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Welcome Homes : Independence, low rents await residents of new Laguna Beach apartments for people with AIDS virus

September 21, 1996|LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA BEACH — Since being disabled by AIDS two years ago, Jim Rider has been unable to work and has been dependent on public housing, such as the transitional home in Santa Ana where he has lived for the past eight months.

But in a twist of good fortune earlier this year, Rider's name was among those selected to move into the first apartment building in Orange County created to offer low-cost housing for people who are HIV-positive.

The 25-unit complex, named Hagan Place, will open next month after five years of planning.

"I'm very excited about it because I really didn't know where I was going to go after here," Rider said.

"Plus, it's amazing to spend maybe your last years on the beach . . . . I've never won anything in my life, and even though I'm going to pay rent, I feel like I won something."

James C. Loomis, president of Affordable Housing Project of Orange County Inc., the nonprofit organization that spearheaded the effort, said, "I think it's just been very rewarding for everyone who's gotten involved in it.

"I feel like we're kind of on the cutting edge, taking care of people less fortunate than ourselves," he said.

The planned opening is eagerly awaited by the two dozen residents scattered throughout Orange and Los Angeles counties who will live in the small, one-bedroom apartments. Rent will average $250 per month. Five of the building's new tenants will be from Laguna Beach.

"It means I get to move into a place I can afford," said Thomas Nylund, a Fullerton resident whose name was picked from the more than 109 who entered a lottery. "I have been struggling here."

AIDS advocates are praising the $3.2-million project, one of only a few in the nation being largely financed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development under a program that recognizes people with HIV as being disabled.

Janice Barrett, vice chairwoman of the HIV Client Advocacy Committee of the Orange County HIV Planning Advisory Council, said many disabled AIDS patients survive on the scant $600 to $700 Social Security income they receive each month.

"When you live on $600 a month, how do you make it?" Barrett said. "We are very, very excited that there's finally housing for people living with this disease. It's been a long, long time coming."

Nylund, who is also an HIV Planning Advisory Council committee member, said he expects to move in Oct. 1. While he has mixed feelings about leaving the Fullerton home where he has lived for two years, Nylund said he is relieved that he will have a home he can afford on his monthly budget of $634.40.

"I'm prepared to look at it as a new adventure," he said. "I have met a few people who live there and they seem to be very pleasant, the kind of people I would like to have as friends."

While there are other housing options in Orange County for people who are HIV-positive, advocates say the Hagan Place is unique because it will allow tenants to live independently, in their own apartments. While the tenants may not be well enough to hold down steady jobs, they are expected to be able to care for themselves.

The apartment complex, named after Don Hagan, a Laguna Beach doctor and activist who friends say died of AIDS, was launched five years ago with the formation of Affordable Housing Project.

The city of Laguna Beach gave $50,000 in seed money, allowing Affordable Housing Project to begin the grant application process. The group has since received almost $2.6 million in federal funds.

In 1993, following an intensive search for a site for the apartment building, the group found a boxy two-story building with a basement for parking, owned by GTE. With a tentative agreement to buy the building, the group contacted nearby residents, churches, business and community groups to explain their plans and ward off opposition.

While some housing projects for the needy have met stiff opposition in Orange County, Hagan Place stirred barely a ripple of concern.

"The city's been supportive, the neighbors, for the most part, have been supportive," Loomis said. "Laguna Beach has just demonstrated over and over again that it's really a very well-rounded, warm, receiving [city]."

The City Council continued to show support for the project, contributing a total of $635,000, which brought some dissent. Alice Graves, chairwoman of the Laguna Beach Housing and Human Affairs Committee, has complained that an investment rate of almost $130,000 per 600-square-foot unit the group could have bought "25 houses in a tract" someplace else.

"I really am behind the concept," Graves said. "I just think we could have done a lot more for a lot more people for that kind of money."

Former Mayor Robert F. Gentry, a strong supporter of the project, said, "This is the most typical Laguna Beach housing project I could ever imagine because it combines public and private money to meet the needs of a group of people who have sincere needs. It belongs in Laguna Beach."

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