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Altruism Finds a Compton Home

August 10, 1989|LEON WHITESON

In the heart of Compton, a city noted more for its social troubles and urban decay than its country club resorts, is a gated, estate community of 102 pleasant, affordable homes.

The development, Racquet Club Villas, is more than just atypical housing for Compton. It is a prime symbol of the city's economic turn-around and a remarkable achievement for architect Sonia Sonju.

Sonju, president of Affordable Communities Corp., who mixed shrewd business sense and clear-eyed altruism in tackling the financially precarious field of affordable housing, has built or renovated 750 housing units in Compton, plus 1,000 more in other Southland cities. She holds building costs to a tight $50 per square foot and imposes strict limits on the quality of materials and finishes that go into each home, but the standards of her houses match those of comparable developments.

The pink stucco, red-tile roof town homes at Racquet Club Villas cluster around communal lawns and pools. With as much as 1,700 square footage, each three-bedroom unit has its own private patio. The spacious living-dining rooms on the ground floor are cheerful and airy; the upstairs bedrooms are all adequate size. The price of a Racquet Club townhouse runs around $129,000. Most buyers are black and Latino middle-class, attracted to the development by the relative affordability of the homes and their closeness to work.

"I drive a bus in Compton," said Janet Mitchell, a prospective purchaser, "and I liked the look of the place. And I like the prices." Her husband, Richard, a clerk in a local supermarket, agreed that "the units look great, and with two incomes we feel we can just afford the payments."

Hairdresser La Shane Kennard, who bought her Racquet Club unit a year ago, said, "I love it here. There's a safe place where my twin 2-year-olds can play. The grounds are kept clean and the neighbors are nice. I have no complaints."

To find comparably affordable homes in the Greater Los Angeles area, couples like the Kennards and Mitchells would have to look as far afield as San Bernardino, Riverside or Palmdale. Living so far out would commit them to long commutes to work.

"Traffic experts tell us over and over that the dislocation of jobs and housing in Southern California is the main reason for congestion and a major factor in air pollution," said Cynthia Coleman, deputy director of the Compton redevelopment agency. "Developments like Racquet Club Villas not only provide affordable middle-class housing, they help mitigate the jobs-housing imbalance."

Coleman lauds Sonju's role in Compton, saying her firm "has succeeded where other developers tried and failed. Its projects are a prime example of successful public-private partnership. The redevelopment agency subsidizes the price of the land, and provides federally funded income tax credits of up to $2,000 to help homeowners with their payments. Together, we are transforming the city from an urban wasteland into an urban oasis."

In the last 10 years, as Compton has struggled to reverse a long decline, the city's municipal tax base has doubled. New manufacturing enterprises have settled in Compton, and a 300-room hotel and conference center is scheduled to open later this year. When the new Los Angeles-Long Beach light rail line is complete in 1990, Compton may well become the "Hub City" its boosters proclaim.

'Eternal Vigilance'

Sonju describes her formula for profitable, affordable housing as "eternal vigilance." Sonju--who estimates her company makes a 5% profit compared with the industry standard 10% profit on the $20-million Racquet Club Villas development--says there is "no room for mistakes, you have to watch every penny."

To control the entire process from planning developments to selling homes, she runs her own design and construction company, Sonju Construction Co., and her own financial and management subsidiary, City Venture Corp. All of her enterprises are combined under the umbrella of the Sonju Development Corp. based in Seal Beach.

"There are a lot of opportunities for developers in areas like Compton that are close to the commercial center of Los Angeles," she said. "At the same time, I want to do some good beyond just making money. I want to leave the city better than I found it."

Sonju, 50, entered the development and construction industry after a beginning in electronics. An electronic engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin and six years of practice in Southern California left her feeling isolated and remote from public life.

She Doesn't Have a Choice

"There aren't a whole lot of women in the electronics field and I missed dealing with people," she explained. "So I moved over into civil engineering and city planning, and then into politics. And politics led me to property development."

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