Los Angeles

Saga of Burned House Underscores Regional Housing Issues

It had long been a source of worry for neighbors — the South Los Angeles house that lay unclaimed after the death of its owner, and eventually became home to a series of squatters.

The situation in the 300 block of East 89th Street had dragged on for years. Utilities were disconnected as far back as 2010, and squatters made do without power or running water, said Dana Pascasciokanu, who said she had stayed at the house. Twice it was damaged by small fires, at least one ignited by candles, she said.

Tuesday morning, fire erupted again, burning so fiercely it gutted the three-bedroom home before responding firefighters were able to douse the flames.

No one was hurt. It was not immediately clear if anyone had been in the house when the fire began, or what caused it. During the day, a Cadillac and a pickup truck with Oregon plates remained unclaimed in the driveway.

Early evening, a man arrived to survey the damage. He identified himself as the owner, and said he had just learned of the fire.

Enrique Barrios has worked in real estate almost his entire life, since moving from Mexico City to attend UCLA five decades ago. He's now retired, but with expertise in probate, he keeps busy as an investor.

To Barrios, the saga of the house on East 89th is emblematic of larger housing problems: the lack of affordable housing, the plight of squatters who see limited alternatives, the challenge to purchasers of gaining possession in order to fix up properties squatters have taken over.

The mortgage crisis and housing market crash a decade ago had led to thousands of foreclosures and became a blight concern in Los Angeles, as some lenders failed to maintain properties.

But foreclosure was not a factor for the house on East 89th.

Some of its history was uncovered by Barrios. After the death years ago of the woman who owned the property free and clear, apparently no heirs, nor anyone else came forward to claim ownership. Barrios said he finally acquired the property last year through a probate proceeding.

Since then, talking to the house's occupant, and going through the legal process for eviction, Barrios has been attempting to gain control of the property. Barrios spoke periodically to the occupant; even got his cellphone number.

Tuesday evening, standing outside the burned home, Barrios could be seen calling the man, but getting no answer. Not yet legally in possession, Barrios said he wanted to get the man's permission before locking the front gate.

Ironically, only hours earlier Barrios had received from court the eviction order for law enforcement to serve on the occupant.

Even before the fire, the property was going to need a lot of work before Barrios could rent it out. Now, the fire damage is so extensive, what's left may be a teardown, requiring a new house to be built from scratch.

Barrios hopes to find a family who will want to make it home.

He also said he hopes the man who was staying there can find a new place without having to resort to squatting.

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