Things are seldom what they seem
                                    ...the truth about urban decay

That article was the last straw. After years of reading the biased, "yellow journalism" pieces in the Los Angeles Times maligning rental housing providers and blaming us for a myriad of societal ills ranging from "famine, plague and pestilence" to the "heartbreak of psoriasis" I couldn't keep my mouth shut any longer. I had to give the reporter a piece of my mind.

The article to which I'm referring was entitled, "Housing Laws No Cure for Slums' Ills" by Hector Tobar (L.A. Times, 7/20/97). In this journalistic travesty Mr. Tobar blames "the weakness of the system to enforce housing codes" for the proliferation of slums in the city of Los Angeles. He laments the plight of tenants in "impoverished immigrant neighborhoods" whom he apparently views as the oppressed victims of those bad ol', nasty, evil slumlords. In his painfully sophomoric and melodramatic view of the situation Mr. Tobar makes this real and knotty problem appear to be no more than the "good guys versus the bad guys". No gray areas for this reporter. He apparently sees the world as one giant Batman cartoon starring ...why, could it be? ...Mr. Tobar himself?

So, armed with a few notes I'd scribbled I called this unfortunate victim of the "Robin Hood syndrome" and left a detailed message on his voice mail to enlighten and educate him as to the real reasons for the spread of substandard housing in the city. These include:

  1. the natural aging process of urban areas,
  2. the real estate devaluation and subsequent decline in rents which occurred in the early 90's. Lower rents naturally mean less available capital for repairs. Common sense will tell you that no property owner wants to see his investment deteriorate!
  3. irresponsible city and county governments. During the above named period of time the city council approved a 300% increase in water costs due mainly to the infamous sewer service charge which, incidentally, is far higher for multi-family dwellings than for 1 to 4 housing units. These costs crippled housing providers, particularly in low income areas where more people per unit naturally mean much higher water costs than in middle class buildings. Many, many owners lost their buildings as a result of these usurious water/sewer rates (the highest, by the way, in the nation!). Others have had DWP liens placed on their properties, some in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. I, myself, had the water to my home shut off for 5 days because I was unable to pay water bills on my two apartment buildings.
  4. the 50% increase in property tax bills for rental housing because of the city and county imposed "special assessments" which are clearly against Prop 13 and now Prop 218 laws. The city and county continue to defy the will of the people and are waiting to be sued before they remove these illegal assessments.
  5. owners with outstanding water and property tax bills are charged a hefty 18% interest rate on the overdue amount which makes it almost impossible to get out of debt once these bills become delinquent. Los Angels government has thus become the "company store" of the '90's in order to further enslave property owners / tax payers.
  6. the combination of numbers 2, 3, and 4 above with the criminalization of owning rental property with code violations create a situation of "debtors' prison" from which there is virtually no escape.
  7. the refusal of Health, Building and Safety and Fire Department inspectors to cite tenants for creating health and safety hazards although laws do exist allowing for such citations.
  8. long eviction processes and subsequent uncollectible monetary judgments.
  9. rent control laws which force us to accept below market rents and therefore become charitable institutions while at the same time being expected to maintain the units in topnotch condition. In this current "renters' market" no one has to live in poorly maintained apartments. And, if they do, it's undoubtedly because they're paying ridiculously low rent. Mr. Tobar's example of the poor, oppressed tenant suffering at the hands of that mean ol' slumlord paid a whopping $250 per month rent, $25 to $30 of which went to pay the water bill, you can be sure. Add to that the costs of mortgage, property taxes, insurance, trash collection, rent control fees, and business tax license and how much could possibly be left over for repairs? Yet, Mr. Tobar bemoaned his own apartment (with paint supplied by the owner, no doubt). Oh, woe is me!
  10. the habits and lifestyles of some of the tenants is championing. People from underdeveloped countries often have housekeeping styles to match. Those who have more children than they can afford or adequately supervise are the worst offenders. After owning affordable housing for fifteen years, I've seen it all: clogging toilets with toys, sending five-year-olds to empty the trash so 90% of it lands on the ground, allowing children to throw food on carpets and common areas, breaking windows with wheel toys, throwing dirty Pampers and garbage out of the window, not owning a vacuum cleaner yet insisting on carpeting, kicking in outside vent screens so that rodents can enter the building, etc. A friend and fellow owner actually witnesses toddlers being allowed to roam their apartment without diapers and urinate on the carpet.

    These last observations prompted Mr. Tobar to return my call in order to hurl that overused and imminently tedious insult du jour ..."racist" at me. Forget the fact that I never once mentioned race or ethnicity nor did in identify my own ethnic background since such utterances were completely irrelevant to the discussion. I was merely dealing with the TRUTH, no matter how distasteful Mr. Tobar found it to be.

    I called the editor of te Metro section, Mr Leo Wolinsky, to complain about that slanderous and witch-hunting epithet so freely bantered about by this reporter. (Didn't we learn anything from Miller's The Crucible?) The editor graciously apologized for the churlish behavior of this seemingly naive reporter. He also admitted that he too owned rental property and thus understood my position on the subject. I took this opportunity to ask Mr. Wolinsky why the Times consistently printed biased articles regarding housing providers and why they never included articles discussing the situation from the owners' points of view, knowing all the while the answer to this question. I was astounded, however, when the editor actually echoed my own thoughts on the subject and told me the TRUTH! And why, according to Mr. Wolinsky, did the paper no print the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Because the public doesn't want to hear it!!

    Isn't anyone else bothered by the fact that the media has become nothing more than a source of entertainment and a means to placate a public which is becoming more and more suspicious of government and the press? In this particular situation the consistently one-sided articles about substandard housing have convinced the public that it's all the fault of the that awful bogeyman, THE LANDLORD. This then allows the city, county and state politicians to divert blame from themselves and to pass ever more restrictive laws against housing providers which, rather than alleviate the problem of slums actually exacerbate it! The plethora of not only substandard but abandoned rental property gives testimony to this fact.

    In connection with all of this the lyrics from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta keep running through my head: "Things are seldom what they seem, Skim milk masquerades as cream..." And you know what? I'm real tired of all the "skim milk" ...and worse... I've been forced to swallow at the hands of the mainstream media and the government. If we truly want to solve the problem of urban decay ...or anything else, for that matter ...we've got to stop these half truths, distortions and outright lies and face reality, no matter how unpopular or distasteful that reality might be.

    Carol Knapp, 1817 Micheltorena St., Los Angeles, CA 90026 (213-660-2932) With permission from Ms. Knapp

    This article is in response to a previous article printed in a LA Newspaper. It is the opinion of Carol Knapp but she truely expresses an opinion shared by many others in the multi-housing industry.

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