There's a train comin' – light rail changes South L.A. housing market

A South L.A. apartment complex may signal changes to come for low-income housing

By Robert Fulton

Rolland Curtis Gardens sits at one heck of a location.

The 48-unit apartment complex on West 38th Street in South Los Angeles lies a short block from the intersection of Exposition Boulevard and Vermont Avenue. Six two-story buildings encircle a large green courtyard, complete with a small playground. The University of Southern California looms a short, five-minute walk away, and a stop for the yet-unopened light rail Expo Line – named for the roadway it bisects – lies just a few yards from the structure’s back wall.

That’s the definition of prime location. And the remaining low-income families that call the complex home wish to continue to enjoy their South L.A. neighborhood.

“This is a good area to be in,” said David Mosley, 70, who has lived at Rolland Curtis for 13 years. “I like the area. We just happen to be in a low-income situation here, and this disagreement has frightened the tenants away from here.”

The disagreement that Mosley refers to is the threat of eviction he and his neighbors, who almost all rely on subsidized housing housing, face.

Rolland Curtis was built in 1981 using HUD and Community Redevelopment Agency funds, which carried responsibilities of affordability. The property changed hands twice early last decade, and was eventually purchased by real estate developer and Forbes 400 mogul Jeff Greene. An attempt to convert to market rate in the middle of the last decade failed once it was discovered that CRA covenants didn’t expire until January, 2011.

Once all of the building’s low-income covenants expired early last year, residents received 60-day notices to vacate in May. It was soon discovered that state law requires a property owner to provide a full year notice of intent to convert to market rate. That notice was filed on Sept. 15.

In the shadow of USC and close to a new light rail line, property in the northern portion of South L.A. couldn’t be hotter. Older homes and apartment buildings have been refurbished and rented to students at much higher rates than typical long-time working-class South L.A. families can afford. And new development is expected with the introduction of the Expo Line, making buildings like Rolland Curtis Gardens all that more attractive.

“That’s been their home for a long time, and they would like to stay there,” said Sandra McNeil, executive director of T.R.U.S.T. South L.A., an organization that works to help South L.A. residents stay in their community. “They don’t see why – it is a property that has both served as their home and is the recipient of so much public benefit – why they should be cast aside because there’s an opportunity to house a different group of people who can pay more money. They don’t feel that it’s just.”

Approximately half the families that had called Rolland Curtis home have vacated, partly due to fear of the unknown, neighbors say, as well as the poor living conditions. On two occasions late last year, the L.A. Housing Department cited the building’s management with numerous violations, including electrical, plumbing and safety hazards. According to residents of Rolland Curtis, garbage wasn’t picked up, grass remained uncut, and requests for repairs inside the apartments were not filled.

“Everything that you can possibly imagine that could go wrong went wrong,” said Martia Sterling, who has lived in the complex for nine years, citing plumbing and infestation problems. “The building is pretty old, and it needs a lot of maintenance and upkeep.”

What is happening at Rolland Curtis may be a sign of things to come. According to a joint 2009 study by Reconnecting America, the National Housing Trust and AARP, in the next five years, up to 160,000 renters in 20 metro areas “could lose their affordable apartments near transit because the contracts on their privately-owned HUD-subsidized rental units are due to expire.”

“This is one property, but it’s a national crisis,” McNeil said. “This is a real example of failed policy.”

Additionally, a 2010 study by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy reported “core transit users—such as renters and low income households—are priced out in favor of higher-income, car-owning residents who are less likely to use public transit for commuting.”

“It’s illogical as public policy that there’s not a planned approach about how to secure properties adjacent to light rail stations,” McNeil said.

According to Roger Moliere, Chief, Real Property Management and Development for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority, Metro has 30 developments completed or under construction, all with some affordable housing. However, Metro can only build on land in its possession. The only planned development along the Expo line is in Culver City.

“We have very little land there,” Moliere said of property in South L.A. “We don’t have control over whatever somebody does elsewhere,” he added.

If given the option, current residents of Rolland Curtis would love to take advantage of the Expo Line.

“It’ll get the kids, if they want to go to the mall, it’s quicker for them to go and come right back,” said Martha Harris, who does data entry at Bank of America and has lived at Rolland Curtis for 15 years. “You can trust them on one line.”

The end game at Rolland Curtis Gardens is yet to be written. Eleven of the remaining families have qualified for enhanced vouchers, meaning they can stay put at a subsidized rate for as long as the building remains a rental. McNeil said she would like to see a long-term solution to keep the property affordable for all.

Sterling just hopes she and her neighbors don’t have to move.

“People just want to continue to stay and be comfortable and not have to fear one day they’re going to open their door and there’s this notice saying they can’t be here any more, that they have to vacate,” she said. “They don’t want to have to worry about that.”

“I’m always hoping and praying for the best,” Sterling added. “Hopefully we’re able to come out on top and be able to still say we’re here, and whoever else needs to, there’s some affordable housing places available to you.”

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