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COVER STORY : Cleaning House : Manager's Sweeping Changes Brighten Lives of Compton Public Housing Residents

March 23, 1995|EMELYN CRUZ LAT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A black, 12-foot fence topped by loops of razor wire surrounds a cluster of beige stucco apartment buildings at a busy intersection in Compton. Armed security guards patrol the premises around the clock.

But residents of the New Wilmington Arms apartments say the prison-like atmosphere is deceiving.

In the past year, police say, crime has plummeted in this housing project, which city officials once considered such a public nuisance that they wanted to demolish it. The landscape, once desolate and filled with trash, is now adorned with flowers and shrubs. Children play ball on a grassy stretch that used to be a dirt lot.

Police estimate that calls to the 11-building complex, once considered a haven for drug dealers, decreased as much as 50% in the past year. The project's security guards confirm a marked decline in assaults and other violent crimes.

"Now it's like a walk in the park," said guard Watkin Garcia, standing beside a security post dotted with dime-size bullet holes. "This is like a vacation from the way it used to be. Four years ago, it was like Vietnam down here."

*

Residents say they can almost pinpoint to the day when things began to get better. It was when Tonya Turner, a steady woman with a deep voice and piercing gaze, took charge of the ailing complex.

"There was immediate improvement after (Turner) came along," longtime resident Marie Taylor said. "Before she came, things were pretty bad. My apartment was shot at twice."

Turner, 51, arrived in February, 1994. She hired a new security firm, added more guards and ordered more patrols throughout the complex to discourage drug dealing and vandalism. She also ordered strict enforcement of a curfew requiring youths under 18 on the premises to be in their apartments after 10 p.m.

A $1.5-million cash infusion from the owners was used to overhaul the dilapidated units and repaint graffiti-coated walls. Turner also organized activities for the residents and their children.

She formed a drill team, after-school study groups and a church choir, which meets several times a week at the complex's Spartan recreation room.

Ida Richardson, who has lived in the complex for eight years, said she now allows her 11-year-old daughter to play and walk around the complex by herself. "I used to keep her locked up in the apartment," Richardson said.

Most of the households in the 164-unit complex are headed by single mothers receiving welfare or Social Security assistance. The average household income is $9,085. Residents pay up to 30% of their incomes for rent, and government subsidies cover the rest. The rent ranges from $724 for a one-bedroom unit to $1,240 a month for four bedrooms.

At least half a dozen families have been residents since the 1970s.

In addition to sprucing up the property, Turner said she seeks to establish programs that will encourage residents to become self-sufficient.

"This is the type of place one comes to to get yourself together, after which time you move on, hopefully to a better place," she said.

Turner has started job-training sessions, literacy classes and other programs for many unemployed adult and teen-age residents. She hopes the programs will break the chain of dependency that has ensnared generations of some families.

*

The complex's owner, Goldrich & Kest Industries of Culver City, provided funds to start the programs. Turner said she will seek donations from local businesses and other organizations to keep them going, and will ask for volunteers to help run them.

"What we're also trying to do is build a level of self-esteem," she said. "There is nothing that can hinder a person more than sitting back and waiting for someone to do for them. I want residents to realize, if they really want to accomplish something, really want to do something, then what they have to do is make the effort themselves."

Turner had planned to manage the complex temporarily and return after one year to her job overseeing housing rehabilitation for the city of Compton. But she has formed a nonprofit organization and hopes to take control of the complex from Goldrich & Kest, which is considering donating the property to such a group and taking a tax write-off.

The company has contacted a number of nonprofit organizations, including Le Group Foundation Inc., which Turner formed in September, and First AME Church. Company officials said the complex is worth about $10 million.

Robert Hirsch, a partner in Goldrich & Kest, thinks turning the complex over to a nonprofit organization would be "the best thing for the tenants."

"It requires somebody that can spend a lot of time with the complex and knows the community very well," he said.

*

Like a steady locomotive, Turner chugs through 10- to 12-hour days, poring over paperwork in her cluttered office, checking out renovated units and walking around the complex to talk with tenants.

"The residents really respect her because they know she cares," said her assistant, Carol Smith.

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