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Ujima Village, a onetime urban oasis, closes down

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Charlene David walked through her ghost town last week, past empty driveways, rusting playgrounds, abandoned basketball courts, the overgrown community garden, the management office that closed months ago.

This is what remains of Ujima Village, a sprawling complex of mostly government-subsidized apartments in Willowbrook, an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County south of Watts.

The county, which owns the complex, still pays to trim the lawns, but the 34 buildings that once housed more than 600 people are nearly all shuttered. David was among the first residents when "The Village" opened in 1972, and she is among the last. Only 14 families remain. "We decided we would stay united until the end," said David, 65. The retired county worker stood in front of the apartment she shares with her husband, surveying the abandoned community center, its laundry, fitness and computer rooms full of cobwebs.

"It's getting to the end," she said.

County officials have been trying to vacate Ujima Village for the last year. The decision to move residents out came after soil and groundwater tests revealed potentially dangerous contamination dating back to when the land under the complex was used as an oil tank storage site by what is now Exxon Mobil.

Citing that contamination, county supervisors Tuesday declared the complex blighted and gave tenants 90 days to relocate before the buildings are demolished.

Ujima Village was supposed to be an oasis for working-class black families, a sprawling, grassy campus of 300 one- to four-bedroom units bordered by fields and, later, two lakes. Some residents paid market rent, while others were subsidized by the government. David remembers how proud she was at first to show off her apartment, with its new appliances, carpet and drapes.

Ujima, which means "collective work and responsibility" in Swahili, is one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa. It seemed fitting for a complex erected by a group of African American architects and developers, the mortgage underwritten by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The community was tight-knit, providing several generations of black families a steppingstone to home ownership. There were track, football and drill teams -- a stack of old trophies now gathers dust inside the community center. Residents raised greens and other vegetables in the community garden, planted fruit trees and bougainvillea in their yards, dug duck ponds and hosted backyard barbecues. Children gathered to gossip and play around a gnarled tree they called "the inkwell."

In a collage of photos that still covers a wall in the community center, David points out former neighbors who moved out long ago and are now scattered throughout the county.

"We had our ups and downs, but we were like a family," said David, who served as president of the resident council.

But shoddy building materials, combined with management neglect, left Ujima dilapidated by the time HUD took over in 1990, hiring round-the-clock security and promising $6 million in renovations. Five years later, the county bought the complex from HUD for $1.

By 2004, Ujima Village needed $20 million more in renovations, and the county tried to sell it to two developers. The developers commissioned soil and groundwater tests that showed the land the complex was built on was contaminated with gas and crude oil.

County health officials said the contamination did not pose a health risk, but promised further testing. By March 2008, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board had ordered the county Housing Authority and Exxon Mobil to test and clean up the site.

Within months, HUD began relocating subsidized tenants from Ujima, and in November supervisors voted to close the complex, setting aside about $2.5 million to relocate the remaining 65 tenants. Under federal law, the county has to help tenants who were paying market rent find housing that is similar in size and quality. The law also requires that the county pay the difference between their current and future rents, including utilities, for the next 42 months as a lump sum.

David and other holdouts told supervisors this week that county housing officials had not met those conditions. They said they would refuse to leave until they conditions were met.

"We have tried to handle everyone's situation with a great deal of sensitivity," said Bobette Glover, the Housing Authority's assistant executive director who has assisted with the relocation to comparable housing. "Maybe there's a matter of opinion, whether it's comparable or not. We don't feel we're pushing anyone into housing."

Glover said that because fewer than 10% of the 259 families who were living there when the relocation began remain, the relocation has been a success.

Remaining residents disagree.

Faye Tolliver, 46, a special education teacher's aide, has lived at Ujima for more than 25 years. She pays $800 a month for the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her 22-year-old daughter, a student at Loyola Marymount University.

Tolliver said she wanted to move to another two-bedroom apartment near her daughter's school in Westchester that cost $1,400 to $1,500 a month. But a county consultant recommended that her rent and utilities be no more than $1,224, referring her to complexes in areas of Gardena and Long Beach that Tolliver said were too dangerous. Last week, the county rejected her appeal of the decision.

Tolliver began to cry as she told her story. Squatters have moved into one of the vacant apartments across the street, she said, and she does not feel safe at night. An elderly resident refuses to leave her unit, even when Tolliver and other neighbors stop by to visit.

"It's ridiculous," Tolliver said. "I want to get up and out of here so bad."

Louis Rafti, a housing attorney with Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, has been working with Ujima residents since the relocation began. Rafti said county housing officials did a good job of relocating about 30 seniors from the complex. But he said they pressured many other tenants to move into less than ideal apartments and are shortchanging the holdouts.

Tenants shared those grievances with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was elected in November to represent the area, at Tuesday's board meeting. Afterward, they said they were hopeful their problems may be resolved before the complex is slated to close in July. On Thursday, the supervisor said he plans to meet with all remaining tenants to resolve their cases. "I take this personally," he said.

Among those residents is Navaline Smith, 52, an occupational therapist who shares a three-bedroom apartment with son Zion, 9.

He is the last child in the complex. Watching him roller-blade down their street last week, gliding by crumbling garages, a shopping cart and the chain link fence that separates Ujima from the outside world, Smith said she felt forgotten.

She had hoped to use her relocation money to buy a foreclosed three-bedroom house nearby for $155,000. But she said county officials recently tried to place her in the federal Section 8 rental subsidy program, which would make her ineligible for most of the relocation money. Smith is appealing but is worried someone else will buy the home she wanted.

In the community center, a Wall of Loving Memory is covered with the names of residents who have died. Among them is Smith's daughter, Larisha Dantzler, who was 3 when she died in a car crash in 1992. When Ujima is razed, that keepsake will be lost too.

"It's like nobody cares about us and we're on an island," Smith said. "Why don't they do the right thing so I can go?"

molly.hennessy-fiske @latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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