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Nun Brought Together the Powerful to Build Hope

Sister Diane Donoghue is retiring as director of a Los Angeles nonprofit that creates affordable housing for the poor.

October 05, 2006|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

At 23rd Street and Bonsallo Avenue, near Los Angeles' garment district, is a three-story apartment building that once crumbled in neglect.

It was so infested with vermin that only five tenants could be found desperate enough to rent any of its then-30 units.

The now-handsome brick building was renovated two years ago into 15 units and is called the Alegria -- Spanish for cheerfulness.

Perhaps most remarkable, Alegria has no gang graffiti, and even the first-floor windows have no bars.

The local gang members "take care of us," said Monic Juriarte, a health worker with the nonprofit Esperanza Community Housing Corp., which renovated the Alegria and eight other buildings in the area. "They respect all Esperanza's buildings."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Sister Diane Donoghue: An article in Thursday's California section about Sister Diane Donoghue said she founded the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice. The coalition was formed by Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, a nonprofit group.

That respect, and the Alegria itself, is part of the legacy of Sister Diane Donoghue, who became a real estate developer and made a life's work of elbowing the ribs of the powerful on behalf of the poor.

Donoghue, 75, is retiring as director of Esperanza, which she formed in 1989 to build affordable housing in the working-class neighborhood squeezed in the gentrifying pinch between downtown and USC.

While government money for affordable housing has evaporated, Esperanza has rebuilt nine tenements into striking apartment complexes.

Rents are set at 30% of a garment worker's typical salary -- $575 a month for a three-bedroom apartment.

Esperanza also built Mercado La Paloma, at Grand Avenue and 37th Street, as an incubator for small businesses. A dinner in Donoghue's honor will be held there tonight.

Donoghue has walked in the worlds of city politics and community activism, each with its own divisions and egos. Yet she has succeeded by bringing together unlikely coalitions of bankers, City Hall operatives, immigrants and clergy to achieve projects.

"She gathers the right people together," said Brian Eklund, pastor of St. Mark's Lutheran Church, who serves on Esperanza's board of directors. Also, "she's like a bulldog. [So] you have this humility marching side by side with this aggressiveness."

Donoghue grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from UCLA. A trip to India to work with the poor changed her life, she said. In 1955, she joined the Sisters of Social Service, a Roman Catholic order based in Los Angeles dedicated to working for change in poor communities.

"The devotional prayer part was not as much of a call to me as working the Gospel, making the Gospel real in the world," she said. "Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the jailed -- that's what the Gospel's about."

In 1985, Donoghue landed in the neighborhood that would be her life's work: the tail of the 9th Council District, straddling the Harbor Freeway south of the Santa Monica Freeway.

Now mostly Latino, it is a hodgepodge of old houses, stucco apartments and garment factories crammed together with little regard for practical zoning.

Donoghue has few good words for the late City Councilman Gil Lindsay, a longtime representative whom she credits with an anything-goes attitude.

"He just sold out to anybody and everybody," she said.

At one point, Donoghue took a job as a community organizer for St. Vincent Catholic Church.

A woman dying of cancer called saying her landlord wanted to evict her and replace the house with a garment factory.

Donoghue fought the eviction, then knocked on City Council doors until she had the votes to stop the garment factory. Contacts at City Hall helped find money to buy the property.

Donoghue partnered with the Los Angeles Community Design Center, a veteran nonprofit affordable housing developer, which taught her real estate financing and architecture.

The 33-unit Villa Esperanza now stands where the garment factory was slated to go. An oasis of colorful jungle gyms amid streets with barred windows and graffiti, the complex also offers day care and Head Start programs to the neighborhood's children.

The ordeal helped Donoghue realize that housing was the primary issue in a neighborhood populated largely by illegal immigrants unable to fight for themselves. Over the next several years, she served on mayoral commissions that created the department to promote affordable housing and a program to more rigorously inspect slum apartment buildings.

USC was expanding during these years and the school became an early Donoghue foe. She battled first over its plan to privatize food workers, thus cutting them off from the school's health plan. She marched on campus to oppose the action.

She formed the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice -- made up of churches -- to counter USC's growth plans, which were proceeding, in her view, without neighborhood consultation.

But recently Donoghue and the university have preferred linking arms to kicking shins. Esperanza did not oppose the school's new Galen Athletic Center, believing it had a chance for a better relationship with USC.

Donoghue now advises the university on its build-out plan.

"You can either be outside the moat or you can be in," she said.

USC President Steven B. Sample, with whom Donoghue has fought in the past, has a page in the program of tonight's dinner, saluting her accomplishments. She and the school are discussing building housing for students and working-class families.

Yet as Donoghue leaves Esperanza, housing in the area has never been less affordable. Property values have tripled in five years. Rents have doubled and garment workers are packed tighter into increasingly shabby housing.

Donoghue is undaunted, even cheered, by what lies ahead. In retirement, she will work on the Figueroa Corridor Community Land Trust. It combines developer fees, low-interest bank loans, foundation grants and input of community groups to buy land for affordable housing.

"We have an opportunity to absolutely" make L.A. "the peaceable kingdom," she says.

sam.quinones@latimes.com

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