Blight at 205-207 South Reeves Drive

Is a tarp on an apartment building now a thing? We highlighted the presence of a tarp on the roof of this 4-unit property in March and there it is draped five months later. A tarpaulin on the roof is a sure sign of neglect — and often a sign of an absentee owner — and that’s precisely the case with 205–207 South Reeves Drive. This tattered and billowing tarp hardly hides the likely water damage underneath.

It has been seven months and counting since a tarp appeared atop 205-207 South Reeves during a rain spell in January. We wrote it up along with a tarp on an apartment building on Crescent and then waited for it to be repaired. And we waited some more. But the tarp remained. In June we reported it to code enforcement and helpfully cited the appropriate state statute that obligates a property owner to ensure every residential dwelling is weatherproofed (Civil Code 1941.1). Our own Municipal Code requires weatherproofing too.

Yet we saw no response from the city and so the tarp remains over the roof today.

There is good reason why state law and local ordinance require a dwelling to be sealed against the weather: water penetration is insidious and will degrade the integrity of a structure over time. Inevitably it will damage personal belongings too when water pours in.

Moreover, water-damaged drywall and fixtures can gestate mold which too often is simply painted over by a landlord more interested in the fat profit margin on his rents than in his tenants’ health & safety.

The problem goes beyond 205 South Reeves. Beverly Hills rental properties tend to be older and not always well-maintained. Damage from leaky roofs is an ongoing problem for many tenants. And the more we hear from tenants the more we learn that some form of mold is prevalent. We think it is an under-recognized health hazard in our community. It may even be tomorrow’s lead paint type scandal.

Of course the most prudent way to address a potential health crisis is to avoid the harm in the first place. That means mitigating damage from water to prevent the inevitable growth of mold (both seen and unseen). And that way to avoid even that is simply to repair the goddamn roof.  By the time the tarp goes up it is too late.

With that in mind we filed an online complaint via the city’s comcate system:

Comcate #51665 Complaint
I want to report 205 S Reeves for maintaining a tarpaulin on the roof for five months and not making the necessary repairs. Please see the image from January. He is obligated to provide waterproofed and weatherproofed dwelling (per Civil Code section 1941.1).

205 Reeves tarped roof
The image we provided to code enforcement to underscore the point: the roof is probably leaking!

We tagged the RSO office as the city suggests using comcate complaint category ’Renters Issues.’

A city staffer from the rent stabilization office responded the same day. “I’m re-assigning this to Code Enforcement because it relates more to blight than rent stabilization code.” And that was an appropriate response: water penetration is both a code violation and a sign of a blighted property.

Blight in this context, according to the dictionary, is a “deteriorated condition.” A blighted property reflects poorly on Beverly Hills. It reduces property values. And that’s why it is of special concern to city officials. To planners, though, it is more: it suggests a contagion that spreads.

Depressed property values leads to reduced investment in the housing stock which in turn reduces values further. Before long it’s a downward spiral and the block is marked by blighted properties. Note this subsidiary definition of ‘blight’ from the dictionary:

(botany) A plant disease, especially one caused by fungi such as mildews, rusts, and smuts; a disease or injury of plants marked by the formation of lesions, withering, and death of parts such as leaves and tubers.

We’ll it’s not a stretch to make the etiological connection to conceptualize blight as a particularly urban contagion that degrades the physical environment and, if left unchecked, will lead to degraded social norms too. It’s something planners and officials want to avoid. Gotta keep those values high!

Blight should be no surprise at this property. A quick look at online city building permits suggests cause for concern: there has been no building permit pulled for this property in over ten years. No permit for a repair, for mold remediation, perhaps or even remodeling.

205-207 S Reeves permit activity (latest permit in 2010)
The permit history for 205-207 South Reeves ends at 2010. Not much suggests ongoing attention to the property.

That most recent 2008 building permit was pulled was for an emergency repair for…wait for it…unchecked water damage. In fact that repair followed not one but TWO city warnings. As these notices from City Hall make clear:205-207 S Reeves first violation December 7, 2007

 

205-207 S Reeves second (uncorrected) violation December 26, 2007

Who is Responsible for This Blight in Our Neighborhood?

Ten years later this property again is showing signs of water damage. Who’s to blame? Well the city bears some responsibility. After all, the tarpaulin was up for five months even before we even filed a complaint. Why? There are code enforcement officers roaming around this neighborhood every day. We even called on an officer to inspect next door at landlord Stephen Copen’s 201 Reeves property. How does a code enforcement officer overlook the tarp on the roof at number 205?

But the primary responsibility rests with the property owner. So we did our usual digging to find out who owns this place — and who could let it deteriorate so.

City records indicate the owner of record for the property as ‘TAFT,CAROLINE G.’ Likewise the business license #E0009216 is issued to ‘TAFT, CAROLINE.’ However public records show that in December of 2014 ownership was transferred to “Caroline G. Taft (irrevocable trust) and Jenny Nicklin (trustee).” (Presumably Nicklin is the daughter of Taft.) Indeed the land title shows Jenny Nicklin of Ojai, California as the owner.

The family is not new to apartment management. They should know when 205–207 South Reeves needs a new roof because they’ve owned it for two decades. The tax assessor’s record for year 2000 shows the Taft family as the owner.

Tax record for 205-207 S Reeves

What’s more, the family owns more than just 205 Reeves; they own two other rental properties in Beverly Hills too: 445 S REXFORD DR and 9936 ROBBINS DR. All three properties were transferred to trustee Jenny Nicklin in 2014.

But it looks like Jenny Nicklin and the family trust made no investment in this property after it was transferred. We have to go back a quarter century to find a roofing permit.

205-207 S Reeves roofing permit 1994

PSA to landlords: We suggest the roof on an apartment house roof be replaced every couple of decades. It is the landlord’s responsibility to maintain a watertight roof over the tenants. And a serviceable roof will preserve and protect the underlying investment. Property management 101!

Why We Are Concerned

Jenny Nicklin and the family trust seems to have pursued another option instead of replacing the roof: simply let the upper unit go uninhabited. With nobody living upstairs there will be no complaint to the landlord (or the city) about a leaky roof!

Indeed the rental unit registry data we have for last year shows #205 as vacant in August of 2018. When was the last time lights were even turned on in that apartment? We can’t remember.

Our most pressing concern is the potential loss of rental stock when properties go unmaintained. With no eyes on the problem, water penetration could send this property into a death spiral. As water permeates, the structure becomes increasingly compromised. Then the owners will likely just give up on repairing it.

At a point when it is more cost-effective to keep an upper apartment unoccupied rather than to pay to fix the roof we will start to loose the limited rental housing stock we have.

A second pressing concern is that the tenants in the downstairs unit are potentially harmed. As water damage accelerates but nobody is upstairs to sound the alarm, the damage will surely spread. One doesn’t have to be a licensed plumber to know that water runs downhill; damage to the downstairs unit is inevitable. Or it’s already a problem and the landlord won’t be easily persuaded to address it at a late stage.

A third concern is that the upstairs unit has been off of the rental market for more than a year (and probably much longer). This is a larger unit suitable for a family with kids in our schools — the kind of unit that already fetches too high a premium —  but today this upper apartment houses nobody.

It is in the public interest to get this unit back in service because apartments off the rental market contribute to higher rents for the rest of the tenant in Beverly Hills.

We Have Some Advice for the Occupants Downstairs

We are not attorneys at the Alliance but we don’t need to be to make this suggestion: prepare for a courtroom remedy if your family has been harmed. What we would do:

  1. Take a good look at the interior walls. Look for a rippled appearance that betrays past shoddy repairs. Look especially closely where interior walls meet the exterior of the building: are there irregularities? We are looking for telltale signs of water penetrating from outside or cascading from the abandoned unit above. Look closely around the bathrooms (and any space that shares an interior wall with a bathroom). Is there any sign of compromised drywall?
  2. Search for visible evidence of mold. Look for black or green spotting. Look especially around window frames, sills and lower walls and baseboards. Visible mold is identified in state law as a trigger for an inspection and possible remediation. Read more in our explainer: Mold in the Unit: It’s Complicated!.
  3. If visible mold is present have a Los Angeles County Department of Health housing inspector visit to document the conditions. You can request an inspector visit even without evidence of visible mold. Evidence of past or present water damage may suffice.
  4. Document any symptoms or ailments that a family member may have suffered as a result of interior conditions. Seek the opinion of a medical professional — perhaps an allergist — in order to document the potential harm. Keep track of symptoms and a log of doctor’s visits. That will come in handy when you….
  5. Contact a personal injury attorney with your documentation. Though code enforcement hasn’t yet held absentee owner Nickin to account for this blight, an attorney working on contingency surely will.

Damages for the harm you may have suffered is there for the taking. Get your lawsuit together and send a process server to owner 921 Shokat Drive, Ojai, California, where Jenny Nicklin lives. Can’t miss it: 4 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms in 3,487 square feet on a two-acre corner lot with a big driveway. (Tenants at 205-207 South Reeves should have so much parking!)

We rest easy that Jenny and family keep dry during the winter months because we’re not seeing a tarpaulin on the roof in this google view. That’s what you get when you maintain a property properly.

921 Shokat Drive aerial view