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Ambitious makeover planned for old housing project

L.A.'s plans for Jordan Downs in Watts, to attract wealthier residents alongside poorer ones, is on a bigger scale than other cities have tried. But can it work?

February 10, 2013|By Jessica Garrison, Los Angeles Times
  • "This is the happy house," longtime Jordan Downs resident Daritha Perkins says about her home. The city is planning to knock down Jordan Downs for redevelopment, and Perkins and other residents are wondering how the community will change.
"This is the happy house," longtime Jordan Downs resident Daritha… (Arkasha Stevenson, Los…)

Denise Penegar puts a little extra effort into the teenage girls, the ones who've dropped out of high school to care for their firstborns.

Don't be afraid, the outreach worker tells them. Come down to the housing project's community center, get your GED and some job skills. Change your life.

"I was one of those girls," said Penegar, now 51 and still living in Jordan Downs, the Watts housing project where she was born.

Sometimes, she imagines how different her life might have been if someone had knocked on her door when she was 17, caring for her first baby. What would it have meant just to have "someone who is here who can help pick me up"?

Penegar is on the front lines of a bold social experiment underway at Jordan Downs, a project notorious to outsiders for its poverty, blight and violence but seen by many longtime residents, for all its problems, as a close-knit community worth preserving.

In the last year, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles has begun an effort to transform Jordan that could cost more than $600 million. The plan is to turn the complex of 700 aging units into a mixed-income community of up to 1,400 apartments and condominiums, with shops and restaurants and fancy touches such as native plant gardens. The city hopes to draw in hundreds of more-affluent residents willing to pay market rate to live side by side with the city's poorest.

Spurred by changes in federal funding and policy, such "mixed use" developments have sprung up in place of infamous housing projects all over the country. But experts say Jordan is taking an approach that has not been tried on this scale.

Typically, public housing residents are moved out ahead of the bulldozers, scattered to search for new shelter. In Los Angeles, the housing authority has promised that any of the 2,300 Jordan residents "in good standing" can stay in their old units until the day they move into new ones. The project is to be built in phases, beginning with units on 21 acres of adjacent land purchased by the authority in 2008 for $31 million.

To ease the transition, the city has dispatched "community coaches" like Penegar, along with teachers, social workers, therapists — even police officers whose charge is not to make arrests but to coach youth football and triathlon teams.

In essence, officials intend to raze the buildings, not the community — and radically change its character.

It will be an enormous challenge, with success likely to be measured in tiny increments.

Only 47% of adults at Jordan reported any wages to the housing authority last year. As in many urban projects, poverty and social ills have multiplied through the generations, leaving some residents unfamiliar with opportunities and expectations beyond the neighborhood. Some rarely leave the area.

Before inviting in new neighbors with expectations of safety and comfort, the housing authority has begun flooding Jordan Downs with social services. Many of the programs are focused on women, because more than 60% of Jordan Downs' tenants live in households headed by single mothers. But men are targeted too — for job training and lessons in parenting, for instance.

By December, 10 months into the effort, more than 450 families had been surveyed by intake workers and 280 signed up for intensive services.

"Most people would say it's ambitious, but I think it's essential," said Kathryn Icenhower, executive director of Shields for Families, the South Los Angeles nonprofit that is running many of the new programs under a more than $1-million annual contract with the housing authority.

It is unknown, however, how effective the social services will be, how easy it will be to draw in wealthier residents and how many millions of dollars the federal government — a major source of funding — will provide.

Already, the housing authority has picked a development team — the for-profit Michaels Organization and the nonprofit Bridge Housing, both with respectable track records in other cities. But with financing still uncertain, it is unclear exactly how many units will be built or how much various occupants would pay.

Ultimately, a working family could pay hundreds of dollars more in rent than unemployed tenants next door for a nearly identical unit. Officials say they do not expect Watts to draw the same kind of high-income residents as the former Cabrini Green project in Chicago, which sat on prime real estate near downtown. But Jordan is in a convenient location, near the intersection of the 105 and 110 Freeways; and in a high-rent city like Los Angeles, even the steepest rates at Jordan are likely to seem a bargain.

Despite the onslaught of social services and some palpable changes — including a 53% plunge in the violent crime rate at Jordan last year — financial risks abound.

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