Locals Drive Out Neighborhood Nuisance; "System" Gets Credit


Under managing editor Jill Stewart, the LA Weekly does unapologetically conservative reporting on NIMBY issues that is refreshing in the marrow-rotten Los Angeles print media. 

While I am no fan of the freebie's fact-poor and hysterical coverage of the pot dispensary issue – said issue being that, as you can see to the left and in another picture here, pot dispensaries continue to do business while every other type of private enterprise continues to fail or leave the county – the Weekly's Chestertonian attitude toward neighborhoods can make for some interesting stories. 

In Karen Jordan's piece "Fighting Squatters, South L.A.-Style, " an adult male and female with three young children rent a house in a nice part of Inglewood, quickly go deadbeat on the rent, are after considerable effort evicted from that building, and subsequently squat in a vacant building next door, owned by GMAC. The squatters eventually bring in tenants of their own and make themselves unpopular enough that neighbors band together to force the property owner to take action. 

The story, as several leading characters note, is about the societal damage done when lenders – with the enthusiastic support of federal, state and local governments – drag out the process of taking control of and selling their REO property at current market prices. GMAC, the lending arm of General Motors, was bailed out with $17.2 billion of your money by the George W. Bush administration, despite abundant evidence at the time that bankruptcy would have been a superior option. The federal government remains a large stakeholder in GMAC, which never repaid its TARP "investment." Now GMAC is called Ally Financial, and despite the billions of taxpayer dollars the company has disappeared, it continues to fail; its residential mortgage arm is struggling to avoid the years-overdue bankruptcy

So how was GMAC as a property manager? 

When [landlord of 5301 Goldenwood Drive Norm] Pomeranz finally evicted the family in 2009, they simply moved into an empty home at [GMAC's] 5305 Goldenwood Drive.

Neighbors say Jones borrowed cutters from a worker in the neighborhood, which they believed he used to cut through a padlock on the door of 5305 Goldenwood. He moved in not only his family but also tenants, and soon turned the home into a noisy nuisance. "One person shouldn't be able to dominate 129 homes if we work together," notes Tony Gamble, president of the Heights at Ladera Homeowners Association.

The article is not very compelling on what squatter Robert Jones' public offenses were. Apparently he had a car on blocks in his driveway and his family "came alive" at night. Jones is also said to have struck up conversations with neighborhood women, one of whom is unavailable for comment and presumed scared. 

Still, the Weekly's taste for police-state solutions is such that you have to read the article carefully to realize how the problem was resolved: A group of neighbors, under the aegis of a homeowners association and a neighborhood watch, alerted the property owner (GMAC seems to have unloaded the property at some point; the article is not clear on this point), who eventually threw the squatters out:

But as neighbors began to share information, "We started seeing the power we could achieve as a group," Gamble says.

Andrew Schlegel, executive vice president of finance at Merit Property Management, which manages the Heights at Ladera Homeowners Association, says Merit does its best to keep up with the homeowners in each community it manages — more than 300 statewide — but can do only so much. Squatters are part of a larger issue not limited to South Los Angeles, he says.

"It's really just a small byproduct of a bigger problem — which is banks failing to take action on a timely basis, dealing with their collateral" and instead leaving foreclosed homes empty for weeks, months or perhaps longer, Schlegel says.

Although neither government nor police played a role in solving this problem, spokespeople for both are consulted, and a Los Angeles Police Department lieutenant is given space to call for new state laws making squatting a felony and a police database of property owners' names. 

Worse still, the article acknowledges that Jones had – as is typically the case with a professional deadbeat – great expertise in working the very mechanisms of government the Weekly wants to see more of. (He offered to sell neighbors advice on getting out of foreclosure and "tried to wrest control of the house from the actual owner.") But Jordan insists on characterizing the neighbors' victory as a non-private victory: 

"He worked the system," Gamble says of Jones. "He had time to work it, and he worked it for a long time. But eventually the system caught up with him."

Now homeowners associations are nests of tiny Napoleons who love to pretend they are part of the public "system," but with this phrasing Gamble both overstates his group's authority and underrates its excellent work. The system didn't do anything. Jones' neighbors got sick of his antics, and the owner of the property whose quiet enjoyment Jones was stealing finally dealt with the problem through peaceful means. The Weekly is right to celebrate that, but the paper should be clear on what it is celebrating.