By Jasmyne A. Cannick
Why the laughter stopped
Los Angeles, Calif. – If you ask Vincent Cook about the first 56 years of his life he’d probably tell you his proudest moments were were being handpicked by the late comedian Richard Pryor and singer Luther Vandross to be their opening acts during their respective tours. But mention former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Cook lights up and smiles as he recounts opening for Clinton during one of his California Primary appearances.
Today, sitting on on an old rickety porch swing in front of a dilapidated boarding home in South Los Angeles, the words don’t flow as easily for Cook who, as an accomplished comedian and actor, was never at a loss for words. But after a debilitating stroke in 2014, he’s never been the same.
“I’m a wild–I’m a wild–wow you look at me and say ‘he’s old!’ I am 56 years old.”
Cook is one of about a dozen tenants living in nearly 4,600 square foot home in Los Angeles that’s been abandoned by the property manager after she failed to pay rent causing a court to order her eviction.
Facing an inevitable eviction after falling prey to a room-for-rent scam, nearly all of the tenants in this home–that was sold to them as transitional housing–are on SSI or disability benefits and public assistance–most receiving just $221 per month. The rent? Well that depends on how much you are receiving tenants say.
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 for those who receive more money isn’t any better–they’re just charged more for it. Cook pays $350 to sleep on the floor of a room he shares with a stranger. Others who work pay more.
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.
Still, it’s seen as a deal for those who can no longer afford to rent an apartment in sixth most expensive rental market in the U.S. where in 2017 the median price for a one-bedroom in Los Angeles was $2,077 while for a two-bedroom it was $3,099.
And even though he is on the verge of being homeless, Vincent Cook is the house’s most optimistic resident believing that he can get back to where he was at the height of his career.
Once at the top of his comedic game, today Cook lives off of his meager Social Security monthly allowance–the bulk of which goes towards rent.
Boasting an impressive resume, it’s hard to believe that the one time accomplished boxer, comedian, actor and filmmaker who was once an in-demand entertainer found himself homeless.
“I came to California to be rich,” Cook says with a smile. “And I said I was going to be rich and guess what? I was rich.”
An online search on Cook revealed that he was once featured in Starz Entertainment’s stand-up comedy series, “Martin Lawrence Presents 1st Amendment Stand-up.” As a popular comic, Cook was tapped to perform on the groundbreaking television shows as “The Apollo Comedy Hour,” BET’s “Comic View,” HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam” and “Showtime At The Apollo.” Once a contributing writer on BET’s hit comedy soap opera “Blackberry Inn,” Cook was chosen for the starring role of Jewel in the series. His silver screen appearances included “B*A*P*S,” “Tears of a Clown” and after being personally selected by “Ali” director Michael Mann, playing Jimmy Ellis, Muhammad Ali’s famed sparring partner and former heavyweight champion of the world. During the making of “Ali,” Cook, whose bio online says that he once won a gold medal for the United States Boxing Team and was proclaimed a Golden Gloves Champion, realized a childhood dream when he received the opportunity to meet his boxing idol Ali.
Veteran actor John Amos hired Cook to co-star as the zany attorney Cousin June Bug in Amos’ 2004 film “The Watermelon Heist.” His last listed film credit on the Internet Movie Database was five years ago for a film he wrote and directed titled “Up in the Club.” He suffered a stroke in 2014 shortly after its completion.
The details of when and where it started to go wrong for Cook he can’t quite articulate.
For a minute his demeanor changes as he talks about the death of his friends comedians Ricky Harris and Reynaldo Rey. Harris died in 2016 from a heart attack, Rey from complications of a 2014 stroke in 2015.
He mentions a wife. A brother on crack cocaine that he lived with in downtown Los Angeles for a few months following his stroke. He says his brother was evicted.
An old Go Fund Me campaign from nearly four years ago set up by his brother says that Vincent was in a coma for ten days and has medical bills of over $250,000, including therapy and seven medications, that won’t be covered by medical insurance. In updates on the campaign’s page, a smiling Vincent can be seen alongside his wife and 10-month old daughter.
Attempts to locate Cook’s wife and brother have failed.
When asked how he ended up at the house on Crenshaw Boulevard Vincent says that the hospital he was in arranged it.
Struggling to say the name of the hospital, “New Way–Norwa–they arranged it,” he explains.
“They asked where I wanted to be dropped off and I said that I didn’t have a place to be dropped off. I told them if they had a place that I would look forward to being there and they said okay. So they called up a woman. Her name was Giovanna Wilkerson. The first thing she asked me was did I have any money. I said hold up a minute and I gave them back the phone and I said I didn’t know her. She told the hospital they would work with it out with me. That was the first time that I talked to her.”
He continued, “The second time I saw her she asked if I had any money. I said sure and I gave her the little bit of money I had in the bank. So said she was going to get me a receipt and I’ll see you shortly. Shortly turned into two weeks. I hadn’t saw her for two weeks and she came and asked where’s the rest of the money. I asked if she wanted me to get it and she said yes. So I went back over there and got all the money out of the window and gave her the rest of the money. She said, ‘I am comfortable with you now.’ She came up with a receipt and some kind of guarantee and that was that. I was here.”
Cook, along with a dozen or so residents all claim that Giovanna Wilkerson promised them transitional housing that included a clean living environment, meals and even job assistance. Residents were asked to sign Transitional Housing Agreements and made to give Ms. Wilkerson access to their government assistance and bank accounts so she could check each month to see when and how much money they received.
Shalana Little, 30, who has been living at the same South L.A. house as Cook added, “Whoever collected any type of government assistance–whether it’s SSI or GR–she would ask for your card number and the number on the back just in the event you were late on your rent or whatever–she would check. She would have the number to check and see if you were lying or not and if you didn’t pay your rent. She always asked for everyone’s information involving any type of income.”
Little says that it was mandatory for residents to disclose to Wilkerson 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.
After a notice to vacate was posted, she collected rent and disappeared. The Crenshaw house is believed to be one of several similar businesses she runs in South Los Angeles.
A Los Angeles Times profile on Wilkerson and her then husband show that she had early ambitions of owning property in South Los Angeles.
Before the eviction from the house on Crenshaw, Wilkerson entrusted the management of the house and tenants to Brent Rice. Rice is a registered sex offender who was convicted in 2010 of going to an arranged meeting with a minor with the intent to commit a specified sex offense. Rice refused to comment for this story when contacted. He is currently managing another one of Wilkerson’s room-for-rent homes located on 91st and Main Streets where another registered sex offender who was living at the Crenshaw house moved to, but is still registered at the house on Crenshaw.
According to tenants, Wilkerson was known for indiscriminately renting to anyone who had money, often times putting drug users, registered sex offenders, disabled and the elderly in the same room.
Wilkerson was known for squeezing as many as eight people into one room as evidenced by the numerous bunk beds located in the bedrooms of the house on Crenshaw.
Property Manager is not really concerned with what the public thinks
“Not really concerned what the public thinks,” Giovanna Wilkerson replied in an email on Tuesday, Feb. 27. “The house on Crenshaw is in horrible condition, but it helped a lot of people. Some people loved the idea of being in a mansion, some grateful to being off the street, various situations.”
Wilkerson says she had an agreement with the landlord to leave in November. She says she took the tenants’ rent money and rented another home on 91st Street in South Los Angeles.
The tenants say she demanded that everyone move to the new rental house and that Wilkerson posted a notice on the wall that said a moving van was coming on Nov. 19 and those that didn’t go would be left on their own.
Some left the Crenshaw house and went with her, while others stayed, citing concerns about crimes, their safety and the distance of the news place from their job and other resources.
When asked why she told the residents they had to move or would be left behind, Wilkerson said, “This is what they told you. [It’s] not accurate. I got 91st for them as we agreed in the meeting.” A sign posted in the house from Wilkerson to her tenants, says otherwise.
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.
When asked about the services clients say she promised she responded, “What services? We provide month to month housing. Guaranteed refrigerator and stove.”
Wilkerson says that she took over the property after the previous owner lost it due to “physical structural damages.”
“They pulled the license, removed the clients from the home–but yet he still had a rent of $5,700 to be due monthly,” she explains. I tried to help him out since it had been in the family for some years I heard. Before my folks came over I painted every room including every bathroom with the exception of the kitchen on my own. I put ads out for volunteers but the work was too much for anyone to do with no money. I got quotes from plumbers to determine what needed to be done as there were no working bathrooms. Due to there being two main lines, the quotes were in the double digits. The living room carpet floor needed to be repaired but didn’t make [sic] since until the owner repaired the two bathrooms that affected the leaks. I did what I could. I paid plumbers, handy men, exterminators, etc. Wasn’t my responsibility, but I tried to make it as comfortable as possible as I humanly and financially could for my participants. I was glad when one of the guys made a complaint to the city, because I got no help from the owner–none. Just grievance if I was late on a payment. No care of leaking hot water, power issues. Nothing.”
When asked about why she’d entrust a registered sex offender with running the house she replied, “Everyone knows because its [sic] in the agreement, as well as reminded when people attempt to have visitors under the age of 18. He is not in a place where kids are. Wouldn’t dare do that. He became a manager because he saw organization was needed. He kept the place clean, and people felt comfortable talking to him about whatever issues they had around the house. He was like the rest of the other participants. Took a chance with no managerial experience and stepped up to managing strangers from all backgrounds. And has done a marvelous job!”
A copy a current tenant’s agreement executed and signed by Wilkerson in 2017 for the house on Crenshaw showed there was no mention that registered sex offenders live on the property or that a registered sex offender was the house manager at the Crenshaw house.
Asked why she stopped paying rent Wilkerson says, “I had agreed to be gone for November 2017, as per what we agreed to do in the house meeting. He [the landlord] was okay with that and then I get a notice of him filing the [unlawful detainer]. I took the money and got them 91st…Everyone else relocated. Decembers rent came, did they not realize that by still being there [the landlord] would need his rent to be due?”
Wilkerson continued to collect rent from her tenants on Crenshaw after she vacated the property. The tenants say that she collected rent in January and some of their rent in February.
All I really know is she took February’s rent and then two days later I come back home to a money order on my bed returned in full,” shared Shalana Little. “She told one woman not to pay for February but she took another guy’s rent this month but only gave him half back or prorated he said.”
Wilkerson says her tenants are required to disclose their EBT information (pin code, card number) because people become dishonest.
“We don’t ask to [hold] onto cards as most program do. They will say their funds didn’t hit the card, and attempt to live for free, smoke or drink their money up. Poor choices rather than housing being a priority.”
Tenant’s in limbo
Attorney Elena Popp with the Eviction Defense Network represented the tenants in court Monday as they try to fight their removal from the premises.
Popp confirmed that the previous owner rented the property to Wilkerson. Wilkerson failed to pay the rent and the new owner served her with a three-day notice to pay rent or quit.
“Ms. Wilkerson did not pay the rent in response to the three-day-notice and was served a Summons and Complaint,” Popp explains. “Attached to the summons and complaint was a Prejudgment Claim of Right to Possession. No prejudgment claimants came forward because Ms. Wilkerson withheld the information. She agreed to give up possession in a Stipulation for Judgment. Because a prejudgment claim was served with the Summons and Complaint, even though Ms. Wilkerson never told any of the tenants about the service, there is no way for any of them to bring themselves into this litigation.”
Popp sheds light on an old law that says landlords can evict everyone living in a home just be serving notice to one person–even if that one person doesn’t tell the others, which appears to be the case with Wilkerson and her subtenants.
“This is a defect in the law,” Popp continues. “It is a complete violation of due process. The history of it is complicated but yes, our State Legislature has seen it fit to pass a law that allows a landlord to collude with a master tenant to evict all of the tenants and subtenants without due process. The owner knew or should have known that there were 12 tenancies here but was allowed to only serve Ms. Wilkerson. The court is taking the position that as subtenants, their claims are against Ms. Wilkerson, not against the owner. The owner has offered 60 days to move out if the tenants waive all their claims against the owners including any claims for relocation assistance.”
Back at the house on Crenshaw, sitting on the porch Vincent Cook reminisces about his past.
“I didn’t own any of the shows. You know, I didn’t own any of the shows. I was on BET. I played a lot of characters. I was good. I was really good.”
#LIVEat5: Former comedian Vincent Cook used to open for @richardpryor. But 3 years ago he had a stroke and ended up at a transitional rent-by-room home with deplorable conditions. Now he and others could be evicted because he says the landlady took their rent money and ran. @ABC7 pic.twitter.com/r4jCi0aNZ8
— Veronica Miracle (@ABC7Veronica) February 26, 2018
Cook is one of several tenants facing eviction after falling victims to a room-for-rent scam in Los Angeles. The residents have set up a legal defense fund to help pay their legal costs as they try to fight the eviction and buy more time to find somewhere to move to. You can contribute by clicking here.
For more on the story and the tenants, click here.