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The Unlikely Developers

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

March 15, 1992

Paul Zimmerman is building the nation's first apartment complex designed specifically for people with AIDS.

Richard Amador is moving East Los Angeles families out of garages and crowded apartment houses and putting them in decent homes with safe playgrounds.

Than Pok has created a unique, two-story commercial building designed after a Khmer temple that serves as a shopping center and meeting place for members of the Cambodian refugee community in Long Beach.

Although they have supervised these projects from land acquisition to groundbreaking to ribbon-cutting, none of these men are "developers" in the traditional sense of the word. Zimmerman is a political activist with a degree in fine arts design, Amador a governmental relations manager and Than an educator and social worker.

They are examples of a new breed of social service providers who have become, like it or not, the unlikely real estate developers of the 1990s.

From Little Tokyo to South-Central Los Angeles, from West Hollywood to East Los Angeles, nonprofit groups that have traditionally provided translation, legal aid and transportation for poor people are engaging in a public-private partnership that is creating more and more of the low-income housing in cities across the country.

In hopes of revitalizing their aging, deteriorating communities, these reluctant builders find themselves arranging complex financing, meeting with architects and interviewing tenants.

All say they are surprised to find out how much money it takes to construct affordable housing and all say they are saddened to find how great the need for it is.

All of them share, however, in the joy and satisfaction that comes along with moving day, when the disenfranchised are able to leave desperate situations and take up residence in clean, new living places.

For the next several weeks, The Times' Real Estate Section will present profiles by writer Karen E. Klein of some of the Southland's community developers, exploring not only how they have transformed their neighborhoods, but how the process of development has transformed them.

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