Beatriz Olvera Stotzer, a manager with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, recalls plenty of bunk beds in the one-bedroom Boyle Heights house that she and her sisters and brother shared with their parents, who for a long time slept on the kitchen floor.
Esther Valadez, an attorney and developer whose father earned minimum wage, came from a family of eight and often shared her bed with a sister. She never had a bedroom of her own.
Sandra Serrano Sewell, a preschool administrator, had her own room. But as the daughter of a labor organizer in the Ohio steel mills, she was weaned on the idea that power means little unless it is shared.
In 1984 the three Latino feminists met with several others at a preschool in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles. With more theory than track record, they organized a nonprofit real estate development corporation called New Economics for Women (NEW).
And with an attitude that didn't take "no" for an answer, they undertook the development of Casa Loma, an $18-million, 110-unit apartment complex on an acre of land a mile west of downtown Los Angeles.
Last May, their years of work culminated when their four-story, peach-stuccoed vision opened its doors to the community's largely Latino working poor.
More than just affordable housing, Casa Loma also offers English literacy classes, job training and child care.
"It's really unique," said Carrie Sutkin, planning deputy for Supervisor Gloria Molina. "It goes beyond the traditional residential housing needs--not just the design of the units but the underground child-care center, the computer learning center and the community center."
(Molina, who was then the city councilwoman for the district, helped NEW get the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) seed money needed to attract other public funding for the Casa Loma project.)
News of the pioneering venture has spread. In May, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros hailed Casa Loma as "a model for the nation." More recently, NEW received special recognition for Casa Loma from Compact, a nationwide organization of financial institutions.
NEW grew out of a Latina feminist organization called Comision Femenil Mexicana Nacional (CFMN). Most of its members carried memories of childhoods spent in overcrowded or substandard housing. All were disenchanted with the white middle-class activism of the 1970s, which they felt assumed that someone else would make the difference.
The women also shared a fascination with the vision expressed in a Ms. magazine article by Yale urbanism professor Delores Hayden. Her idea of responding to the needs of working mothers by reinventing housing concepts excited them; it also dovetailed nicely with their interest in empowering women through economic initiatives.
But there weren't any models for the activists' goal of using housing as a base to stabilize the family. That suited them just fine. "NEW is very careful not to impose preconceived ideas on the families and the community that they are building in," Valadez said.
Focus groups made up of working mothers from the neighborhood were asked about their needs. From such gatherings Casa Loma planners learned what was imperative: lots of security, combination kitchen-dining rooms and plenty of open yet sequestered spaces where mothers could relax on benches and yet still watch their children.
Architect Pedro Birba responded with one entrance leading in and out of the building; a round-the-clock security guard sits in a glassed-in office at the entrance to the garage and security cameras ring the structure's perimeter.
Rents at Casa Loma range from $89 a month for a studio apartment to $450 a month for a four-bedroom unit.
Birba said the biggest challenge in designing Casa Loma was the task of "massaging" a very dense site for every square foot of added open space.
Like everyone involved in the project, Birba calls it a learning experience.
There was his surprise, for example, when walk-in closets were rejected by the focus groups. "We found that people might decide to use those closets as additional living space," Birba said.
His notion of townhome-style units was also "blown out of the water" by women who did not want to face climbing stairs after a long work day.
"We broke some planning rules in terms of (the) conventional way people look at apartments," Birba said. "They taught me that as an architect you don't always have all the answers."
Designing the kitchens was also educational. The apartments' dining and cooking areas are blended, to allow the mothers to supervise their children while they cook. "It took us six to eight months to convince (the CRA) that it was a design that was going to be conducive to this atmosphere," Stotzer said. "I don't think they really felt that we had it together."