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Building hope

A growing number of innovative developments are giving low-income housing a new look and transforming tenants' lives.

June 15, 2003|Diane Wedner | Times Staff Writer

At the new Cesar Chavez Gardens apartments, around the corner from Chinatown's main strip of shops and restaurants, Alejandra Nieto stepped into her sunny living room, unable to suppress a smile as she showed off the beige carpets, modern kitchen and three spacious bedrooms in her $463-a-month rental in the contemporary multifamily complex.

A month ago she was paying $350 for a dilapidated one-bedroom Pico-Union unit -- a water heater was in the kitchen -- that she shared with her two children and her husband, an apparel industry worker.

Thirty miles south, in the shadow of Disneyland, a group of children splashed in a swimming pool while a handful of students hunkered down in the computer room of Hermosa Village. The rehabilitated, 293-unit affordable-housing development resembles a resort and gleams in the former Jeffrey-Lynne neighborhood of Anaheim, where three years ago families wouldn't venture out after dark.

Thanks to federal and state housing tax credits, renewed political will and the perseverance of nonprofit developers, more innovative low-income housing developments now dot the five-county region of Southern California. Not only are these buildings changing the landscape of once-blighted neighborhoods, they also are enriching the lives of many of the low-wage earners who take advantage of on-site child care services, job training and English classes.

"It's a miracle," said Nieto, whose family competed with 1,100 applicants for one of the 47 units at Cesar Chavez Gardens, which has a stately 100-year-old Moreton Bay fig tree at the building's entrance. "We actually got one!"

Her surprise is understandable. Affordable housing is in woefully short supply in the region. As of 2000, the last year for which data are available, the city of Los Angeles was 60,481 units short of meeting the area's overall housing needs, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments' Regional Housing Needs Assessment.

In fiscal year 2002-03, Los Angeles spent $43.16 per person on building affordable housing, while New York spent $74.88 per person, the most of any major U.S. city, according to the Southern California Assn. of Non-Profit Housing.

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As rents soar, so does need

"The need for low-income housing is more urgent than ever before," said Tony Salazar, president of the West Coast office of McCormack Baron Salazar, a real estate development firm that specializes in redeveloping urban neighborhoods. "The rapid appreciation of real estate, the price of land going up and skyrocketing rents have converged to push low-income people down further."

As a result, competition is keen when new units become available. Eligibility is based on a family's need and the area's median income, which varies depending on a development's location. Rents fall within 30% of a household's income, the affordability standard recommended for all renters and homeowners.

Generally the housing is targeted toward the working poor who may not qualify for government-subsidized housing or who simply cannot afford decent market-rate rentals.

Applicants typically are skilled laborers who earn 60% of the median area income, or $33,840 for a family of four in Los Angeles County and $45,360 in Orange County. About 30% of Los Angeles' populace earns between $20,000 and $34,999 a year.

"Everything starts with housing," said Bill Harris, executive director of Hollywood Community Housing Corp., a nonprofit development company that has built 440 affordable units, including the Carlton Court Apartments in the Hollywood area. "In the Old West, they'd make camp, then look for food and water. It's the same today; you have to have decent housing before you can grow and gain self-confidence."

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Reversing stereotypes

Over the years, affordable housing assumed some ugly stereotypes that have been hard to shake: barracks-style federal housing projects with unkempt grounds and spiraling crime. The stigma, whether deserved or not, is so pervasive that even Americans who believe housing is a right feel less than hospitable at the mention of low-income developments, say affordable-housing advocates.

In an attempt to turn that image around, low-income housing developers focus today on the concept that good design makes good neighbors, resulting in projects that are indistinguishable from market-rate residences.

They typically are well-designed, multistory buildings on gated, landscaped properties with individual unit entrances, subterranean parking, picnic areas, state-of-the-art playgrounds protected within courtyards, on-site laundry facilities and after-school programs for resident and neighborhood kids.

Hope Village Apartments, at Hope and 11th streets in downtown Los Angeles, is a tricolored, 66-unit complex that would look at home in any neighborhood, with separate townhome-style entrances, wrought-iron gates, balconies and architecturally interesting windows. The complex has a day-care facility, children's play area, indoor recreation area and counseling space.

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