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Living the posh life on a loft budget

Low-income units in pricey developments help builders win approval for their projects, and qualifying tenants find homes they could never afford.

November 10, 2002|Diane Wedner | Times Staff Writer

Jesus Chavez stood on the second-floor balcony of his Montecito townhouse, reveling in the million-dollar view before him.

Facing west, as far as the eye could see, tall trees and exquisite landscaping surrounded mansions and haciendas on properties the size of parks. A few feet below him stretched quaint Isabella Lane, a narrow street lined with seven large Spanish Colonial homes and eight townhomes that make up the complex where the nursing student lives.

"I feel like we won the lottery!'' said Chavez, 33, as he pointed out the development's private leafy park anchoring the multimillion-dollar homes.

Actually, he and his wife, Estela Chavez, 35, did win a lottery. The couple, along with seven other low- to moderate-income families, were among a pool of about 90 qualified applicants selected by lottery to live affordably among the ultra-rich in the sumptuous seaside community.

The Chavezes are not alone. From San Diego to Santa Barbara, a growing number of builders, large and small, are setting aside affordable units, or even whole buildings, for lower-income residents in high-rent districts.

Figures are not available on the exact number of these complexes in upscale Southern California neighborhoods, but housing experts say their numbers are rising as builders have come to realize that including affordable units in new developments often is the only way a project can win city approval.

The low-income renters who benefit from the arrangement aren't complaining.

"This is a palace!" said Brian Walsh, a high-energy, tattooed decorative artist who resides with his cat, Babu, in an airy one-bedroom unit filled with art at the Los Altos Apartments.

The upscale, historic building was constructed in 1925 near the old-money Windsor Square neighborhood of Los Angeles. Rents at the complex run from $570 a month for lower-income residents like Walsh, to $5,000 for the "Hearst" apartment, a huge, wood-paneled unit with high ceilings, which William Randolph Hearst had built for his mistress, actress Marion Davies.

Walsh, 43, passed by the construction site for weeks while the historic building was under renovation. Then he tracked down the owners to see how he could qualify for one of the individually designed, affordable units. He applied through the city's housing department and, in 1999, was among the first to move in.

Never mind that this stretch of Wilshire Boulevard lacks basic amenities for a single guy, such as restaurants or nightlife, or that when he first moved in he got the cold shoulder from some renters paying full freight. Those tenants are gone now, he said.

Today, when he steps into the meticulously refurbished building, the artist soaks up the aesthetics of the lobby's original tile floors, antique light fixtures and mahogany doors with brass and nickel trim, and he counts his blessings.

"The owners gave people like me, who couldn't normally live in a place like this, the opportunity to do it," Walsh said.

That's exactly what developers Allen Gross, 32, and his wife, Arax Harutunian, 32, hoped for when they took on the Los Altos project in 1995. The abandoned building, home to Betty Davis, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Ava Gardner during Hollywood's heyday, was slated for demolition.

This was an unthinkable prospect to Gross, who is in the business of refurbishing historic buildings. Seeing the potential of the structure, and in favor of including lower-income units, the couple plunged into the arduous process of lining up financing for the project.

They received some funding assistance from the city's housing department after guaranteeing that about 20% of the building's 67 units would be set aside for low- to moderate-income renters. Financing in place, they went to work re-creating the grandeur of the building, down to the doorknobs.

"It was a labor of love," Gross said. "We needed $1,000 or more [a month] per unit for the rehab, but we charge only $500 for many of the units, so we did a lot of begging" for tax-exempt bonds to get the project done. It was completed in 1999.

Shopping out of the area

Anna and Charles Brown, both 79, enjoy the occasional chamber concerts and fashion shows that take place in the lobby. Nonetheless, the couple, who spent the previous 35 years in a West Adams district apartment, have not found convenient shopping nearby, so they drive to Baldwin Hills for clothes, haircuts and line dancing, Anna's hobby.

"At first we didn't want to live here, because there isn't easy access to my friends and activities," said Anna Brown, a tall, impeccably dressed community volunteer, seated comfortably in her decorated two-bedroom, two-bath apartment. "But I take the bus and walk everywhere now, and like living here."

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