MONTEBELLO — Mayor William M. Molinari used to feel proud when he would drive by the construction site of Casa La Merced, a desperately needed public housing complex for low-income seniors. But now, he only feels hoodwinked.
"Quite honestly," the mayor said last week, "I don't know precisely where to fix the blame."
What has soured him so on such a worthwhile project revolves around a question of fairness.
Molinari contends that a federal agency stood silently by in 1984, when the city gave developers $1 million in land and improvements while under the false impression that it would earn prospective Montebello tenants some priority.
Federal officials disagree that they were in any way remiss.
But they acknowledge that the 234 Montebello seniors who have applied for the 127 available apartments--thinking the competition was first-come, first-serve--must instead bet their hopes on the luck of a lottery. And the hopper will contain names of 800 other applicants from throughout Los Angeles County--plus two or three from out of state.
Up to Lady Luck
Montebello residents could conceivably win all. Or none. Or about 23% if the hopper tumbles in rhythm with the law of averages.
And that, said Molinari, is unfair.
"Had we known that our residents wouldn't be given any preference we certainly would have considered the option of taking that $1 million" and building some other housing more certain to serve the city's substantial elderly population, he said. "How do we justify the large contribution of local taxpayer money to a project that in some respects doesn't affect our residents?"
So, the process of selecting tenants for the $8-million, five-story building, just north of where Montebello and Whittier boulevards cross, has fallen weeks behind because the city has asked the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to give the city's residents some preference. Molinari said he is prepared to argue at least the principle of fairness all the way to the White House.
A letter from federal officials responding to the city's concerns is expected any day. But the delay already means that there is at least a chance that no tenants will be ready to move in when the project opens on Sept. 15.
"It may jeopardize the financial position of the project," said Clive Graham, Casa La Merced's managing agent, looking at the worst possibility. "Unless we have tenants in there, who's going to pay the mortgage? We may go into default."
Graham said that would be unfair to the seniors, as well as to Los Angeles-based El Centro Human Services Corp., the developers who obtained a $7.6-million HUD loan so Casa La Merced could be built.
Resigned to Lottery
If there are no tenants to immediately pay rent, El Centro Senior Vice President Louis Bernardy agreed, then the nonprofit social service agency "will be responsible for making payments to HUD, which will be disastrous because we have no income."
Everyone agreed that that is not likely to happen because Molinari said the city has no intention of blocking the building's occupancy. He said city officials have largely resigned themselves to the fact that the lottery will go forward, perhaps within a week or so.
But the mayor said it will be a long time before he gets over the frustration he feels because neither HUD nor El Centro "clearly stated" that local residents would have no special consideration. And he may never get over the resentment he holds for local HUD officials, whom he regards as inflexible and "overbearing."
"They give you the impression that (HUD regulations) are etched in stone on the mountain, and were given to Moses. . . . They treat us like we're doing something wrong."
HUD officials said that attitude is unfair to them.
Because federal tax money went toward building Casa La Merced, said regional fair housing director Thomas F. Honore, the agency has a responsibility to see that all applicants enjoy an equal opportunity to become tenants--regardless of race, origin or proximity to the project.
'Misunderstanding' by City
"It really boils down to, I think, a misunderstanding on the part of the city," Honore said. While city officials may have thought their participation would give local residents "kind of a guarantee, that has never been a promise made by this office." Honore said the city's dealings were strictly with El Centro. "I can't know when there's someone in the wings, long after the project has been approved," who doesn't understand HUD's fair housing requirements.
The lottery might well have been limited to applicants from the Montebello area, Honore added, if the city only had the same ethnic makeup as does the county. But even though at least 59% of city residents are Latino (compared to 27% countywide) and about 14% are Asian (compared to 6% countywide), "unfortunately . . . the proportion of blacks is not as great." Blacks in Montebello make up less than 1%, while they are 13% of the county's population.