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GARAGE APARTMENTS OFTEN UNNOTICED : DEATHS PROMPT CITY TO STUDY CONVERSIONS.

Byline: David Bloom and Sherry Joe Crosby Daily News Staff Writers

When her cousin and family showed up on her doorstep two months ago looking for a place to live, the Sun Valley woman showed them to her guest house: a converted garage out back.

``It's temporary until she gets back on her feet,'' Ofelia Garcia said of the 400-square-foot room, now living quarters for three, a few blocks from the converted garage where two children and their grandmother were burned to death in an electrical fire early Wednesday.

City Building and Safety Department inspectors say they probably have no record of the woman's converted garage, and chances are that no permits were obtained for the work.

And unless there's a complaint, none of the city's 400 inspectors is likely ever to inspect the illegal conversion, among thousands of former garages believed to be home to an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 people in the city of Los Angeles.

But with the three deaths Wednesday coming less than four months after five children died in a similar fire in Watts, a task force of building officials and the Fire Department has been formed to look into the illegal garage-conversion issue.

``It's now a priority because we have lives lost because of substandard housing,'' said David Keim, a spokesman for the Building and Safety Department. ``It wasn't before. We want to really explore whether this problem is growing disproportionately.''

Some officials say that the activity comes too late and that longstanding policies have stunted the growth of affordable housing in the city, leaving no answer to the critical question of where to put the poor flushed out by any enforcement efforts.

``Years ago, the numbers (of illegal conversions) were, I'm sure much, much less,'' said Art Johnson, who retired last month as general manager of the city Building and Safety Department. ``But with the economy in the tank and a lot of people coming to the area, many have had to live in places like these.

``They are so easy to convert,'' said Johnson about the garages. ``It's almost invisible and nobody complains about it usually.''

In the main house, ``I have only two rooms and four kids,'' said the Sun Valley woman whose converted garage doubles as a guest house. She said the garage was intended as a recreation room.

Monthly rent for a studio apartment ranges from $400 to $500, Garcia said. A garage dwelling: $200 a month.

``One apartment costs a lot of money,'' she said. ``A garage is little money.''

The building department gets several hundred complaints a year about illegal garage conversions, but Johnson said that enforcing codes on illegal conversions is not a simple question of writing a violation notice.

``The cheapest part is hiring inspectors to go out and write orders,'' Johnson said. ``But that doesn't solve your problem. The city has to face facts that there's this large number of families that are going to hit the streets, and how are you going to handle that?

``They're going to have to make some hard decisions, and it's going to be really tough,'' he said.

About half the city's 400 inspectors check permits and code violations in one- and two-family properties among the 1.1 million buildings in Los Angeles.

The department has shrunk by a third since its peak of 1,210 employees in 1990, primarily because of the recession, which walloped its main source of money: permit fees.

Add in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, which forced the department to perform thousands of building inspections and follow-up visits, and illegal conversions have been a low priority, Johnson said.

The city just approved a program that trains neighborhood volunteers in code enforcement. The program should be in place by late summer, said Deputy Mayor Sharon Morris.

``An inspector may be able to spot an illegal conversion, but he doesn't know the neighborhood,'' Morris said. ``Your neighbor knows. That will give us so many more people who are trained.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Mar 21, 1997
Words:665
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