In a bold effort to upgrade low-income housing in Watts, the Los Angeles City Housing Authority is planning to sell the dilapidated Jordan Downs public housing project to a private developer and use the proceeds to create new rent-subsidy programs in the inner city, The Times has learned.
The proposal, the first of its kind in the nation if carried out, would convert the 700 units at Jordan Downs into a privately operated facility and provide $11 million in new improvements such as security gates, air conditioning and laundry facilities, city documents show. A private developer would also agree to maintain the 50-acre property and enforce strict leasing rules designed to prohibit gang members, criminals and drug users from residing in the project.
"To me, this is a win-win situation," said Leila Gonzalez-Correa, executive director of the Housing Authority. "Jordan is right smack in the middle of Watts. I really believe that turning around Jordan will be the most important piece of turning around Watts. It is really right now the project that is in the worst shape."
Gonzalez-Correa said the new program is based on the belief that the Housing Authority has failed in its mission to improve living conditions at Jordan Downs and that private industry has the resources and the capability to refurbish and clean up the decaying project and keep it that way. A gated community with on-site private supervisors, proponents say, would change the face of a project that for years has been plagued by slum conditions, drug dealing and gang violence.
The Housing Authority has paid former Los Angeles Democratic Congresswoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke up to $200 per hour in consulting fees to lobby support among federal, state and local officials as well as community leaders. Mayor Tom Bradley is among the political leaders who support the privatization concept.
"We think it has merit if it is done right," Deputy Mayor Mike Gage said. "The mayor has said it sounds innovative and creative, but it has to be done carefully and with a great deal of prudence."
Many tenants at Jordan Downs have not been so receptive. They first learned of the proposal earlier this week when Housing Authority police officers distributed notices door-to-door to announce a public hearing scheduled for Friday.
"We are very upset because we did not have any idea about this," said Lillian Browning, the tenants' housing representative at Jordan Downs. "It was a shock. All of a sudden we get this notice that they are looking at selling it. The leaflets say we will have to relocate until they redo the place. So who's to say we are going to get back in?"
'Up in Arms'
Gonzalez-Correa conceded that tenants are "up in arms" over the plan. She said the Housing Authority is asking tenants to wait until the Friday meeting at Jordan Downs before passing judgment.
"I am willing to put together an agreement between every tenant and the developer and the Housing Authority to make assurances that each family is going to be able to return to the unit after the unit has been rehabilitated," Gonzalez-Correa said. "Provided they follow the rules and pay the rent and are not involved in drugs, they will be able to stay there forever."
The proposal, in the planning stages for nearly a year, is unique because it would enlist a private developer to pay fair market value for a public housing project, remodel 700 apartment units without any government assistance and continue to lease the units indefinitely to the same low-income, government-subsidized tenants, said William Glavin, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington.
Private developers usually purchase low-income projects from HUD and are obligated to rent to low-income tenants for a period of five to 15 years. After that, they can offer the units at market rates or turn them into condominiums, local laws permitting. However, in the Jordan Downs proposal, the developer would purchase the project from the city Housing Authority and be committed to maintaining low-income housing as long as government subsidies remained available for tenants.
"A lot of people don't like seeing publicly owned units sold off because, down the line, you don't know whether they will be there for low-income tenants," said Gordon Cavanaugh, a lawyer for the Council on Large Public Housing Authorities, a lobbying group in Washington.
Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents the Watts area, said she will not take a stand until the residents at Jordan Downs are given an opportunity to review the proposal.
"A lot of work has to be done at Jordan Downs," Flores said. "There has not been the money to do it. The amount of money that the Housing Authority gets from HUD just barely covers maintenance."
HUD officials must approve the sale of Jordan Downs. So far, they have reacted favorably to the plan.