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Apartment Life Gets Respect In Land of Home Owners

L.A.'s working poor take steps to improve rental housing.

Forget 2Rms Ri Vu.

Think 3Bdrms, 2.5 bths, pool, deck, 2cr grge.

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Ever since World War II, Los Angeles has been the epicenter of the American Dream - the single-family home.

Regardless of income or ethnicity, home ownership has not only been the goal of Angelenos, but also the overwhelming reality. This is, after all, a place where people buy "Maps of the Stars' Homes" to drive by the gazillion-dollar estates in tony Benedict Canyon. No one here is promoting "Maps of the Stars' Third-Floor Walkups."

Of course, there have always been apartments here, but for the most part they were seen as transitional housing for the newly arrived, the newly graduated, the newly divorced, or the newly - or hopelessly - poor.

But now that view is changing. Slowly, the idea of lifelong apartment living is taking hold, particularly in the inner city, where the working poor, many of them Latino or Asian immigrants who labor in the city's expanding low-wage manufacturing sector, are most concentrated.

"Many people are realistic enough to understand that, for the most part, [home ownership] is out of their reach and they will be relegated to living in apartments for the rest of their lives," says Clemente Franco of the Inner City Law Center.

As these immigrant groups put down roots and find their political voices, they are demanding - and winning - protections for apartment dwellers. Passage of a new apartment-inspection ordinance is the most recent evidence of tenants' determination to hold landlords and the city accountable for proper maintenance of Los Angeles's 700,000 rental units.

"They're more concerned about the deficiencies in the apartment," says Mr. Franco. "You do see people taking more pride in their unit ... more so than they used to. They'll take that extra step to make it livable - painting [with no hope of reimbursement] for example."

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What has energized tenants is anger - at a city inspection process that many saw saw as woefully inefficient, and at a complaint system that made it almost impossible for anyone, but especially non-English speakers, to get timely action on what they perceive to be potentially health- or life-threatening problems. Many of these irate tenants are Latino, and some have enlisted the help of their supporting organizations.

The ordinance, funded by a $1-per-month fee on every rental unit in the city (a fee that even the poorest residents told the City Council they would be willing to pay), should make it possible to inspect every apartment at least once every three years.

FEW L.A. landlords are slumlords, however, notes Neal Richman of the Advanced Policy Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Some owners, especially those who bought properties during the real-estate boom of the 1980s "at higher prices than existing rent can support," now face the choice of losing their businesses or reducing services to cut costs.

Mr. Richman distinguishes them from the few landlords who disinvest in their properties - buying an apartment building with a small downpayment, then stopping all maintenance and paying nothing but the mortgage. "They want to take the equity value out of the building and turn it into cash," he says.

The result is tenants fending for themselves in vermin-ridden buildings. However disreputable this practice, says Richman, it is not illegal, "and it happens all around the country."

"The city doesn't realize the depth of the problem," he says. "When they go out and do the inspections, they're going to see."

The Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, representing owners of 200,000 units, is challenging the ordinance in court. But association president Harold Greenberg says he perceives the emergence of a better tenant-landlord relationship.

Tenant groups and the association now meet monthly to iron out difficulties. "We have a common problem," says Mr. Greenberg. "We're a partnership whether we like it or not. They cannot have affordable housing unless we help them; and we can't have tenants unless they help us."

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