Woman at center of room-for-rent scandal bragged about opening nine other homes
Facing eviction, after the transitional housing manager they say they rented rooms from in a neglected and decaying South Los Angeles house disappeared without paying the owner rent, nearly a dozen tenants expected to learn their fate Friday afternoon.
They arrived at the downtown courthouse early for their after lunch appearance in Los Angeles Superior Court’s Unlawful Detainer Court, otherwise referred to as Department 94.
First up on the calendar when Judge Lisa K. Sepe-Wiesenfeld took the bench a little after 1:30 p.m., neither the attorney for the property owner nor the tenants had made it inside the courtroom. The judge called the case for second call–meaning the case would be called again after she had finished going through the other cases on the day’s docket.
As Judge Sepe-Wiesenfeld worked her way through the trial, motion and ex-parte calendars, the tenants who were mostly seated together began to get visibly nervous. They had cobbled together–with the help of donations via a Go Fund Me campaign–enough money to pay for an attorney to help them deal with the pending eviction. But that attorney wasn’t there.
Eventually, another attorney from the Eviction Defense Network arrived in court only to ask for the case to be continued.
Seizing the opportunity of a new attorney–who admitted in open court she didn’t know anything about the case–defense attorney William Abb made a hasty if not disingenuous offer on behalf of his client.
$2,000, 90 days to vacate and forfeiture of any right to sue his client in the future.
An about-face from the $50,000 (to be split evenly by the nearly one dozen tenants) offered just a few days prior that was still under consideration and a far cry from the $8,050 to $20,050 per tenant the landlord could be on the hook for according to a letter from the Rent Stabilization Division of Los Angeles’ Housing + Community Investment Department (HCIDLA).
Both offers from the landlord came with the stipulation that the tenants must waive their right to sue him in the future.
Darrell Wilson, 49, an aspiring actor and rideshare driver who has been one of the lead organizers for his nearly one dozen roommates said, “They are trying to devalue us.” “It was a slap in the face. They have no regards for human rights or fairness. I feel like they don’t even want to treat us as human beings as they should. Even with the $50,000 split almost 12 ways, it is still a disgrace and that they would go even lower than that. Because our main attorney wasn’t there they thought they could go even lower.”
Wilson, who landed a one-time role on General Hospital last year, celebrated his 50th birthday Sunday.
Los Angeles is the sixth most expensive rental market in the U.S., wherein 2017 the median price for a one-bedroom was $2,077, while for a two-bedroom it was $3,099. Rental application fees can be $42 per application with no guarantee of acceptance. Oftentimes landlords and property management companies demand that prospective renters make at least 3 times the rent and pay first and last or first and a deposit before moving in which is often the equivalent of two to three times the amount of the rent.
$50,000 split twelve ways would amount to approximately $4,166 per tenant. In an effort to shield himself from future lawsuits by the tenants the landlord is only offering the money if they waive their right to sue–something the tenants say they shouldn’t be made to do.
Disappointed that their attorney hadn’t been able to make it to court and that their fate would be up in the air at least a few more days, the tenants rejected the offer and went back to the place they call home for now.
Both landlord Izydor Wiltchfort and the tenants say they were duped by Giovanna Wilkerson.
Wilkerson is the subject of an investigation by multiple entities after tenants say she promised them transitional housing that included a clean living environment, meals, and even job assistance. The tenants, who were paying to rent for shared rooms, are currently in the process of being evicted from a nearly 4,600-square-foot dilapidated house on the border of Inglewood in the city of Los Angeles after Wilkerson stopped paying rent to the property’s owner.
Since the story first broke, numerous previous landlords and tenants, have come forward about Wilkerson. A search of court documents shows that beginning in 2009, Wilkerson has had seven unlawful detainers filed against her—almost one every year. Several landlords have details how Wilkerson ran her business in their homes and then skipped out on paying the rent.
During a 2017 texting conversation, Wilkerson was trying to rent a house in South Los Angeles and said, “I’ve opened up 9 others homes while waiting on u [sic].”
The text was a part of Wilkerson was trying to convince the family to rent their property to her and they replied they were not interested in her “hustle.”
The family says she was super aggressive with them, reaching out regularly for approximately the past five years trying to rent their properties for her business.
Current and previous tenants say that in order to rent a shared room from Wilkerson demanded access to their debit card numbers, pin codes–including for their Electronic Benefit Transfer or EBT which is used in California is to issue food stamp and cash benefits to recipients. Tenants say she solicited them online, in front of the Department of Public Social Services and on Skid Row at homeless shelters.
According to the tenants of the Crenshaw house who are facing eviction, residents receiving General Relief pay between $175 to $200 of their $221 monthly benefits for a bed bug infested mattress on the floor in a shared room. The accommodations they say for those who receive more money isn’t any better–they’re just charged more for it. Former comedian and stroke victim Vincent Cook pays $350 to sleep on the floor of a room he shares with a stranger. Others paid as much as $1,000.
And while it may sound like a good deal to avoid being unsheltered, the house that recently served as home to as many as 40 men and women has no heat and only one working toilet and shower out of 4 full bathrooms. Water constantly leaks downstairs into the living room and every room in the house has signs (and smells) of mold. And then there are the broken windows, rats, roaches, bed bugs and stray cats.
Wilkerson contends that residents are not tenants and therefore landlord-tenant law does not apply to them.
“I’m the Housing Director, they are participants,” she said via text message.
A 19-page city inspection report dated Feb. 20, from the HCIDLA shows dozens of violations were found at the house on Crenshaw. Among the citations were the use of an enclosed porch as a bedroom, broken windows, plumbing blockage, termites and dry rot, broken or missing electrical switches, loose guardrails, hazardous, unapproved, defected or improperly installed receptacle outlets, missing smoke detectors, defective or missing room heating appliances, unapproved plumbing, and dampness in rooms.
On a recent inspection visit at the house, HCIDLA Senior Housing Inspector Marcel Nicholas told residents that his office found 120 code violations.
Frustrated residents told Nicholas that they filed complaints with several city departments regarding the condition of the house including with the City of Los Angeles’ Department of Building and Safety.
Nicholas told the tenants that his office couldn’t do anything while there was an open case with Building and Safety. He said it’s like the ‘fire department and police department’ in that they have nothing to do with each other.
“Building and Safety already had an open substandard notice that was written in September,” he explained. “What happened with that, I don’t know. When Mr. Mohammad called us in January, I knew that–you know–Building and Safety still had that order. Then when he [Mr. Mohammad] told me that it had ran out, that’s when I came and did the inspection September–no February 9th. He called me on–I think he put a complaint in on January 31.”
The residents still had questions and concerns about why it took so long for the city to act.
“Health department is not the housing department,” Nicholas continued. “The housing authority is not the housing department. Building and safety is not the housing department. We’re different agencies, we use different systems and we don’t have a liaison between each thing. It’s not until you go to your council representative that they can act as a liaison.”
As of now, the residents are waiting to see if they qualify for relocation assistance through the City of Los Angeles. Two men Nicholas said were from the department that makes that decision arrived at the house along with him, but never bothered to identify themselves or speak to the residents and left after a quick walkthrough.
When asked about relocation assistance, Nicholas told the residents, “I wouldn’t be able to speak on it, that’s not my expertise.”
A Notice of Abatement for Substandard Property dated Feb. 20 sent to the owner of the house says that all of the code violations need to be fixed by Apr. 13 and that HCIDLA will be back to inspect the property on Apr. 16.
However, the city has ordered the property’s owner to fix the furnace immediately so that the tenants can have access to heat. If he refuses, the city will make the necessary repairs and bill the owner directly. It is doubtful the furnace will be fixed before the end of the latest rainstorm to hit Southern California.
Through his attorney, landlord Izydor Wiltchfort said that he was a victim of Giovanna Wilkerson’s as well. A point he reiterated again to the residents in person on Mar. 6 when he toured the house with the city’s housing inspector.
The tenants are back in court on Fri., Mar. 16 and Ms. Wilkerson has not returned to the house on Crenshaw.
Still facing eviction, the tenants of the Crenshaw house have established a Go Fund Me campaign to assist in paying their legal fees and to split what’s left over among themselves to aid in their relocation. You can find it here: www.gofundme.com/help-victims-of-room-for-rent-scam.
Do you know Giovanna Wilkerson? If Ms. Wilkerson solicited you to rent from her or to rent to her or you rented to Ms. Wilkerson or rented from Ms. Wilkerson and you’d like to share your experience please email [email protected]