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VALLEY BUSINESS | MEETING DEMAND FOR LOW-INCOME HOUSING

Subsidized Community a Comfort to Residents

Projects: People in San Fernando Gardens say they otherwise could not afford shelter, but neighbors say the complex has brought the area down.

March 07, 2000|CHRIS RICHARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PACOIMA — For 29-year-old Lorena Dominguez, the San Fernando Gardens housing project is the only home she has ever known.

A resident of the 440-unit complex since she was 9 months old, Dominguez now lives with her husband and three children in a two-bedroom apartment with spotless wood and linoleum floors.

With Lorena staying home to mind the children, the family gets by on the $32,000 a year her husband Felix earns as a technician at a nearby factory. The rent--$397 a month--is about half what they could expect to pay for comparable housing locally.

"Before we were married, my husband rented a two-bedroom apartment with his friend and they paid $795," Dominguez said. "There's no way we could afford that now, with a car payment, and insurance, and everything else.

"I might move out some day, but not to another apartment," she added. "Why would I? We're within walking distance of our church and our school. Maybe if we can save enough money to buy a house someday, we'll move, but otherwise, this is my community."

To many people, "housing project" conjures up images of crime-ridden tenements. But residents say that without the publicly subsidized units, they would be hard-pressed to provide decent shelter for their families.

The housing crunch for low-income people is especially severe in the northeastern San Fernando Valley, said Jeff Farber, chief operating officer of Los Angeles Family Housing, a private, nonprofit corporation based in North Hollywood.

A 1999 United Way study estimates the unemployment rate for the northeast Valley at above 9%--about 2 percentage points higher than the rest of the region.

The same study shows about a quarter of the population earning wages below the federal poverty line, with the population density about a third greater than elsewhere in the Valley.

"What that shows is people doubling and tripling up to keep their housing expenses manageable," Farber said. "We see people living transient lifestyles because they can't afford to stay where they are when the rent goes up."

Projects such as San Fernando Gardens can go a long way toward alleviating the problem, advocates for affordable housing say. The Gardens is home to about 1,500 people--but it is the only public housing project in the Valley, and it's unlikely others like it will ever be built.

In 1950, Californians adopted Article 34 of the state Constitution, requiring a referendum by local voters before the construction of any housing project when half or more of the units would be government-subsidized.

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Because the San Fernando Gardens was already in the works, it was exempted from the law and opened in 1955. But Los Angeles residents have continued to fight new construction, said Donald Smith, executive director of the city Housing Authority, which operates San Fernando Gardens.

In 1995, neighborhood opposition forced the city Housing Authority to drop plans for widely dispersed, modest-size apartment buildings, six of them in the Valley, Smith said.

Critics of public housing, in fact, point to the Gardens as an example of how government's good intentions can create new problems.

"It's public housing that's to blame with the situation Pacoima is in today," said Marie Harris, founder of the Pacoima Property Owners Assn.

Of 14 stores and offices around San Fernando Gardens, six are locked at midday, with steel security curtains drawn across their dusty windows. Among those open for business is the neighborhood pawnshop, its canary-yellow facade glaring in the sun.

Harris lives in a tiny, immaculately maintained home about half a mile from San Fernando Gardens. Many of the homes in her neighborhood look weathered, and, here and there, spray-painted graffiti blooms against faded stucco walls.

"When we moved in, it didn't look like this," Harris said. "This was a place that had doctors and lawyers. It was a beautiful community. But it's just turned down since we got the Gardens here. The people who live there seem to have low self-esteem."

Local shopkeeper Maria Fuentes says she's heard talk that the neighborhood is improving. She doesn't believe it.

Last year, a gunman from the Gardens robbed her of $500 as she tended the counter at her convenience store, Miscelaneas La Luz. The man was arrested and convicted, but Fuentes, a Colombian immigrant, said she still starts shaking when she remembers that day.

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"In another four months, I'm out of here," she said in Spanish. "Here I've worked all my life, never asking for anything. I always wanted to have a little business, and look what happened. Do you know what the detective told me when he came to interview me? He said, 'If you don't want bad things to happen to you, get out of this neighborhood.' Well, I am getting out. And it's because of San Fernando Gardens."

An 8-foot steel fence surrounds the complex at Van Nuys Boulevard and Lehigh Avenue. It was erected at the request of residents who hoped to keep out marauding gangs.

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