Diego and Juana Gudino have never been to a Lakers game, they say, because the tickets are too expensive. Instead, the couple and their children watch basketball on television in their cramped but neat three-room apartment on West Olympic Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles.
Soon, however, the Lakers and hockey-playing Kings may be coming very close to where the Gudinos have lived for 18 years. So close that their apartment and 187 others are targeted for demolition to make way for parking lots serving a $240-million sports arena that is proposed for construction a block away.
The arena plans still face final review by the Los Angeles City Council in coming weeks. But the strong possibility of having to move by winter has already deeply affected about 250 residents, mainly low-income Latino immigrants and their youngsters, in the scruffy five-block district bordered by the Harbor Freeway, Figueroa Street, 11th Street and Olympic Boulevard.
"I think it is good for the Lakers, but bad for us," said Diego Gudino, a 54-year-old air-conditioner installer. "They are going to move us from here and we don't know where they are going to relocate us."
Yet he and others are emotionally tugged. They are sad at the prospect of saying goodbye to neighbors, and some are worried about keeping within walking distance of jobs in downtown sewing lofts and warehouses. Many are also warily anticipating government relocation money that they hope will prove a once-in-a-lifetime ticket to a better future.
Meanwhile, advocates for the residents contend that housing conditions in the area are deteriorating because landlords are reluctant to repair buildings that are probably doomed.
"I guess everybody who has been working with the tenants wants the arena project to happen because that will mean benefits, in the sense that they will escape from their nightmare, which is conditions now," said Enrique Velasquez, an organizer of United Tenants, a nonprofit agency helping the residents. "But the question is: Will these tenants have access to full benefits?"
On the other hand, property owners complain that one arm of city government is appraising their buildings for buyout and demolition in the fall, while another city agency is hassling them to make expensive and unnecessary repairs or face sharp reductions in rent receipts.
Cut off by the Harbor Freeway on one side and the glistening skyscrapers of Figueroa Street and the Convention Center on others, the neighborhood's housing is weirdly isolated. Ramshackle rooming houses built in 1907 and three-story walk-ups from the 1920s share turf with warehouses, bodegas, wholesale showrooms and littered lots. Youngsters play soccer on the asphalt and grandmothers sit on plastic lawn chairs in the shade of sidewalk ficus trees.
A sense of uncertainty permeates the neighborhood as the arena project advances. Residents swap information from community meetings the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency has sponsored in recent months.
The Gudinos say they hope to obtain a lump sum of about $10,000 for a down payment on a house farther west, maybe near Crenshaw Boulevard. Such home-purchase aid may be possible instead of rent subsidies, according to officials of the CRA.
But in most cases, these families of garment workers and lunch counter cooks earn so little that they would not be approved for mortgages. (According to a CRA survey, the average household income is below $15,000 a year. In contrast, Laker center Shaquille O'Neal's $14.8-million salary in 1997-98 is at least six times higher than the total combined annual income of all the surveyed residents.)
Most tenants would receive rent subsidies for four years that would ensure that they pay no more than 25% of their income on rent. CRA officials estimate that aid would range from $5,700 to $30,000 per household over the period. In addition, moving expenses would be paid and counseling made available to help find new homes.
The subsidies can be applied only to apartments and houses that, unlike many of the current residences, meet strict government standards for habitability and size. Although welcomed by most families, the rule could also cause some conflicts. One extended clan of 11 people now occupies a five-room apartment on West 10th Place and it won't be easy to break them up or find a suitable space.
Some households may be moved directly into a new CRA-backed, 79-unit apartment development at 9th Street and Grand Avenue downtown that is expected to be completed in January 1998, according to David Riccitiello, the CRA's project manager for the arena plan. Other displaced residents will be moved elsewhere and then will have priority to move later into other government-subsidized housing complexes.