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Sell Jordan Downs?

February 18, 1989

In theory the proposal to sell the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts to private developers sounds good. Developers would buy the deteriorating public housing in exchange for lucrative tax credits. The housing authority would get millions for a new rent-subsidy program for poor people. But in practice the rundown apartments would be a hard sell.

How many developers would be ready to pay $10 million to $20 million for decrepit public housing in hard-core gang territory, then maintain it for low-income tenants? Even if a buyer stepped up, would the tenants be well served by a private owner?

Jordan Downs was built 34 years ago, when public housing was a government-financed dream come true for poor families--a way out of crowded, unhealthy slums. Unlike the monstrous concrete high-rises built in other large cities, Jordan Downs spread two-story townhouse apartments over 50 acres of land, with plenty of room for playgrounds. For years it provided safe and pleasant shelter for thousands of families.

Currently home to 3,150 people, most of them children living with their mothers, Jordan Downs needs more than a face lift. A new owner would have to spend up to $14 million on major repairs, air conditioning and laundry rooms--none of which now exist.

Jordan Downs is so plagued by crime that homeless families have rejected offers of apartments--preferring to double up with friends, stay in temporary shelters or live in cars. A private owner would have to install a security system and find a way to weed out tenants who are criminals or who harbor criminals. That would not be easy.

Public housing is often the housing of last resort. Rents are pegged at 30% of income including welfare, with an average of about $200 in Jordan Downs. Even at those rents, a fraction of market value, many tenants are several months behind. Although the government would continue to subsidize rents, a new owner would have to find a way to force out seriously delinquent tenants. What, then, would happen to evicted tenants who would be hard to place elsewhere?

The notion of selling Jordan Downs arose as part of a study by housing officials concerning how to rehabilitate the deteriorating townhouses. The Los Angeles Housing Authority doesn't have the money to make the repairs. The federal government would be unlikely to be newly generous, although the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would have to approve any deal.

A private deal, although not a perfect solution, would allow new owners to repair the project, improve security and winnow out troublesome tenants. It would work best with cooperation from tenants who were allowed to help shape the renovation plans and become a strong part of the new management team. The bigger their stake, the better the chance of an attractive and well-run housing complex.

Jordan Downs may be in bad shape, but housing authorities cannot give up. The shortage of housing for poor families is critical and getting worse in Los Angeles. Getting an agreement with a private developer is worth a try.

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