Land trust and developer save affordable housing complex

By Robert Fulton
California Health Report

If you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em out.

That may have been easier said than done for a pair of Los Angeles non-profits, but that’s exactly what happened in July.

Community land trust organization T.R.U.S.T. South L.A. and affordable housing developer Abode Communities recently announced the acquisition of South Los Angeles apartment complex Rolland Curtis Gardens.

The residents of the 48-unit Rolland Curtis complex, many relying on Section 8 subsidies, had faced the possibility of eviction by the previous owner. Abode Communities and T.R.U.S.T. South L.A. vowed to secure the property for affordable housing.

Abode and T.R.U.S.T. paid $9 million for the acquisition.

“I was so excited and happy,” said David Mosley, 72, who has lived at Rolland Curtis for 14 years. “I love this area.”

Mosley walked around the courtyard of the 2.3-acre apartment complex. The smell of fresh paint lingered in the air, as hammering, scraping and sawing reflected the work that had begun on refurbishing some of the empty apartments.

“Abode’s got all of this going,” Mosley said, looking around.

Rolland Curtis sits on West 38th Street in South Los Angeles, a short block from the intersection of Exposition Boulevard and Vermont Avenue. The University of Southern California is a five-minute walk away, and the recently-opened light rail Expo Line passes a few yards across from the structure’s back wall.

Rolland Curtis was built in 1981 using HUD and Community Redevelopment Agency funds, which carried responsibilities of affordability, and the property was purchased by real estate developer Jeff Greene in 2004. Once the building’s low-income covenants expired last year, residents received notices to vacate, with intent to convert the apartments to market rate. The deadline to vacate was Sept. 15 of this year.

Approximately half the families that were living in Rolland Curtis moved, partly due to fear of the unknown, neighbors say, as well as 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.

However, 11 of the remaining families had qualified for enhanced vouchers, meaning they could stay at a subsidized rate for as long as the building remained a rental. The future of Rolland Curtis and its remaining residents remained unclear until the recent sale.

“Many of us like myself, we just stayed with it,” said Mosley, who holds one of those enhanced vouchers. “It paid off.”

Abode and T.R.U.S.T. first considered purchasing the complex in 2010, but negotiations didn’t progress far. This spring, an offer was made and accepted, but the deal fell through in escrow. The final offer was accepted and the deal closed on July 27.

“We did this to secure the property, a property where if we hadn’t been involved in it, the tenants would have been out of the building,” said Sandra McNeill, Executive Director of T.R.U.S.T. South L.A.

In addition to fixing up the existing apartments, long-term plans include adding additional affordable-housing units to the 2.3 acre site. According to McNeill, up to another 130 units can be added.

Abode and T.R.U.S.T. were able to secure funding for the purchase from a number of sources. These include a five-year acquisition loan from Wells Fargo Bank; a loan from the California Community Foundation’s Community Foundation Land Trust; $1.8 million in acquisition grants from the Weingart Foundation, Rose Hills Foundation and The Ahmanson Foundation; and $1.5 million from Abode’s Housing Fund, awarded to the developer by the U.S. Treasury’s Capital Magnet Fund.

“It was really great that all of those pieces were able to come together towards the acquisition,” said Robin Hughes, President and CEO of Abode Communities. “Without them, this would not have happened.”

Rolland Curtis is the third project that Abode and T.R.U.S.T. are working on. The two organizations have partnered on the Slauson and Wall and Bethune Crossroads development sites, both also in South Los Angeles. The two projects stalled with the dissolution of California Redevelopment Agency.

The two organizations own Rolland Curtis fifty-fifty under the entity Rolland Curtis Partners, LLC. Abode, which has approximately 30 projects in Los Angeles County, will manage the property.

What made Rolland Curtis so attractive is the prospect of affordable housing along light rail public transit.

“It’s an extremely significant site, given its location with the public investment and the Expo Line infrastructure, to have secured,” McNeill said.

Keeping Rolland Curtis affordable while remaining along the Expo Line bucks a national trend. 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.”

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.”

“I think the preservation and the development opportunity combined to make it work,” Hughes said. “It’s rare to have opportunities to preserve affordable housing along transit oriented lines.”

Mosley looks forward to the coming improvements at Rolland Curtis, as well as the security in knowing there will be no more threats of eviction. He’d like to see the empty apartments cleaned up and some landscaping improvements. He’s quick to give credit to T.R.U.S.T. and Abode for making the deal happen.

“Some of the neighbors here have been here much longer than I have,” Mosley said. “They didn’t want to leave and had nowhere else to go. This is really home to them.”

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