In 2007 I was living in Los Feliz, a trendy artist neighborhood (now hipster area) in Los Angeles. I lived with an on and off again friend with benefits situation. We had been playing this relationship/no relationship game for almost six years and our lives were pretty intertwined. He knew all of my friends from Michigan, and at some point, we decided to help one of them get out of there. I flew to Detroit and drove with the friend back to our place in Los Feliz. The three of us settled into our tiny one-bedroom apartment with two cats and a dog. The plan was that the friend would get a job and we would get a bigger place. That happened, thankfully, a few months later. Three people and three animals in a tiny one-bedroom was not the best time of our lives. Anyway, I had my heart set on getting a house and the only way we could afford that is if we moved to the valley. We searched for a while on Craigslist, went to see a few places that were either too small or too weird (one that we checked out in Van Nuys was owned by a family that would rent the house to us, but then they would move into the garage in the backyard). It was maybe a month of searching before we found the fake house.
The fake house was a four-bedroom ranch in Chatsworth, California. This was a bit further into the valley than we had wanted, but when the guy showed it to us, we fell in love. It was rough – the kitchen had been gutted, there were no appliances, there were no doors on the bathrooms and bedrooms, and the pool was filled with green water and trash. But, it was huge! The living room alone was larger than our entire apartment. The front door opened into a giant open floor plan with the kitchen on your right, and the living room straight ahead. The bar in the kitchen overlooked the living room and there were glass doors out to the pool in both the living room and the master bedroom. The bedrooms were to the right and left of the living room. And the giant attached garage had been turned into an additional room with laminate wood floors and windows around the whole space – it could have easily been a full on dance studio.
The man that showed us the house introduced himself as Erik. He was European, maybe Swedish, and was very tall and very large. He clearly spent many hours a day in a gym – his arms were huge, as was his chest, and neck. He was physically intimidating, but was pleasant enough and told us to take our time to think about the place. It was $1900 a month and he said he worked for Jim Rojas, the owner of the house, and it would be $3000 to move in, which included a deposit and first month’s rent. He said the previous owners left angry because of a foreclosure and that is why the house was so neglected. This was during the madness of housing market crash, so this story made sense. He said that if we wanted the place, he would replace all of the doors, put in new appliances, and clean out the pool. He said that he had been staying there while repairing things, which was evident by the bed and boxes throughout the house. We sat at a table in the dining room and I remember one of us saying it was too good to be true. The only things we found wrong with the place would be fixed. It was way cheaper than any other place that we had looked at and was clearly more space than we would ever use. We could have pool parties! We told Erik that we wanted the house.
We gave him a check for $3000 and had him write in all of the things that he would do on the lease. We told him that he did not need to buy a fridge, we actually owned ours, so he noted that he would replace the doors, install a stove, clean out the pool, and replace the pipes that had been taken by the previous homeowners. He gave us a key to the house and said that he would have the repairs done over the next few weeks and promised it would be ready for us in October. He cashed the check immediately. We tried calling him a few times over the next few weeks and would leave him messages on his phone. He never returned our calls. It made us nervous, but we did have a key to the place, so we decided that he was just busy fixing the house.
Our Los Feliz landlord was ecstatic that we were leaving. This area was super trendy and we had been there for many years while seriously benefitting from the rent control. The sorta boyfriend and I had lived in the complex in separate apartments for years before living together. When we made the decision to combine our apartments I told my friend in Seattle that wanted to move to LA and hooked him up with the landlord. The landlord doubled the rent for him. And now that we were looking to move again, the landlord was able to rent our place immediately for three times what we paid. We were moving out the last weekend of September and the new tenants were supposed to move in the very next day.
Moving weekend arrived. We rented a large truck and had a friend from San Diego drive up for the weekend to help us. We had everything packed up and caravanned out to Chatsworth late Saturday night. We pulled up to the house – a moving truck full of everything, including a refrigerator with food in it, two cats, a dog, and four people. We unlocked the front door and the house was exactly the same as when we had seen it on the first day. There was one major difference, though: a dry erase board had been propped up on the kitchen bar and it read, “Sorry. House foreclosed 2 days ago. You can’t stay here.” We all just sort of stood there, not sure what to do, but we knew that we could not go back to Los Feliz.
The first 30 minutes are sort of a blur in my memory. I know that we tried calling Erik and he would not answer his phone. We knew that we had to get the animals in from the car and so we put the cats in their crates in the living room and had the dog on a leash. I do not know whose idea it was to call the cops, but we called the local department. They informed us that this was a civil matter and since it was not criminal they could not help us. I think I used some white girl tears and they told me that they did not see why we could not stay there for the night. They said to keep trying the guy who rented it to us and to go ahead and bring our refrigerator inside. It was really late at night and we were all exhausted from moving all day. We brought in the fridge and our queen sized bed. The four of us laid on it lengthwise and we actually fell asleep.
We woke up to sounds of the front door opening, and in walked Erik, yelling that we had to leave. It was 4:00 am and he had a very drunk woman with him – it was clear that they had just come from a bar. He was shouting that we could not stay there and she was all drunk girl, “What is going on?” “Why are you in my man’s house?” We said that we needed our money back and that we had nowhere to go. He just got louder and I remember thinking how enormous his body was. We called the cops again. The police ended up acting as mediators between us on the front porch and Erik with his drunk lady friend that were on the front lawn. They would legit walk back and forth delivering messages. He said that we could not stay because the house was foreclosed on and that he was staying there. We said that we were not told about this until we arrived – even though we had been calling him for weeks with no reply. When we threw in the facts that he had cashed our check and we had nowhere to go, the police talked him into leaving. It was decided that he would come back in the morning to discuss everything. After everyone left, we noticed a stack of papers on the table and found a copy of what appeared to be a lease indicating that Erik was renting the house from a company, Medallion Properties. This was before any of us had smart phones, so we called 411, but they had no listing for Medallion Properties. We decided to spend the early morning as detectives; we unpacked our photocopier and made a copy of this as well as other documents in the stack (like a notice from the city to him to clean the pool and a copy of an agreement between Erik and Anthony Rojas to act as manager and collect money on a different property down the street). We didn’t know what we were going to do with all this shit, but we knew that none of it added up to the story that was told to us.
One thing that really sticks out in my memory during all of this is that the animals were scared. We let the cats out of their cages and they turned around and went right back in. The dog refused to leave our side. I am not saying our animals were psychic, OR MAYBE I AM.
A few hours later, Erik called to let us know he would not be able to make it in the morning and would be there at 1:00 in the afternoon. At 1:00 pm he called to say that he could not make it until 6:00 pm. We found a giant glass bottle full of empty syringes, a few glass bottles of what appeared to be steroids, a box of BBW porn (which was super fucking awesome), and a picture of Erik with DOLPH FUCKING LUNDGREN. If this pic was on Instagram, it would have been captioned #TWINZ #BFF #MUSCLEBROS. At 6:00 he called again and said, “So I kind of lied. The house has not been foreclosed on. We can work things out, this will be fine.” We called the police station again. We didn’t know what to do with all of his stuff (and felt that it was something that could cause him to get violent) and we wanted them to know that we planned to stay in the house as squatters. They told us to move all of his things into the garage. We had no clue what was going to happen next, but we knew that we were dealing with a very large man that apparently could fly into steroid rage at any time. We replaced all of the locks and put new deadbolts on the house.
We all had to go to work on Monday. I remember that this was a super stressful thing for each of us. I was most concerned about the animals – yeah we had switched out the locks, but what if he broke in and killed our pets? There were windows everywhere and he knew how to get in if he had been staying there! I had just been promoted to a new position, though, and could not stay home. Of course once I got to work, I couldn’t focus and just searched the internet for any info on Erik while reaching out to anyone that I knew that was a lawyer. I was able to find a copy of the most recent deed to the house and the name on it did not match our lease or the rental agreement we had found between Erik and Medallion Properties. A lawyer said that we were well within squatters’ rights and advised us to turn on utilities in our name and start putting the rent money away in a savings account, like an escrow account. This way, if the owner showed up, we could show that we intended to live there legally and wanted to pay the rightful owners. We decided to hire a private investigator.
The PI’s report on Erik told us things that were not shocking: he had been in and out of court many times for small claims cases involving rental property, he was divorced, lived mainly in and around Los Angeles, and also had several assault charges – some were against strangers. We were so focused on Erik that we forgot to investigate Jim Rojas. That was the supposed owner, according to Erik. He was the guy taking the money. If we had done a google search, we would have found that he was in prison. Instead, a friend called us FREAKING OUT that she, “figured it all out!” She told me to turn on the TV because, “I think your landlord is on the news.”
James Anthony Rojas was in jail in Orange County for grand theft, forgery, identity theft, and real estate foreclosure fraud. He had a company, Victoria Holdings, that pretended to help foreclosure victims save their house. He would have the families write a check to the company and sign the house deed over on the promise that he would work with the bank to save their house. Obviously, he never paid the banks and instead just stole their money. They would not know this until the authorities showed up to remove them from their property. He would then use the time that the banks took to do anything with the house to send his team of people, like Erik, to re-key the place and put it up for rent.
The housing market crash of 2007 and 2008 led to many people losing their homes. Some shitty lending practices caused folks who could not afford homes to buy them and then lose them. Jerks like Rojas swooped in to take advantage of these poor people. We were, in the grand scheme of things, very low on the list of folks that were wronged by him. We were just victims of his rental scams. He was stealing homes from families. And their money.
We never dealt with Rojas because he was in jail the entire time that we stayed at the fake house. Instead we dealt with Erik, and a woman that looked suspiciously like every New Jersey stereotype housewife with a ratted perm, giant gold jewelry, and leopard print dresses. She said she was Rojas’ wife and we had to pay her. Looking back, this is one of the funniest stories of my life. We were house squatting in the porn capital of the world while two CARTOONISHLY EVIL people would occasionally show up and demand that we pay them for living in a house that they did not own.
We stayed in the fake house for four months. We put the “rent” into the savings account each month and lived this weird camping lifestyle in a giant fucking house. Not having a stove prompted me to become the “Crock Pot Hero.” I made every meal in it (soup for breakfast! soup for lunch! soup for dinner! soup for bed!) until someone gave us a hot plate. We would lean a door that we found over the doorway when we needed to use the bathroom. We dumped every chemical we could get from the local pool store to try to get rid of the West Nile swamp lands in our backyard. We had a bucket under the kitchen sink that we had to empty out at least twice while doing dishes. We told the neighbors about our situation. And even though we were living in a constant state of panic that a giant, evil, muscleman was going to show up and kill us, we tried to act like we were okay. We gave out candy at Halloween. We found a local bar that played country music and we would get drunk and watch old white people line dance with Mexicans. We had a local breakfast place (that still is my go-to place for the best breakfast in Los Angeles). We had a New Year’s Eve Party where we watched Dick Clark fuck up the countdown (and then rewound the countdown over and over to take another HAPPY NEW YEAR shot). One of our good friends would come and stay with us almost every weekend – he said he felt like it was being on a camping trip while still in LA. It was such a sitcom of a house; it was like the money pit with a bonus sense of creepy criminal activity. We were on a first name basis with the local police station. Erik took a long time to get his stuff out of the garage, and for a minute we came up with the idea of it hostage until he gave us the deposit money back. The cops did not agree with this plan, and on the day that he finally showed up to move it all they were there to monitor us.
The bank hand delivered a notice to vacate. They gave us 30 days and didn’t want us to pay any money. We never got the $3000 back from Erik and Rojas, but we had saved enough to move into another house by putting our rent into that savings account. We ended up in a three-bedroom house in another part of the valley. It had a stove, bathroom doors, and a real owner! The new landlord did a lengthy background check on us and while we waited to be approved, we researched him as well to ensure that he owned the house.
Overall, the fake house was not only a learning opportunity for us, but it provided several important life lessons for anyone.
- If something feels too good to be true, it is.
- Research the owner before you rent.
- Huge muscle dudes like fat girl porn.
- Don’t lift the lid of a cooking crock pot!