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Addressing South L.A.'s Slum Housing and Indoor Air Pollution

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South Los Angeles, just south of Downtown, is home to some of the oldest housing stock in the City | Photo: Lizzeth Rosales

This is part of a series exploring environmental and health issues in South Los Angeles, produced in partnership with the California Endowment.
As a parent, the last thing you expect is for your child to fall ill from the treatment used to treat pest infestations. Sadly, this is the reality for many South Los Angeles families who are living in slum housing conditions. Slum housing is especially prone to infestations because neglected buildings create an ideal home for pests by allowing entry through decrepit walls and providing much needed water and humidity due to leaking plumbing. In fact, it is the lack of upkeep, not the cleanliness or habits of tenants, that is primarily responsible for pest infestations in slum housing.

Unfortunately, the improper remediation of pest infestations caused by slum housing conditions compound the unhealthy living environment for tenants, who make up 69% of the population in South Los Angeles. Fumigation by landlords in attempts to control pest infestations of cockroaches, bedbugs, and other vermin directly contribute to indoor air pollution. While the pests themselves pose health threats through bites and disease spread, the toxins in pesticides exacerbate health conditions like asthma and are themselves a threat to good health. Almost a third of South Los Angeles residents are under the age of 18, and poor indoor air quality from slum housing conditions results in significant impacts on the development of children's lungs and respiratory systems and is a critical public health issue.

Pests captured in gel bait trap
Pests captured in gel bait trap

Over the past several years, Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), along with our partners in South Los Angeles, has worked to build a grassroots base of tenant leaders that are actively organizing and engaging their neighbors. Together they document slum housing conditions and slum housing-related diseases, file complaints and engage in public actions, and expose the failure of the code enforcement system of the City of Los Angeles Housing Department and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to protect tenants.

Current enforcement mechanisms often fail to address the root causes of slum housing conditions and allow landlords a pass with often minor, ineffective repairs. Landlords often resort to spraying, which is not effective over the long term, in lieu of more expensive and long-lasting improvements to the building that would help curtail infestations. Repeated and uncontrolled fumigation of housing units with dangerous chemicals can have negative impacts on the health of residents. There are no disclosure requirements for the chemicals used in this harmful fumigation, or requirements that the workers performing the fumigation be adequately trained. In contrast, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a system for controlling infestations that emphasizes eliminating nesting places as well as food and water sources, excluding pests from the home by fixing leaks and holes, and using the safest possible pesticides (e.g. in gel form) only when necessary.

Vilma Marroquin has lived in the Expo/Vermont neighborhood of South Los Angeles for seven years, and currently lives in a building owned by notorious slumlord William Little. Vilma's building has a severe pest infestation, including roaches and bedbugs, crumbling walls, and leaking plumbing. The use of toxic pesticides has caused numerous health problems for Vilma's two children, resulting in multiple visits to the emergency room. In one incident, Vilma's son stopped breathing a day after her unit had been fumigated.

Vilma and her two kids at an event organized by SAJE
Vilma and her two kids at an event organized by SAJE

SAJE began to organize her building in June 2013 and Vilma became an active tenant leader. Vilma joined her neighbors in a healthy housing campaign, filed complaints with City of Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, and obtained letters from a physician for her two children to stop the use of toxic chemicals by the landlord. As a result of the healthy housing campaign, the landlord started using boric acid and gel baits, and made some minor repairs including patching up some holes in her unit. However, true Integrated Pest Management (IPM) requires significant repairs to the crumbling infrastructure and a holistic view of the building as one single unit. "It made a difference when they started to do IPM," Vilma said. "But what good did it do if they don't do that same treatment to all the units? It has to be for all the residents."

Because of the landlord's unwillingness to maintain his properties according to the building code, the building continues to suffer from a severe pest infestation. SAJE continues to work with Vilma and other tenant leaders to collectively hold the landlord to his responsibilities and public agencies to their enforcement obligations.

For the last ten years, SAJE has worked to directly address the causes of slum housing in South Los Angeles and empower tenants to understand their rights to safe, healthy housing free from retaliation and eviction. We have made a substantial impact on the environmental health of thousands of South Los Angeles families, and continue to push for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in order to improve tenants' indoor air quality and preserve our affordable housing stock.

For more information on our healthy housing work or to support our work with a donation, please visit our website at

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