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Do-It-Ourselves Idea for Building Homes Gains in Wilmington

November 09, 1986|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

WILMINGTON — Eight months after they helped win a moratorium on the construction of high-density apartments in the harbor area, a group of residents are going into the house-building business to persuade city officials that single-family homes--not apartments--are what the community wants.

About 25 people, most of whom belong to the Wilmington Home Owners, the largest residents' organization in the community, have formed an unusual limited partnership to buy a three-acre lot at 815 E. L St. that they plan to develop with 20 to 30 single-family homes.

The lot, enclosed by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, is littered with flatbed trucks and stacks of freight containers. It has been the source of countless complaints to the city from neighbors who say that the containers are an eyesore and that trucks using the lot make noise and block streets day and night.

The lot is just a half block from Holy Family Catholic Church, the focus of religious and social activity for much of east Wilmington. Many of the investors in the project met through the parish, and have come to trust one another because of their affiliation with it.

Homes for Investors

The investors, who call themselves HOP (Home Ownership Partnership), are expected to be the eventual owners and occupants of the homes, said Lottie Cohen, an Inglewood attorney hired by the group. In several cases, however, the investors said they will sell their interest in the project once the homes are built.

"The partnership is not geared toward maximizing profit," Cohen said. "In this community, the concept of home ownership is so cherished that they see this as a way to own a piece of land."

Added Raymond Madrigal, a retired machine operator who has joined the group but does not plan to live in the new development: "Instead of putting my money in the bank, I am putting it here. I want to help clean up the community. A lot of people need good homes."

Peter Mendoza, president of the homeowners organization and the leader of Home Ownership Partnership, said the investment group represents a new "put-up-or-shut-up" extension of the homeowners organization that will allow its members to take an active role in changing Wilmington. The year-old homeowners organization has been a vocal critic of city government, asserting that the community has been treated like a neglected stepchild and that it lacks basic services that other communities in Los Angeles take for granted.

Message to Politicians

"Usually homeowner groups have strength in numbers and can get politicians to listen, but in this community it takes a whole lot to get the politicians to listen," Mendoza said. "So rather than sit around and wait, we decided: Why not do something ourselves? We are going to get out our hammers and nails and we are going to build houses. We want to demonstrate once and for all that, yes, there is a need for this kind of housing, and yes, it is economically feasible."

Early this year, the organization was instrumental in persuading harbor-area Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores to push for the one-year moratorium on high-density apartment construction in Wilmington and Harbor City. The moratorium, approved by the City Council in March, cut in half the amount of construction allowed in the two communities, and came at a time when dozens of apartment complexes were being built or planned.

Residents, who complain of overcrowded schools and insufficient public services for people already living in Wilmington, have argued that developers should shift to single-family homes, which they say would allow manageable increases in density and encourage pride in the community through home ownership.

Many longtime residents, particularly those who belong to the homeowners organization, complain that new apartment complexes are built by absentee landlords who don't care about the community, and who build poorly constructed complexes that are destined to become Wilmington's future slums.

'Pride in Ownership'

"I feel strongly that people feel pride in ownership," said Olivia Cueva-Fernandez, secretary of the homeowners organization. "By having a home, they will fix it up. It may not be fancy compared to Palos Verdes, but it will be their own."

But developers, who deny that their projects are substandard, have long maintained that the only single-family homes they could build in Wilmington would be too expensive for residents of the working-class community. Hubert G. Toll, who has about 200 apartments under construction in Wilmington, said high-density apartment developments are necessary to meet the housing needs of the community.

"People here are of a lower income and it is hard to qualify them for a house," Toll said. "The price of property dictates that the houses you could build wouldn't be affordable houses. This is a blue-collar labor area and affordable housing can only be achieved through higher density.

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