USC film professor Michael Renov and his family were tired of renting but couldn't afford to buy a house in many Los Angeles neighborhoods. And they had neither the inclination to buy a fixer-upper nor the time to brave the commutes from exurbias with more reasonably priced homes.
Meanwhile, USC was concerned that the high cost of Los Angeles-area real estate made it difficult to keep and attract top-flight professors. In addition, the school had embarked on an ambitious plan to improve the residential neighborhood north of campus and to attract more teachers to live there.
So, a match was made. And another step was taken in the national trend for universities, particularly in California, to help their faculty and staff obtain affordable and attractive housing.
The Renovs soon will be among the first tenants in a 27-unit townhouse condominium project that USC is building at Hoover and 30th streets, just two blocks from school.
The neo-Craftsman-style development is for USC teachers and staff willing to be pioneers both in a neighborhood that many faculty flee after classes and in a new financial relationship with the school.
"We looked around and we really felt that for the price the faculty housing ended up being, we would either be a great distance from campus or find something very small or in need of repair," said Renov, who is chairman of the critical studies department at the USC School of Cinema-Television.
He and his wife, Cathy Friedman, an official of a nonprofit organization that aids female survivors of crime and domestic violence, bought the largest of the USC floor plans: 1,950 square feet, with three bedrooms, three baths, family room, study and a two-car underground garage with an internal staircase to living quarters. The price: $285,000.
Prices (which start at $140,000 for a two-bedroom, two-bath unit) are kept relatively low because USC, unlike commercial developers, is not seeking profits. In addition, the university is keeping ownership of the land, leasing it to the homeowner association.
For the Renovs, other attractions included the prospect of walking to school (and thus making a small contribution to lessening auto emissions), proximity to the child-care center near campus where their 3-year-old daughter is enrolled (their second child is due in a few months) and increased opportunities to take advantage of USC cultural and sporting events.
All that overcame jitters about crime, isolation and a lack of some neighborhood amenities.
"We feel we are attaching ourselves in some ways to the university," said Renov, who has been renting a house in the Carthay Circle area of Los Angeles. "We are committing ourselves because we are fairly convinced that this is part of a real long-term, broad-based effort to improve the environment of the USC community."
That commitment from USC is real, according to Gerald M. Trimble, president of the USC Real Estate Development Corp., the university-funded organization that is building the $5.6-million project.
Fifteen of the 27 units are reserved, and Trimble is so confident of eventual sellout that he is planning another 126 units (114 for sale, and 12 for rent) on what is now a parking lot across 30th Street, in conjunction with neighboring Hebrew Union College.
The projects are supposed to deliver what Trimble described as a "double whammy": providing housing as a lure for scholars and creating a university community outside USC's gates.
"We want people to move into this area and add purchasing power to the neighborhood. It's important for the university and we are committed to doing that," said Trimble, a former official in the redevelopment agency of downtown San Diego.
The USC group also plans a large hotel and office complex on Figueroa Street across from campus and has worked on restoration of Victorian homes in the North University Park neighborhood, which is a National Register Historic District. In the past, USC has been accused of being a land grabber, seeking to impose its will on the mainly Latino and black residents in neighborhoods surrounding the campus.
With the condos, the school clearly wanted to avoid such a perception. The first 27 units are on land donated by the late marine biology professor Irene McCulloch, after whom the project is named, and was the site of a small apartment house occupied mainly by students, officials said. The next phase requires no demolition.
On the flip side of any possible gentrification are professors wary of the neighborhood because of crime, even though USC insists crime statistics in North University Park are below the citywide average.
"We like the units and like the project," said one USC teacher who came close to buying one of the townhouses but backed off. "While I don't mind renting and living in the area, I'm not too thrilled about owning there because of the gangs and graffiti. I don't think the value will appreciate enough."