"I can't believe this!" Beatrice Bentley, 37, shouted to a neighbor as she surveyed a batch of newly planted flowers and a working sprinkler system that doused the browned grass of her apartment courtyard Tuesday. "I am so happy!"
This was a new beginning. As small a sign as it was, the treatment of the courtyard greenery after a year of general neglect was one sign of hope for Bentley and a thousand other residents at Ujima Village in the wake of the federal government's plan to take over the South-Central complex and try to reverse its decade-long slide into decay.
But even amid the hope over the government's unique campaign came open skepticism. To the low-income residents of the Willowbrook complex who have complained of an eight-year wait for routine housing repairs in their federally subsidized units, the promises sounded too familiar.
"We're all kind of hurting from what we've seen in the past," Tanya Washington, 28, a mother of five with a sixth on the way, said as she prepared lunch for the children in their cramped, two-bedroom apartment. "My house is falling apart. Sure, in a couple of days we may see some quick changes, but how long is it going to go on? We need some results."
Added Charlene David, a leader in the village tenant council: "We've been promised so many things before and been ripped off so many times, we've learned our lesson. We'll wait and see the results."
With the complex's most recent owners owing nearly $2 million on their mortgage, officials with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development visited the village Monday--with security guards and repair people in tow--to announce that they are taking over management and temporary ownership. They said they plan to spend millions to fix up the complex, in the 900 block of East 126th Street, to beef up security and to reclaim the property from alleged gang members, drug dealers and gamblers.
Once foreclosure on the village is complete, U.S. officials plan to turn it over to the residents themselves and a private, not-for-profit development group for ownership.
Federal officials have described the troubled housing complex as among the worst-run in the state. This is the first time in California--and one of a handful of examples nationwide, they said--that they have moved this quickly to take over a privately run housing complex.
HUD officials assert that unlike the steady stream of private developers who have owned the 300-unit project in its two-decade history, they are ready to act.
Beginning next week, site managers will make door-to-door inspections at the complex as part of a preliminary, $4.3-million renovation plan that is to include everything from removal of recently discovered asbestos to repair of toilets, said Lawrence Wahl, vice president at Alpha Property Management of Los Angeles, chosen by HUD to manage the work.
Further down on the wish list: extermination of roaches and rats that have inhabited some parts of the complex; repair of hole-riddled roofs and nearly collapsed porches and stairways, and the renovation of boarded-up, abandoned apartments now home to graffiti and garbage.
Doris Fuller, 56, who has lived at the village since 1972, said that despite twice-monthly requests, she had to wait eight years to get a new paint job to replace a peeling coat, and six years to replace an old carpet that had given way to a floor with holes and exposed nails in it.
The delays made her "furious," Fuller said. But she kept her frustrations mainly to herself for fear of jeopardizing her federally subsidized rent, once as low as $48 for a two-bedroom apartment and now at $180. "Not much you could do," she added.
The skepticism of Fuller and others at the village about their future was echoed by Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, who runs a job-training program at the site. "This really doesn't mean anything unless and until HUD puts the money into it and gets the management that can run the place," said Waters. "So far, it's just an 'almost' action."
But others asserted Tuesday that tenants must look among their own ranks to reverse the building's deterioration.
Said Allen Smith, an eight-year resident and maintenance manager at the complex: "If you don't take some pride in where you live, you can't blame anyone else. . . . You can't just rely on Uncle Sam. Who ran the place down to begin with, who's selling the dope here . . . who's flashing the gang colors? Not the government, not the owners."
While the federal takeover dominated small talk in the laundry room and in the courtyard Tuesday, it had not reached one group of young people who spent the noon hour shooting dice and drinking beer under a stairwell.
"Sounds good to me," one 20-year-old said when told about the government's renovation plans. But when told about the beefed-up security that is planned, he looked at his buddy and said with a laugh: "I don't know about that. "