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Homes and Hopes Turn to Tatters

American dream turns into 'nightmare' for residents of Watts development. Repairs are expected to cost the city at least $2 million.

June 29, 2003|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

A Watts housing program once lauded nationally as a model for bringing middle-class comfort and homeownership to poor neighborhoods is now a shambles, leaving 38 families in near-slum conditions and the city with $2 million in repair and escrow costs.

City officials have taken control of the development, a clutch of pastel ranch homes known as Franklin Square, from the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, a nonprofit organization that owned and managed it for nearly 25 years. Not one of the houses meets city safety and sanitation codes, according to city inspectors, and one was in such poor condition that it could not be rehabilitated.

Franklin Square residents were promised when the program began that they would own the homes after living there and paying rent for 20 years, but they did not receive their deeds when the two-decade period ended in 1998.

"It's really been too much," said Rose Banks, who raised three children in her neat home on East 101st Street, where the furniture has been covered with plastic for months in anticipation of termite repairs and other work. "I'm taking nerve pills. I lie awake at night just thinking about what to do next."

The city is still unraveling what went wrong at Franklin Square, which was conceived in 1975 by two powerful leaders of that era: the late City Councilman and county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and a close associate, the late Watts activist Ted Watkins, whose nonprofit Watts Labor Community Action Committee once owned gas stations, a contracting business, a building supply store, a grocery store and 500 units of low-income housing.

But a review of dozens of documents, including the original deeds and contracts, as well as government e-mails and interviews with current and past public officials, shows a near-total lack of oversight for the program, even as residents complained that their houses were in disrepair and their requests for homeownership were not fulfilled.

Los Angeles housing officials said they could find no record of city audits or inspections of Franklin Square before last year, when inspectors combed the houses as part of the city's investigation. Unlike most city projects at the time, which were set up and monitored by housing or redevelopment officials, the original contract for Franklin Square was signed personally by then-Mayor Tom Bradley, and no specific person at the city was named to oversee it.

Representatives of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also said they were unable to find records of the regular audits and inspections that are typically required when federal money is used for housing projects.

"It just fell through the cracks," said John McCoy, deputy administrator for housing at the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, the state-chartered but city-run agency that has assumed control of Franklin Square and the remaining money. "There was a lot of bungling."

It would take nearly five years of investigation and lobbying by residents, along with the intervention of two governmental bodies and the determination of a city councilwoman bound to protect her father's legacy, before the deeds were transferred earlier this year.

It will cost an estimated $2 million to bring the houses up to code, city officials said, although contractors hired by some residents said the price tag could be higher.

After taking control of Franklin Square, the city and the redevelopment agency promised to pay whatever it cost to fix the houses. That commitment changed this month, when officials offered the residents $39,000 apiece, an amount several contactors said would pay for just half of the repairs on many homes. The city also offered residents no-interest loans of $16,000 more, but only if they agreed not to sell the property for 45 years except to low- or moderate-income buyers.

The project's denouement has pitted the grown children of Franklin Square's original champions against each other. Janice Hahn, daughter of Kenneth Hahn and now a city councilwoman representing part of Watts, ordered the Franklin Square investigation and led the fight to wrest control of the homes from the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. Watkins' son and daughter, Timothy and Teryl, have run the nonprofit since their father's death in 1993, and have defended the organization.

"It's a sad end," Timothy Watkins said of the fractious finale to his father's program, which was featured on national television and in newspapers across the country in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Through a series of city, state and federal grants, Ted Watkins' organization received more than $2 million in 1975 to move 39 1950s-era ranch houses from Westchester, where they were in the way of an airport and freeway expansion, to Watts, documents show.

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