Less than a week after residents of the Nickerson Gardens public housing project in Watts cheered plans to improve conditions there, angry residents of a Harbor City project assailed Los Angeles housing officials for ignoring "wartime conditions" at their project.
About 75 residents of Normont Terrace, a deteriorating project built as temporary military housing in 1942, rallied Thursday to protest the Los Angeles City Housing Authority's plans to spend $5.2 million at Nickerson Gardens.
Normont residents, who complain that their project lacks everything from showers to adequate pest control, said housing officials have consistently told them that money is not available for improvements.
"We have been led up the yellow brick road by the Housing Authority," said Stella Jurado, who has represented the project's residents at numerous meetings with housing officials about run-down conditions. "This is a complete insult to the people here at Normont Terrace."
Janetta Dobbins, head of the project's residents organization, held up a drawing of a foot kicking the rear-end of a donkey as other residents flashed signs reading, "A Kick in the Butt from the Housing Authority." Jurado said residents "feel like the burro."
The protesters called on Leila Gonzalez-Correa, executive director of the housing agency, and Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, whose district includes both Nickerson Gardens and Normont Terrace, to explain why they have publicly supported efforts to improve conditions at Normont Terrace but funding was obtained only for Nickerson Gardens.
Fighting Housing Authority
"We deserve to live in a better place just like residents at Nickerson," said Ruby Bailey, a five-year resident. "We are not fighting with Nickerson. We are fighting with the Housing Authority."
In interviews, Gonzalez-Correa and Flores have said they have not forgotten Normont Terrace.
Flores said last week that she was told about the plans for Nickerson Gardens only after the Housing Authority had approved them and had already obtained the funding, most of which comes from the federal government. Flores said she was pleased that a project in her district had been selected.
"Had we been aware that this money was available and had it been available for the types of improvements needed at Normont Terrace, they would have been first," Flores said. "But you have to consider what is going to be done with the money and whether or not it will take care of the problem."
The money designated for the 1,064-unit Nickerson Gardens will pay for a project-wide paint job, landscaping work, additional lighting, security fences and the remodeling of some kitchens. In contrast, the most recent improvement proposal for the 400-unit Normont Terrace calls for demolishing the entire project and replacing it with an $80-million development of both private and public units.
"While some of the things being done at Nickerson would be beneficial at Normont, it would be a Band-Aid approach to the problems at Normont," Flores said. "The things that need to be done at Normont Terrace require the gutting of the units or tearing them down and building new ones."
Gonzalez-Correa was not available for comment, but in a previous interview she said the federal money allocated to Nickerson Gardens would have been lost if the Housing Authority did not use it before October. She said the authority is "very, very concerned" about all of its projects in Watts because of crime, vandalism and other problems there.
One of Worst in Nation
"Nickerson was featured on '60 Minutes' as one of the worst projects in the nation," Gonzalez-Correa said in the interview. "We want to turn it around so that people first of all know it can be done, and secondly, so that other projects can take hope."
Gonzalez-Correa said the agency is also committed to redeveloping Normont Terrace and has held discussions with at least one developer. But with staffing changes and other problems, the authority needs more time before it can move ahead, she said.
"I will not be rushed," she said. "These are things that we need to do very carefully. We need very well-thought-out plans."
But at Normont Terrace, where redevelopment proposals were first discussed nearly two years ago, residents said they are tired of waiting. After the rally, they showed reporters apartments with termite-infested walls and windows, peeling paint and broken plumbing. One had a hole in the kitchen ceiling that drips water when the upstairs bathroom is in use.
Fears Floor Will Collapse
Gloria Serrano, who has lived at Normont Terrace for 20 years, said she sleeps in her living room because the floor in the unit above her bedroom is so infested with termites that she is afraid it might collapse.
Everleen Ferguson, a 31-year resident, said the project has been painted just once. Diana Curtis, who shares an apartment with her three children, said residents fear that crime in the area will get worse if the project is allowed to deteriorate further.
Dobbins, the residents' organization leader, said residents will send letters to the Housing Authority, Flores and other elected officials expressing their outrage. The residents also plan to hold other rallies to show their resolve.
"We have been too refined and too decent in our approach," Jurado said. "We are now going to be more outspoken."