson then abandoned the property leaving behind her sub-tenants without notifying them that she had been evicted. She continues to run similar programs in several rental properties in South L.A.
All of the tenants–which include Social Security (SSI) and General Relief recipients, developmentally disabled, mentally ill, autistic, stroke victims, and working adults who just can’t afford the high cost of rent in Los Angeles–say that they rented beds shared rooms for between $175 to as much as $1,000 a month from Giovanna Wilkerson as part of a transitional housing program for low-income adults. Several tenants claim they were brought or referred to Wilkerson by a hospital. One hospital’s name that is repeatedly mentioned is Silver Lake Medical Center, an acute psychiatric hospital and mental health center in Rosemead.
A Mar. 29, hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court’s Department 94, also known as Eviction Court, was continued to Apr. 12. However, when they return to court the tenant’s are unlikely to prevail in their motion to stop the eviction on the grounds that they had had no notice of the unlawful detainer filed against the transitional housing manager who left and didn’t tell them she was being evicted. If the judge decides that the tenants are not tenants and the landlord didn’t have to give them notice regarding the eviction, the tenants can be ordered by the court to leave the property immediately without relocation assistance and without a place to go effectively making them homeless. To make matter worse, if the court forced the tenants to leave, they would no longer be eligible for relocation assistance through the City of Los Angeles.
Because of the conditions of the property, a motion carried by South L.A. Councilmember Harris-Dawson and seconded by Councilmember Gil Cedillo, was passed in City Council on Tuesday to provide advanced funds to the tenants for relocation. The motions directs the city to report, with the assistance of the appropriate departments, including the Department of Building and Safety and the City Attorney, relative to whether an Order to Vacate or similar action is necessary; determine the eligibility of the tenants to receive relocation assistance; identify funds to provide relocation assistance to the tenants, subject to eligibility requirements; and report with the authorities required, including any necessary findings, to provide assistance to the tenants.
The motion also asks the City take action to recoup any money given to the tenants from the owner through a lien on the property.
The owner to date is refusing to pay relocation assistance to the tenants.
While fighting their eviction, the tenants continue to live in absolute wretchedness and uninhabitable conditions.
The gas was turned off two weeks ago and hasn’t been turned back on. There’s an active gas leak and on Wednesday the Los Angeles Fire Department declared that the landlord must establish an around clock “fire watch” until the property is deemed no longer a “hazard to life or property.” Despite orders from the City of Los Angeles’ Code Enforcement Division for the landlord to fix the gas leak and have the gas turned back on, it hasn’t happened. Meanwhile, the tenants continue to take cold showers and use room heaters to try and stay warm.
On a recent inspection visit at the house, HCIDLA Senior Housing Inspector Marcel Nicholas told residents that his office found 120 code violations.
A 19-page inspection report dated Feb. 20, from Code Enforcement shows dozens of violations were found at the house on Crenshaw. Among the citations were the use of an enclosed porch as a bedroom, broken windows, plumbing blockage, termites and dry rot, broken or missing electrical switches, loose guardrails, hazardous, unapproved, defected or improperly installed receptacle outlets, missing smoke detectors, defective or missing room heating appliances, unapproved plumbing, and dampness in rooms. In addition, there are visible signs of mold, roaches and bed bugs throughout the house. A similar report was issued by the County of Los Angeles’ Department of Public Health.
Tenants say that Code Enforcement inspectors told them on numerous occasions during inspection visits that they would issue an Order to Vacate and that the tenants would be immediately evacuated and provided relocation assistance if either the lights or gas were turned off. However, after two weeks of no gas or hot water, the tenants continue to live in the nearly 5,000 sq. ft. home with an active gas leak that the fire department has deemed a hazard serious enough to require a 24-hour fire watch.
“They’re [City of Los Angeles] supposed to be holding the landlord to a standard of the having the property be habitable and they have not done that,” commented the tenant’s new attorney Nana Gyamfi. “This is not a place where anyone would want to live in. None of these people want to live there. None of them. But it’s the only place right now between them and unsheltered homelessness.”
Aiding and Abetting Homelessness
At present, the tenants are working against the clock. Because the house is uninhabitable, the City has the right to issue an Order to Vacate and provide immediate relocation assistance–and through the passing of Tuesday’s motion has paved the way for that to happen. But it hasn’t.
Instead, the department charged with making sure landlords keep their property in livable conditions seems more focused on trying to force the landlord to pay relocation to the tenants so they don’t have to.
Meanwhile, if through the court process the tenant’s are forced to leave without the landlord paying relocation, the tenants become ineligible for relocation assistance through the City. All of which seems contrary to L.A. leaders stated goal of providing a safety net to renters who through no fault of their own find themselves facing homelessness. In 2016, voters in Los Angeles overwhelmingly passed Proposition HHH at the urging of elected officials, homelessness experts, and affordable housing advocates to do this very thing–provide the resources for housing for homeless individuals and those at risk of homelessness throughout the City.
And through it all, the nearly one dozen tenants at the center of the latest bureaucratic bumble are without heat, hot water and no defined pathway to affordable permanent housing.
Even though affordable housing and homelessness are arguably the largest crisis facing Angeleno’s today, the City Attorney who once said that slumlords should be ordered to live on their properties until the problems are resolved, has so far ignored the victims of Giovanna Wilkerson.
To his credit, Councilmember Harris-Dawson’s office has repeatedly shared information regarding Wilkerson’s housing scam including addresses to homes that she’s currently operating in with the City Attorney’s Office.
The current tenants at the property on Crenshaw Blvd. say that they briefly met with an investigator from the City Attorney’s office named Frank Capetillo and were told that the LAPD would be connecting with them to take police reports. They say Capetillo told them that he would be meeting with them to conduct interviews and gather evidence and then did not follow up or return any of their phone calls or emails. The same is true for Wilkerson’s past tenants and landlords who also reached out to Mr. Capetillo and were ignored.
Numerous requests for comment regarding this case have gone unanswered by the City Attorney’s office.
According to the Department of Health Care Services (DCHS), there are some residential facilities that do not require licensure by DHCS, including cooperative living arrangements with a commitment or requirement to be free from alcohol and other drugs. These cooperative living arrangements may be referred to as sober living environments, sober living homes, transitional housing, or alcohol and drug-free housing.
Current and previous tenants say that in exchange for renting a bed, Wilkerson demanded access to 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. Tenants say she solicited them online, in front of the Department of Public Social Services and on Skid Row at homeless shelters including the Downtown Women’s Center.
Wilkerson says her tenants are required to disclose their private financial information because “people become dishonest.”
“We don’t ask to [hold] onto cards as most program [sic] 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.”
An investigation into Wilkerson has produced several other homes in South L.A. where she is currently running what she calls a ‘transitional housing’ or ‘sober living’ programs where she targets indigent and low-income people. In one home she’s currently housing as many as 40 adults between two five-bedroom apartments on the same property. In another home in Watts where she keeps her office in the garage, Wilkerson is housing adults and families.
Wilkerson’s tenants say she promised them transitional housing that included a clean living environment, meals, and even job assistance.
For her part, Wilkerson contends that the residents are not tenants and therefore the landlord-tenant law does not apply to them.
“I’m the Housing Director, they are participants,” she said via text message.
About the programs the tenants say they were promised, Wilkerson responded, “What services? We provide month to month housing. Guaranteed refrigerator and stove.”
Current and past tenants have detailed how at times the electricity and or gas would be turned off for nonpayment in Wilkerson’s various homes.
Since the story first broke, numerous previous landlords and tenants, have come forward about Wilkerson. A search of court documents shows that beginning in 2009, Wilkerson has had seven unlawful detainers filed against her — almost one every year. Several landlords have come forward and detailed how Wilkerson ran her business in their homes and then skipped out on paying the rent.
“Not really concerned what the public thinks,” Wilkerson said in an email on Tue. Feb. 27.
So to recap, the house is still uninhabitable, the landlord doesn’t want to pay relocation, the City can pay relocation and has been asked to by Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson but is refusing, the City Attorney is ignoring all of it and Giovanna Wilkerson is still running her transitional housing scam in South Los Angeles with impunity.