Mold and sewage plague South L.A. apartments even after inspections, tenants say

Sabrina Dolan, 28, lives in Chesapeake Apartments in South L.A. She says she has gotten sick because of mold that the landlord has not addressed.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
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Sabrina Dolan is convinced that her apartment is poisoning her.

Black, mold-like spots dot the windowsill in her living room. They appear on her bedroom windows along with signs of termites. The spots also cover a corner of her bathroom, and no amount of scrubbing can make them go away.

Recently, she’s been coughing up chunks of thick, dark mucus.

And no matter how many times she says she complains to her landlord at the South Los Angeles apartment she shares with her fiancé, nothing ever gets repaired.

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“We’ve been telling them about the mold,” said Dolan, 28. “They don’t come and fix it. The plumbing. They don’t come and fix it. They don’t come and fix anything at all. We’ve been getting sick.”

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

In the last four months, tenants have filed nearly two dozen complaints with the L.A. code enforcement department about Chesapeake Apartments, a 425-unit complex that stretches multiple blocks across from Dorsey High School in the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw area.

The apartments have been on the city’s radar for years. In 2017, the city attorney’s office sued its owner, Pama Properties, along with Pama President Mike Nijjar, over crime there, reaching a settlement that required safety and habitability upgrades.

Slum-like conditions are rampant at buildings connected to Nijjar, who through various companies owns more than $1 billion in real estate, primarily in Southern California, according to a 2020 investigation by LAist.

What appears to be mold in Tamela Richardson’s kitchen closet at Chesapeake Apartments.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
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In February, City Atty. Mike Feuer sued another large Nijjar complex in North Hollywood, alleging similar safety concerns as at Chesapeake Apartments.

Joe Delgado, director of the Los Angeles chapter of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, said the problems at Chesapeake are among the worst he has witnessed, with severe habitability issues throughout the complex.

“I’ve not run across a building that has been in this much neglect,” said Delgado, whose organization has been working with Chesapeake tenants to address safety concerns. “As a whole, the picture here is pretty horrible and pretty tragic.”

Since late December, according to city records, tenants have filed complaints about issues including mold, broken pipes, vermin and gas and electrical problems, as well as missing and faulty carbon monoxide and smoke detectors.

Most of those complaints came after the code enforcement department concluded a required inspection that gave the complex a clean bill, raising questions about city oversight when problems at a property have persisted for years.

Last week, L.A. County public health officials found sewage being discharged on public grounds outside the building, as well as other health and safety violations.

Liam Ponce, 5, in his kitchen at Chesapeake Apartments. His mother, Martha Martinez, says the floor is cracked and peeling and the faucet leaks when she turns on the water in the bathtub.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Michelle Victorian, a property manager at Chesapeake Apartments, said the landlord relies on tenants to report problems and that repairs are made promptly.

She said the age and size of the building, as well as staffing challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have made it difficult to keep up — even with major issues like broken pipes.

“These pipes are older than you and I,” Victorian said. “We have addressed several pipes that have broken.”

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Victorian said it would be too expensive to overhaul water and sewage systems.

Jim Yukevich, an attorney who has represented Nijjar in litigation with the city, said his client takes health and safety issues seriously at all his properties.

“The management company does care about the health and welfare of the tenants and wants to make the properties so that they’re in a livable condition,” Yukevich said. “Even though there may be times where the results are not perfect in terms of what they do, we believe there’s a system set up to try to rectify these problems.”

The World War II-era, barracks-style Chesapeake Apartments sit on 17 acres along Obama Boulevard and Rodeo Lane, with nearly two dozen two-story buildings constructed around courtyards and open-air parking lots.

Gabriela Disla with her daughter Gabriana, 5, at Chesapeake Apartments.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Gabriela Disla’s rent is $1,600 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, where she has lived with her husband and three children for two and a half years.

Problems began immediately, she said. Windows didn’t fit their frames, so in the summer heat, she propped them open with a stick.

In July 2020, her then-3-year-old knocked the stick from a living room window, which slammed shut and broke the child’s hand, Disla said.

The window remains broken.

Disla said her smoke alarm and heater also are broken. Water goes out intermittently. Her family takes baths instead of showering. The last time she turned on the shower, black water rose from the tile floor.

She said she would move anywhere else if she could afford it.

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“The problems here are like a time bomb,” said Disla, a 24-year-old medical assistant.

Heidi Perez, 30, who lives in a one-bedroom, has a doctor’s note saying that her three children, ages 1, 8 and 11, have allergies due to mold in the unit.

Other residents complain of regular headaches, which they attribute to mold and sewage odors. Last week, a fetid stench emanated from drainage areas beneath multiple buildings.

Martha Martinez pays nearly $1,400 a month for a one-bedroom she shares with her husband, 5-year-old son and brother-in-law.

Tamela Richardson’s granddaughter, Braelynn, visits her at Chesapeake Apartments. She says she has mold growing in the kitchen and a leaky ceiling.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The kitchen floor is cracked and peeling. She keeps a bucket in the kitchen sink because the faucet leaks when she turns on the water in the bathtub. She cleans constantly to keep mold away.

“I’m very worried about my health, my son’s and my husband’s,” said Martinez, 29. “It’s stressful, hard and frustrating.”

Sandra Mendoza, a spokeswoman for the city housing department, said inspectors identified 71 violations during a required assessment in November that were all corrected by the time the complex was re-inspected in January.

Yet after that January re-inspection, tenants filed numerous additional complaints with code enforcement describing the same mold, heating and plumbing issues raised earlier.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)
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“With a property this size, it’s not unusual for inspectors to miss some violations, especially if the tenant isn’t available to provide access to their rental unit and point out the issues at the time of the inspection,” Mendoza said in an email.

The 2017 city attorney lawsuit alleged that owners had neglected Chesapeake Apartments and allowed it to become overrun with gang activity.

In the two decades after Nijjar’s company purchased the property, nearly 3,000 arrests had occurred there, including hundreds for violent crimes, the lawsuit said.

“I cannot recall ever seeing a property that is this size and value, owned and operated by persons or entities who have to have a very substantial financial profile, so starkly rundown ... and seemingly rudderless in terms of a management strategy for success,” Alec Bernstein, a longtime L.A. property manager hired by Feuer as part of that case to assess the complex, said in court filings.

A settlement reached the following year required Pama Properties to install lighting, security cameras and gates.

It also gave tenants benefits like laundry subsidies and grocery store gift cards and included a prohibition against increasing rent to make repairs.

Through a spokesperson, Feuer, who is running for mayor, declined to comment.

Tamela Richardson with visiting grandson Loyal, 7 months. Richardson has lived at the apartment since 2015. Her unit has mold in the kitchen, a leaky ceiling and other issues.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The spokesperson, Rob Wilcox, said that during the litigation, city lawyers referred habitability problems to the city housing department but never received any code enforcement referrals to prosecute.

“The Housing Department must investigate fully and we stand ready to take action if and when we are referred a case,” Wilcox said of current problems at the complex.

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U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat who represents the area and is running for mayor, called on Nijjar’s companies to make improvements to Chesapeake Apartments immediately, relocate tenants until repairs are complete and give them the right to return to the refurbished property.

“No one should be forced to live on our streets, or in crowded apartments with broken sewage pipes and black mold,” Bass said in a statement. “It’s unhealthy, it’s unsafe, and it’s exploitative.”

County public health inspectors visited the complex again Tuesday, said a spokesperson, who declined to give their name and did not provide details on what the department found on its most recent visit.

Mendoza said that inspectors from the city were at the complex Friday and that the department continues to work with tenants on outstanding complaints.

Inspectors are scheduled to return again Friday, she said.

Liam Ponce, son of Martha Martinez, lies on the linoleum floor in need of repair in the family room.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)