Church-Backed Housing Termed Drug-Deal Site

Times Staff Writer

A low-income apartment building owned by a church-sponsored group has been identified by police as a major site of drug dealing in the area, and neighbors are demanding that the city take legal action against the owners.

The 26-unit Northwest Manors II at 700 E. Mountain St., police said, has become the focus of a crackdown on the sale of marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

“There are unfortunately a number of marketplaces for drugs in Pasadena,” said Lt. Gary Bennett of the Neighborhood Crime Task Force. “This is one on a shopping list.”

Although neighbors and police say that the situation has improved in the last month--largely because of law enforcement efforts--Bennett said that drug activity continues to be a problem at the apartment complex.

Both police and officials of Westminster Housing Group I, the nonprofit church-sponsored corporation that owns the apartment complex, blamed trespassers using the building’s carport for most of the drug activity.


“There are no residents involved in drugs at this time to the best of my knowledge or belief,” said Herb Herr, president of Northwest’s housing board. “We won’t stand for it.”

According to Lt. Bob Strosser of the vice and narcotics division, police have investigated at least nine drug-related incidents at the building since Jan. 1, resulting in at least six arrests.

One man, who told police he lived in the building, was arrested for selling cocaine to undercover officers several blocks from the apartment complex, Strosser said. He said that another man, who told officers he did not live in the building, was arrested in Apartment No. 4 when police seized $2,500 of cocaine. The other arrests apparently were unrelated to residents of the building, Strosser said.

The area in which the complex is located is described as a low- to moderate-income mixed residential area of apartments and single-family residences. Neighbors, who have complained about drug transactions, loud music and gunshots, wrote to the assistant city prosecutor on Sept. 3 requesting that legal action be taken against the owners under the state Health and Safety Code.

Under those guidelines, any building used for the purpose of storing or distributing a controlled substance can be termed a public nuisance and be subject to condemnation.

‘Not Squeaky Clean’

“Things have slowed down, but they’re not squeaky clean,” said Marvin Greer, a nearby resident. “The property owner has a responsibility to clean up the property himself.”

The housing group, which owns the yellow stucco structure near the corner of Mountain Street and Palm Terrace, was established by Westminster Presbyterian Church 14 years ago to provide low-income housing for residents displaced by the Foothill (210) Freeway. The building is regulated and renters are subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Members of the church-sponsored housing corporation have said that, as a nonprofit agency, they are virtually powerless to eliminate drug activity from their property. While the housing group has signed an agreement informing police that they will prosecute any trespasser after a second violation, members say there is little more the corporation can do.

‘Not of Our Making’

“I’m unaware of specific action that we could take that would overcome the problem and that is still within our capabilities,” Herr said. “I feel as though we’re being unfairly attacked for the drug problem. It’s not of our making.”

Herr said that the managing agent of the building, Landlord’s Property Management Co., screens all prospective tenants before they are admitted to the building, and the resident manager also is instructed to watch for suspicious activity.

All residents are required to undergo a credit check and provide references from previous employers and landlords in order to be eligible for the federally subsidized apartments, said Pat Ingram, managing agent.

“We have really tight records on every person in that building,” Ingram said. “Of course, none of us has any assurance that we’re not dealing with someone in the drug scene.”

Easy Escape Route

Neighbors and police say that drug dealing is a continual problem at the apartment complex, partly because a drainage ditch that borders the building’s parking lot affords dealers an easy escape route.

Neighbors say they have observed cars on Mountain Street pull into the semi-covered carport, then watched as drivers made purchases. Police, who have initiated an undercover drug-buying program, say that money often changes hands three or four times during a single purchase to keep the dealer hidden.

Frequently, the drug dealers use sophisticated warning systems, sometimes employing electronic beepers to signal the arrival of police.

Although police say they are aware of the activity, a combination of limited resources and legal restrictions prevents them from completely eliminating the problem.

Can Make Bail

“We can arrest someone, but everyone has access to bail,” Bennett said. “We find that people we arrested 2 or 3 days before, we’re arresting again.”

Bennett also said that the evidence necessary for a search warrant is difficult to obtain without actually observing a drug transaction.

“There are constitutional restrictions,” Bennett said. “Don’t misunderstand, I’m glad we have them. It just limits what we can do.”

But nearby residents, such as Sona Markarian, have said they will not be content until all drug activity is eliminated from the neighborhood.

“You can’t just let a little bit of cancer in your body,” Markarian said. “It has to be totally eradicated.”

George Corneal, who has lived near the building since it was constructed, said that he can watch the drug dealing from his front porch.

‘Dealing Day and Night’

“They’re out there dealing day and night,” Corneal said. “I can show you the lookout (for police). They’re very sophisticated.”

Greer, who lives across the street from the apartment building, said that he has been approached several times by people wanting to buy drugs.

Other residents said that they have watched people taste drugs in front of the apartment building, seen money change hands and found small plastic bags scattered on their lawns.

“The Neighborhood Watch does not solve the problem,” Greer said. “And the police can only do so much. . . . The church does not want to own up to the responsibility of its project.”

While the housing group bears the church’s name and all six members of the corporation belong to the church, the apartment complex is not the responsibility of Westminster Presbyterian Church, said the Rev. Kent Lawrence, pastor of the 500-member congregation.

‘Nothing We Can Do’

“There is nothing we can do as a church to solve the problem,” Lawrence said. “I think I’d feel the same way if I lived there. . . . But they’re trying to get a solution that is absolute when one isn’t available.”

Responsibility for the drug problem, housing group members said, rests primarily with law enforcement officials.

“I believe this is primarily a police problem to pick these people up,” Herr said. “We’ve cooperated with the police and the situation has improved. . . . Even if I lived on Palm Terrace, I don’t know what more I could do.”

Although neighbors say they understand the difficulty of enforcing a permanent solution, they still are demanding that the housing group either take immediate action against the drug problem or relinquish control of the apartment building.

Early Complaints

Community objections to the apartment complex began surfacing two months ago, when about 50 residents gathered at Greer’s house to complain about the drug dealing to police and Westminster Housing Group I officials.

At the meeting, residents asked Herr and another board member, George Coulter, to provide both a list of recent evictions and to consider hiring a private security guard to patrol the premises.

According to Ingram, Landlord’s Property Management has never evicted a tenant for drug-related activity. It made one eviction for poor conduct and two for non-payment of rent last year.

“We can’t evict someone for dealing drugs,” said Ingram, who has managed the building since 1978. “We’re not the law enforcement agency. If we say straight out that we’re evicting someone for drugs, we can be sued.”

Guard Called Impractical

A full-time security guard also would be impractical because Westminster Housing Group I is nonprofit and has no money to hire a private patrol, Coulter said at the meeting. Later, Coulter said that he opposed hiring a full-time guard as a matter of principle.

“We don’t intend to give it a concentration camp atmosphere,” Coulter said. “Our tenants would be the ones who would suffer from an outside-imposed guard unit.”

Some residents at the apartment complex, most of whom asked to remain unidentified, said that they were aware of some drug activity, but generally were able to avoid becoming involved.

Raul Quintero, husband of the resident manager, said that he once asked some people in the carport to leave and was hit in the eye with brass knuckles. “I still go out there and give them dirty looks,” he said. “I don’t want no more problems in this building.”

Neighbors Want Action

However, neighbors have said that the problems will persist until the owners take visible action, making it clear that they will no longer permit any drug activity on their property.

“It’s scandalous,” said Corneal, who opposed the low-income apartment complex when it was first proposed in 1971. “They think they shouldn’t be criticized because they made a sincere gesture 14 years ago. . . . They don’t want to lose it, but they don’t want to fix it.”

Greer, who said he has repeatedly called police to report drug activity at the apartment building, said it made little difference to him that the project was owned by a church-sponsored group.

“They had good intentions,” he said. “But as it turns out, the utopian idea is not always fulfilled.”

Church officials said, however, that the apartment building is still serving its original purpose and that should not be tainted by what they describe as unfortunate but unavoidable problems.

“Somewhere along the way, a public housing project is going to encounter criticism,” Lawrence said. “But we’re still providing the low-cost housing that was needed. It can’t be rosy all the time.”