EL MONTE — There are plenty of moderately priced apartments available these days in Villa Cordova, a shady quadrangle on Baldwin Avenue with pepper trees, a playground and a swimming pool.
In recent years, neighbors have said there also has been a thriving drug business there. But after about a year as one of the city's prime drug spots, the 130-unit complex seems to be on the mend, city officials say.
"We used to sit in the window and watch them passing packages and money back and forth in the parking lot," said Mary Hunter, who with her husband manages another Baldwin Avenue apartment complex. "We even got to know some of the names of the dealers."
Complaints from neighbors last month prompted the City Council to send a task force of city inspectors into Villa Cordova to check out everything from the availability of fire extinguishers to the presence of drug dealers operating out of apartments.
So far, the city snoops have been pleasantly surprised. Although the Villa Cordova, which opened 17 years ago, continues to be a magnet for petty criminals, drug activity has dropped markedly in recent months, said Capt. Peter Mireles of the El Monte Police Department.
City officials say the reduction in drug activity around Villa Cordova may have a lot to do with the elusive nature of the drug trade.
It escalated about a year ago, when dealers were evicted from a notorious motel on Valley Boulevard, said fire safety inspector Jolene Brown. "A lot of them moved to Villa Cordova and two or three other places," she said. "Villa Cordova has been trying to get them back out."
But the drug activity quickly brought special attention from the Police Department's crime prevention unit, with uniformed officers patrolling in unmarked cars, Mireles said. "It's an area that we patrol on a daily basis," he said.
Mireles and others said that landlord Alan Li has been cooperating with the police.
"The owner is in the process of refurbishing a large number of units, and some folks are being asked to leave for one reason or another, " said City Atty. David F. Gondek.
Police also have devised a program to beef up security in the complex, including lighting improvements and gating some of the complex's seven entryways. The Villa Cordova management has hired security guards to patrol the complex on weekends and has agreed to make the suggested improvements, Mireles said.
Li, whose office is in Hollywood, could not be reached, and a man describing himself as the supervisor of the complex refused to discuss the situation. "I can't answer any questions," the man said. "All the (crime in the neighborhood) has nothing to do with us."
Police say there's still plenty of room for improvement. Villa Cordova continues to be the principal focus of criminal activity in a three-block strip of apartment buildings along Baldwin Avenue between Valley Boulevard and the San Bernardino Freeway.
Of 178 crimes reported along the strip in the past eight months, Mireles said, more than half were reported in and around Villa Cordova. There were 10 narcotics arrests in the area, seven of them in Villa Cordova. "But that's not bad for an area that heavily populated," Mireles said. "There's not the problem that there was a year ago."
The task force of city inspectors has met twice with Li, and should problems persist, it may then report back to the City Council, said Mayor Don McMillen. Officials are scheduled to receive a progress report from Li on Jan. 15.
Residents of the stucco-walled development say it's not a bad place to live nowadays, despite plumbing problems and continued petty crime.
"Under the sink, it leaks all the time," said Ann Williams, a nurse in a convalescent home who shares an apartment with her daughter and her sister. "You open the cabinet and it's just wet. We usually try to keep a bucket down there."
But Williams, who pays $725 a month for her three-bedroom apartment, says that Villa Cordova is a lot more tranquil than it was when she moved in six months ago. "It was noisy in the beginning, especially over in the alley, but it's quiet now," Williams said.
Angel Delgado led a visitor through his $550-a-month, one-bedroom apartment, pointing out water damage on the ceiling. "Sometimes water leaks from the ceiling," he said, pointing at stains on ceiling tiles.
Delgado, a foundry worker, said he and his wife and two children rarely leave their apartment after dark because of the danger. "It's like any place," he said. "There are drug dealers everywhere."
Some tenants said an alley that runs behind a row of garages on the northern side of the development was once a thriving drug marketplace. But police action has caused most drug dealers to move on, they said.
Martha Morones, whose apartment faces the alley, said tenants are still the targets of petty criminals. "They beat up my son-in-law recently," she said. "He was carrying a stereo, and they tried to get it away from him. They hit him in the face a couple of times, then they threatened me if I called the police."
But the police presence and recently hired security guards on the premises have made the place more peaceful, Morones said.