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Crime, Decay in L.A.-Run Housing Spur Study by City

June 28, 1987|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles city officials will select a panel of experts this week to find ways to improve living conditions at city-run public housing projects, some of which have become overwhelmed by gangs, drug trafficking and vandalism.

The panel was authorized by the City Council at the request of harbor-area Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, whose district includes about half of the public housing units in the city. Flores said in an interview that run-down conditions and unchecked crime at many of the projects prompted her to push for an independent review of conditions there.

"They deal drugs right in front of you, out in the open," Flores said. "You can imagine how upsetting that is for mothers with kids. It isn't right. This is government housing, and there should be standards."

The panel is expected to look into a wide range of options, including tearing down the projects and replacing them with developments that integrate public and private housing.

It is expected to make recommendations in November to the City Council, which will then report to the city's Housing Authority.

The Housing Authority is an independent agency financed largely by rents and federal subsidies. The City Council exerts indirect influence over it through the authority's board of commissioners, which is appointed by the mayor with council approval.

The study will focus on the 21 housing projects operated by the authority, including three in the South Bay: the 479-unit Rancho San Pedro in San Pedro, the 400-unit Normont Terrace in Harbor City and the 384-unit Dana Strand Village in Wilmington. Four other projects in Flores' district are in Watts.

Most of the authority's projects were built in the 1940s. Some, such as Normont Terrace, were developed as temporary military quarters and were never intended as public housing.

The panel's work is separate from a study to be conducted later this summer by a private consultant for the Housing Authority. That study will determine how the projects can be redesigned to increase the number of units, improve security and possibly add private housing, offices or shops.

Portions of the studies may overlap, but Flores defended the double effort, saying the problems are so great that both the city and the agency need to brainstorm on how to solve them.

"The housing projects need all the help they can get," Flores said.

Flores said she began pushing for the city study about a year and a half ago because of her frustration with the authority. The problem-ridden agency, which is under new leadership, for years refused to respond to complaints from residents and city officials about crime and run-down conditions, she said.

"We had people complaining all the time, and nothing was being done," Flores said.

The agency's former executive director, Homer Smith, had been criticized by his own employees, city officials and private consultants for allegedly bad contracting practices, wasteful spending and dictatorial personnel moves within the authority. Smith resigned in November, 1985, and was replaced in October, 1986, by Leila Gonzalez-Correa, who had headed the housing authority in Austin, Tex.

Flores said the City Council's decision to conduct a study of its own is not meant to imply that the Housing Authority remains unresponsive or that its new director is not doing her job. Instead, she said, it reflects an awareness among council members that the agency cannot solve problems at the projects by itself.

"There is no reason why we can't work together," Flores said. "There is only so much (Gonzalez-Correa) can do. . . . I want to give her some clout by showing her that she has the support of the City Council."

Gonzalez-Correa, who has met several times with Flores to discuss problems in the housing projects, acknowledged in an interview that the agency is recovering from hard times, but said the authority is working to improve its image and accountability.

Centralized Lists

One of the most important changes under way, she said, has been centralization of waiting lists at the various projects. Until recently, each project maintained a list of its own and accepted and rejected its own applicants. With thousands of people signed up on more than one list, officials had no way to gauge the true need for public housing. In addition, poor tenants evicted from one project could get into another one.

"We are cleaning the lists now, and eventually we will have a citywide list," Gonzalez-Correa said. "We are also going to be computerized, so there will be no way that anyone can alter their place on the list."

The agency has also stepped up its effort to evict bad tenants and ensure that they are replaced by good tenants, she said. The agency intends to hire its own attorney to prosecute eviction cases, and she is considering allowing resident councils at the projects to have a say in approving applications.

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