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Suit Threatens Tenants' Hopes for Better Homes

Court: The action by an immigrants' rights group seeks to halt a $5-million renovation of low-income complex in Santa Ana.


SANTA ANA — After years of living in perhaps the most blighted housing in Orange County, residents of the Minnie Street apartments in Santa Ana enjoyed a surge of optimism when the city began renovating the buildings' exterior a few weeks ago.

Construction crews launched a $5-million restoration project to give 46 buildings in the 1100 block of South Minnie modern facades and landscaping. The city is paying for the exterior renovation, and the building owners have until 2004 to make interior repairs.

But tenants now fear their hopes for decent and affordable housing may evaporate because an immigrants' rights group is suing the city to stop the restoration project.

The group claims that Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido failed to disclose his business ties with Kris Kakkar, a project owner, who stands to make millions from the renovation of his 127 units when he sells them.

"We live in deplorable conditions and finally have a chance to stabilize our lives," said Victoria Zaragoza, leader of a Minnie Street tenants association. "We're on the brink of a better life for all of us. But now, everything is uncertain."

Zaragoza, who has lived on Minnie for 28 years and worked more than a decade to bring the city and property owners together to redevelop the area, complained that the residents, most of them Latinos, have been dragged into a political dispute between Pulido and Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, the organization that filed the lawsuit.

"I don't know what Hermandad's fight with Pulido is all about," she said. "But leave us out of it. If they hold up the project, people will continue living in a horrible way."

Pulido and Kakkar are partners in two Garden Grove real estate ventures.

The lawsuit has not gone to court yet and construction on the project--called Cornerstone Village--continues.

Pulido and Hermandad Director Nativo Lopez, a member of the Santa Ana school board, have sparred politically for years. Lopez and other critics complain that Pulido has not done enough for the city's Latino community, which constitutes 70% of the population. Pulido says he is the mayor of all residents, not just Latinos.

The issue is further complicated by Hermandad's claims that after the units are renovated, illegal immigrants will not be allowed to live in them and that property owners will limit the number of people who can occupy each apartment, displacing families.

The Minnie Street apartments, home to a large number of illegal immigrants, are among the most densely populated in the county. About 3,500 people live in 527 units, the majority of which are one-bedroom apartments.

But Santa Ana housing manager Patricia Whitaker and officials from Orange Housing Corp., a nonprofit agency that owns 60 units on Minnie, said nobody will be displaced and owners do not require proof of legal residency from tenants. Orange Housing has already renovated 40 units--four years ahead of schedule--and is fixing the other 20.

"We haven't evicted any of our tenants and didn't raise rents after renovating the units. Ours is a long-term investment. Our only goal is to make these units a nice, affordable place to live. Our residents are the working poor," said Barry Cottle, an Orange Housing officer.

Limits Set for New Residents

Although no residents will be displaced because of the renovation regardless of how many live in a unit, officials said that when apartments become vacant, new tenants will be limited to five people in a one-bedroom unit and six in a two-bedroom apartment.

Orange Housing's renovated buildings at 1121 and 1125 S. Minnie St. are the envy of other residents. A recent tour found tenants with pride in their new homes, and families of up to seven people living in spotless one-bedroom units.

A woman who wanted to be identified only as Alejandra said she has lived in the same apartment for 10 years. In addition to her husband, her five daughters--ranging from 3 years old to 18--also live there.

"The previous owner never did any repairs. We lived in terrible conditions, but we couldn't afford to move. I was afraid that after the new owners fixed our home they would raise our rent. But that didn't happen," she said.

Cottle said he was aware that illegal immigrants live in his units. "Immigration isn't our issue. Our issue is affordable housing," he said.

Lopez said he is not convinced that illegal immigrants will not be forced out. "There's a reason why the new owners are requiring tenants to sign new contracts and provide check stubs and Social Security numbers. They want to assure that they are not undocumented."

But Whitaker insisted that proof of legal residency will not be required. She and Cottle said check stubs are needed to satisfy legal requirements that people qualify for low-income housing.

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