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Relocating Little Tokyo Elderly Shocks Group Into Builder's Role

THE COMMUNITY BUILDERS: First in a series on neighborhood groups who are creating low-income housing and grass-roots leaders.

March 15, 1992|KAREN E. KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Klein is a Monrovia free-lance writer. and

It is just a small room with a Murphy bed, a bathroom and a kitchen. The "view" out the window is of a brick wall a couple of feet away.

But the apartment in Little Tokyo's San Pedro Firm Building has been home to Yoshiko Takai for the past 42 years.

Takai was 26 years old in 1950 when she left Wakawama, Japan, and came to Los Angeles, finding a job in a sewing factory and settling in Little Tokyo. The years went by, but Takai stayed, content to live surrounded by the sights, sounds and faces of the homeland she left behind.

Five years ago, however, the city of Los Angeles' Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) targeted the Firm building for demolition to make way for an ambitious office development and civic center expansion north of First Street, between San Pedro and Alameda streets.

Enter the Little Tokyo Service Center, an 11-year-old community organization that provides counseling, referrals, escorts and interpretation to the Japanese community of Los Angeles. Intervening in city politics and marching on the mayor's office hardly fit the group's profile.

But like more and more grass-roots groups, the center realized that the local housing situation, especially housing for the elderly and those on a low income, was not something it could leave in the hands of commercial developers.

The LTSC bought the Firm building in December, 1989, capping off a seven-month struggle to preserve the building as low-income housing. The group has spent the past year refurbishing it from the ground up.

The idea of becoming nonprofit developers and undertaking the renovation of the building themselves originally left the LTSC staff stunned.

"We didn't really seriously even think about that possibility at first," said Bill Watanabe, LTSC's executive director.

"We absolutely never saw ourselves doing anything like this," said Judy Nishimoto-Aguilera, an attorney who is now the housing program coordinator for LTSC. "But all the players in this struggle really evolved over the years."

Watanabe, for one, had seen Little Tokyo's small stock of residential units slowly losing ground to the fast pace of downtown development. In early 1986, two aging hotels that housed mostly elderly, poor Japanese residents were razed to create a parking lot.

"The tenants were older people and they were very confused. One thought he owned the building," Watanabe recalled. "It broke our hearts to have to take them to Skid Row hotels and leave them there. Many were disoriented, some were later beaten up and some ended up homeless."

After that experience, the LTSC staff committed itself to preserving what remained of Little Tokyo area housing for elderly residents who needed to be close to the ethnic community because of transportation and language limitations.

The 67-year-old Firm building, which the city had purchased in 1974, had 28 residential units, 15 offices and 4 commercial storefronts. Over the years, the city had let tenants stay on at $95 a month but had let the upkeep of the building go, Watanabe said.

Inside Takai's apartment, the plaster was cracked. Yellowed paint peeled off the walls. The heat and hot water were often out of order. Holes in the walls were left gaping. Takai and the handful of remaining residents were afraid to complain for fear their rent would be raised or they would be evicted.

After months of concerted effort by several organizations representing the Japanese-American community, the Los Angeles City Council passed a historic resolution in 1987, ensuring that the Firm building would be maintained as low-income housing and be managed by a nonprofit community-based organization.

The Little Tokyo group bought the building in partnership with the Los Angeles Community Design Center, a nonprofit architectural design firm, and made plans to refurbish it, make it earthquake safe and rent it to low- and very-low-income tenants.

Funding for the $4-million renovation was gathered through a number of sources, including the CRA, the California Housing Rehabilitation Program and the California Equity Fund, which pools investments from local corporations and directs them into affordable housing projects, providing investors with tax credits.

The crumbling eyesore was renovated from the ground up, including earthquake-proofing, new walls, plumbing, heating, carpeting, electrical wiring, fixtures, appliances and flooring. The offices were converted into residential units to make a total of 42 studio apartments and four commercial spaces.

The carpeting throughout is a plush rose color, and Art Deco-style wall sconces light the hallways. New kitchens and bathrooms have been installed. Wide, wooden staircases have been restored to their original appearance and a new elevator provides access to upper floors for the elderly and handicapped.

Outside, the facade was cleaned and painted and awnings were added. Inside, a community room was carved out so that tenants will be able to hold meetings with social service agencies and the on-site manager.

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