Nineteen months have passed since Los Angeles Police Department blew up a South LA neighborhood while detonating a cache of fireworks, but many of the displaced families have still not returned. For them, ‘home’ is 20 rooms in a luxury hotel paid for by the city.
City officials blame unresponsive residents and their lingering legal advisers for delays in moving the families or back to their homes. Lawyers accuse insurance companies and LA officials. Residents point the finger at the city. And houses along the street remain boarded up. Empty.
But with a hotel bill rising to $2.1 million, city officials say it’s time for the holdouts to check out.
“People have received legal advice and have decided not to accept our help. I think others are playing the system a little bit,” said Councilor Curren Price, who represents the neighborhood. “They have had a good time living in the hotel rent-free for several months. They want that to last as long as possible.”
Frustrated residents and their lawyers paint a completely different portrait. Families are trying to restore property, but because the damage is so extensive, the process has taken longer and cost more than expected, said Andrew Jacobson, who represents about a dozen people affected by the blast.
Jacobson blames insurance companies and the city for failing to provide compensation to help the remaining families and delaying the process.
With a move-in date of March 31 ahead, residents say the city has let them down.
“We’re exactly where we started,” says Hilario Velasquez, who paid off his house 10 years ago but can’t go back to it. “Without a place to go.”
Community anger boiled over at a Wednesday night rally on the troubled street. About 30 people, including homeowners and renters, stood in the bitter cold to express their frustrations.
Rosalba Beltran, 67, paid off her house about a decade ago. It is still not habitable and she said she doesn’t know how she can pay rent elsewhere on an income of $1100 a month. Tenants said they had not yet heard from a relocation consultant whose job it is to help them find a new place to live.
Cindy Reyes’ father died after the blast. She is helping her mother pay the mortgage and said they have taken steps to repair their house. The family submitted plans to the city and is awaiting the proper permits to begin construction, their lawyer said.
“Why should they have to pay rent when their house is paid off?” Reyes asked, gesturing to the homeowners around her. “Why do I have to pay two rents – a mortgage and a rent? Why do I have to endure this battle? You blew up my house. Why do I have to do all this?”
On June 30, 2021, the LAPD bomb squad failed to detonate a fireworks cache discovered in the backyard of a home on 27th Street. The resulting blast injured 17 people and severely damaged homes. More than 80 residents were displaced.
The illegal fireworks were found in the home of Arturo Ceja III, who pleaded guilty in federal court to transporting explosives from Nevada to California without a license. In October, he was sentenced to five months in prison and released under supervision for two years. Ceja was not fined and will not pay a refund, the US prosecutor said.
After the blast, 89 people were housed in the luxury Level Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
The explosion exposed how overcrowded some homes are and the difficulties residents, the city, contractors and suppliers have faced in dealing with the combined problems of inadequate housing and man-made disasters.
On Tuesday afternoon, Candido Juarez stood outside the house where he has lived for 22 years. American and Mexican flags hung side by side. Before the blast, 10 people crowded into four bedrooms and a garage at the back.
After the homeowner agreed to let the city repair the red-tagged home, the renovation was completed late last year. Among other things, construction workers structurally supported the foundation, upgraded the electrical and roof structure, and added heating and air conditioning systems, the contractor said.
But only a few family members left the hotel and moved back in, Juarez said.
That’s because after the renovation there were only three bedrooms instead of four. The homeowner now sleeps in the living room. The garage, where another couple slept, was not repaired.
City officials said the house had an unauthorized bedroom in the main house and an illegal building in the back of the property that had been used as living quarters.
“It’s an unfortunate situation, but the city is concerned that this family may be living in an unsafe, illegal home,” Price spokesperson Angelina Dumarot said in a statement.
Juarez said he and his wife plan to move back into the house within two weeks.
“For us, thank God, we have a place to live,” said the 74-year-old. “But the poor neighbours. Where will they go?”
City officials say other property owners have not given permission to work. Some residents “refuse to cooperate because they have a lawyer,” Price said.
“People are entitled to their own lawyer, and in many cases the lawyer has advised them not to do anything, not to communicate with the city, not to accept help from the city, and so they are in a state of uncertainty.” said Price.
Several residents said they did not trust the city to fully restore their homes. They preferred to bring in their own engineers to assess the damage and devise next steps.
The Velasquez family said the original offer they received from the city was just to fix their windows and paint the house.
“If my house had been repaired, believe me, we would have been in our house,” says Maria, the daughter of Hilario Velasquez. “But all they wanted was to put windows on our house and let us move in. That’s not going to work because our house is broken.”
Jacobson, the Velasquezes’ attorney, said families are getting “trapped between the city and their insurance companies.”
“It’s not like they just do nothing and don’t do anything until they get the money.” That is not true. They’ve worked with their insurance, they’ve started whatever repairs they can,” Jacobson said. “The whole process has been very difficult, very time consuming, through no fault of the victims or their lawyers. … No one here is trying to play the system or get anything more than before.
The city has received 414 claims related to the fireworks explosion and made settlements in 129. Payouts have totaled $474,709.
City officials said every family living at the hotel has been put in touch with service providers to help them with resources and relocation. But not everyone responded.
Fifty-seven people still occupy 20 rooms in the hotel. City officials believe some individuals moved in long after the blast.
“The narrative should not be that families are on their own to survive after this terrible situation. We have insisted that they have a variety of services available to help them,” Price said. “We want to take into account the needs of these families, but we also have to take into account that this is not an open-ended project where people can just stay in a hotel for free until they are ready to leave. .”
The Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System has been working with a few families since October 2021, said Vianey Perez, housing stabilization program manager.
Last March, the agency helped persuade three of their four families to apply for Section 8 housing. They received vouchers the following month. However, there have been challenges since then.
A family recently lost their voucher. Another family has declined available units and is waiting for a specific unit to become available in March, Perez said. In another case, the agency struggled to find the best unit for a family that relies on public transportation to get to work and take the kids to school.
In December, the city contracted with Overland, Pacific & Cutler to help the displaced tenants find replacement units, assist with transportation to view them, and assist with application fees, credit check fees, and relocation costs.
Households that don’t already have a rent voucher may qualify for a flat-rate “rent differential” to make up for any gaps between the previous rent and the new rent for up to 30 months, city officials said. That will be provided once they find housing similar to their previous living situation and once they and their lawyers agree, enter into a lease and move out of the hotel.
Overland works specifically with tenants. Of those staying at the hotel, 13 households are renters, according to the LA Housing Department.
That has homeowners worried about what will happen to them.
Velasquez purchased a three-unit building on 27th Street in 1994 after living there for nearly a decade. He and his wife lived in a unit. His daughter Maria rented another unit from him. Another daughter hired the third.
“We’ve looked elsewhere, but the rent is so expensive,” Hilario said. “Where are they going to send us?”
Maria said she and her sister are happy to move, but are worried about their parents.
“They’ve already lost their house,” Maria said. “What else are they going to lose?”