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Tenants Who Battle Armies of Rats Sue Landlord

June 5, 1986

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Residents of a dilapidated building who say they regularly fight off armies of giant rats, swarms of cockroaches and youth gangs that roam their hallways have sued the building’s owner for $10 million.

Attorneys for the Spanish-speaking residents related nightmarish stories of cockroaches biting sleeping children, a rat they said tried to drag a baby from its bed and another that allegedly attacked a man in the shower.

They said tenants feel rats crawl over them at night and some stand guard over babies all night, fighting off the rodents with brooms and slingshots.

The lawyers opened roach traps on the front steps of the South Union Street building near downtown to display dozens of huge cockroaches, some still crawling, which they said were caught in the building overnight.

The lawsuit, filed jointly in Superior Court by four private and public- interest law firms, accuses building owner Lance J. Robbins and his associates of refusing to make repairs, curb vermin infestation or provide reliable water, electricity or security in the 40-unit building, which houses large families in one-room apartments.

Robbins said Wednesday that none of his employees in the building have seen any rats and, ″I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if a lot of this at the news conference was staged.″

″We’re making continual repairs, but the tenants keep breaking things,″ said Robbins, adding that he has spent about $130,000 in repairs since he bought the building two years ago for about $500,000.

But Deputy City Attorney Bill Cullen said a preliminary inspection by county health officials in February confirmed many of the allegations contained in the tenants’ lawsuit.

On an outside wall of the graffiti-scarred, ramshackle building hung a sign reading, ″Apartment For Rent, Unfurnished.″

Residents said in affidavits that Robbins and his employees refused requests to fix broken windows and collapsed ceilings and did nothing about the rats and roaches, but filed requests with the city’s Rent Stabilization Board to raise rents to up to $500 a month. Some tenants now pay $385 a month, the lawsuit said.

Robbins said he sought the rent increase to pay for repairs he has made and that some tenants have refused to allow workers in to fix up the building.

Tenants, holding small children dressed in their best party clothes for the news conference, showed what they said were rat bites on the youngsters’ arms, legs and faces.

″My child could not sleep at night,″ said Maria Teresa Montenegro, a former resident speaking through a translator. ″He would wake up saying, ‘Mommy, Mommy, something bit me.’ Rats were a big part of our life.″

Three lawyers representing firms which filed the lawsuit appeared with the residents.

″We’re here because nine children and five adults have been attacked by rats,″ said Nancy J. Mintie, of the Inner City Law Center. ″One tenant told us he found 11 rats in his apartment. Many tenants have told us they can feel rats climbing over them at night.″

Ms. Mintie said one woman returned home from the hospital with her premature baby, turned away and ″when she turned back a rat was dragging her infant away.″

In some apartments, she said, rats would leap from holes in the ceilings. In one instance, a rat attacked a man in the shower, an affidavit filed with the lawsuit said.

Lengthy affidavits alleged that the residents also were terrorized by youth gangs who roam the building at night, drinking and using drugs in the hallways.

Cullen said the housing task force of the city attorney’s office sued Robbins in 1984 to clean up numerous buildings. In response, he cleaned up some but not others, including the building on South Union Street.