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Landlords in ‘Jungle’ Making Progress

Times Staff Writer

“The Jungle,” a Los Angeles apartment area that has been run down and besieged by drug traffickers and other criminals for years, is showing a few more signs of improvement.

A coalition of landlords, police, businesspeople and other community leaders was formed last December to spearhead the drive to rid the area of undesirables, but the road to respectability is still hard and long.

Now the coalition is working to embrace tenants in its cause through a “Kids’ Day in the Park” next Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Jim Gilliam Recreation Center, 4000 S. La Brea Ave.

A team from the Los Angeles Police Department’s Southwest Division will play baseball with a team of local youths, little children will be fingerprinted as part of the nationwide movement to identify them, and there will be sack races, free hot dogs and soft drinks, and a voter-registration table.

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Gilbert Fernandez, executive director of the Good Shepherd Center for Independent Living and a member of the coalition, said, “If this keeps three or four teen-agers from becoming drug pushers or users, it will be worth it.”

Eric Crumpton, an apartment owner, said, “We’re also using kids to get parents in the park to know that there is a new community spirit here now. We need tenants--kids and parents--to make this work, to get rid of the drug problems and make the clean-up effort a reality.”

Crumpton heads the Crenshaw Apartment Improvement Program, a nonprofit corporation formed in 1980 under city auspices to develop improvement programs without public subsidies or substantial rent increases to low-income tenants in the area, which includes The Jungle (also known as the lower Baldwin Hills area), bordered by La Brea Avenue, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Hillcrest Drive and Santo Tomas Drive.

Landlord Made Money

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Through the Apartment Improvement Program, a number of buildings have been upgraded, and work on a 90-unit project bordering the notorious “Sherm Alley,” widely publicized as a drug-dealer’s paradise that was recently cleaned up, is expected to begin soon.

“The AIP persuaded the owner to invest personal as well as city funds to rehabilitate his units,” Crumpton said.

Councilwoman Pat Russell, whose district encompasses The Jungle, spoke proudly of the project, saying, “We just signed an agreement with the owner to rehabilitate the units at a cost of $1.2 million, and we hope to get a total of 167 units funded this year.”

There are still many apartments in the area that are run-down, with boarded-up and broken windows and graffiti on walls, and these are often owned by absentee landlords--sometimes real estate syndications, Crumpton said, although the worst offender is the government, which owns a 27-unit building that has been a vacant eyesore for nearly 14 years.

Lengthy Delays

In December, a representative of the city’s Community Development Department predicted that rehabilitation work on that building would start in January. It did not, and last week, another representative said it might get city approvals in June.

“We could lend the money to the Housing Authority or we could administer the rehab ourselves,” Ralph Esparza of the Community Development Department, said, estimating that the project will cost about $400,000.

Although the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development sold the building to the city’s Housing Authority for $1 in 1980, there is still a technicality involving the federal agency that must be removed before work can start, he added, “but we’re anxious to proceed.”

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Crumpton and Fernandez have been proceeding to contact absentee and other landlords, “trying to bring them more into our fold,” as Crumpton put it, so they will know the benefits of good property maintenance and management. Said Fernandez: “One landlord who needs to fix up his property has a building filled with tenants, but he is also renting out a garage and a laundry room (as living quarters) to illegal immigrants.”

Undocumented workers aren’t as much of a problem in The Jungle, though, as drug pushers. To educate landlords about screening prospective tenants and managing properties in other ways, the new coalition is sponsoring seminars, which started in February and are scheduled on a monthly basis for the rest of the year.

So far, the seminars have been well attended, according to Crumpton, “and as a result, apartment owners are reviewing rental applications and screening tenants better. Owners can’t afford not to because the drug problem has become so pervasive that it’s scaring good tenants away.”

The first seminar was held by a lawyer involved in landlord-tenant negotiations. The third was held Saturday by Municipal Judge Maxine Thomas, who talked about evictions. The second was held by Capt. Maurice Moore, who in January, replaced Capt. Terry Dyment, who was promoted, as commander of the police department’s Southwest Division.

The new coalition strongly supports the local police and city’s narcotics squad and in December, gave the Southwest Division a computer, some software and a pry bar--"to use as a lever in entering rock (drug-trafficking) houses,” Crumpton explained.

Rid Drug Problem

About Moore, he added, “He’s familiar with the area and has lived here for a number of years.” Trouble is that more policemen are needed in the area, Fernandez stressed, adding, “Residents can’t make arrests. We need to move more law enforcement in to move the drug people out.”

Since December, there have been a couple of murders in the area, including a drug-related shooting during the past few weeks, he said, “but things are improving because people are coming together to voice concerns, and landlords and tenants are coming together.”

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News of the coalition prompted Councilman Hal Berenson to tour the area 60 to 90 days ago to see if he might learn something that would help in his San Fernando Valley district. “We have similar problems (with run-down apartments, absentee owners and crime),” he said.

“The cooperation I saw between property owners and other people in the (‘Jungle’) community was terrific. So far we have been unable to get the same cooperation in our area, but we’re working on it.” Without cooperation, he figures he might wind up using powers of eminent domain to consolidate property ownership under two or three owners or resorting to rehabbing as community redevelopment projects.

Shopping Center Renewal

Not far from The Jungle, the Community Redevelopment Agency and Community Development Department are helping developer Alexander Haagen of Manhattan Beach get the financing to refurbish and expand the 39-year-old Crenshaw Shopping Center, which--like the apartments in The Jungle--began to deteriorate with the so-called “white flight” following the Watts riots in 1965.

Tenants left The Jungle with many vacancies, still unfilled. The same was true of some stores that were abandoned in favor of space in the Fox Hills Mall, which opened in 1975. “We hope the remodeled center will bring back some shoppers and revenues to the area,” Fernandez said.

Besides working on the center, the Redevelopment Agency arranged for a $500,000 grant for Fernandez’s independent-living center to acquire land about two miles from The Jungle for a $2.5-million, 40-unit housing project for the handicapped. “We purchased the land,” he said, and now he is working on getting the rest of the financing.

As for the $50-million to $60-million shopping-center project, Councilwoman Russell said, “No date is set yet for the ground breaking, but it will be soon.” It will probably be ceremonial as construction isn’t expected to start until the end of this year or the start of 1987.

Whenever work starts, the shopping center and handicapped housing will each have a positive impact on The Jungle, where there has been little to cheer about until the past few months.

Sure, there is still trouble in The Jungle, Russell admitted. “When you have a drug problem that runs that deep, you don’t get rid of it overnight.

“But constructive things are happening, and the spirit that exists in the community to change things for the better is so strong, I’m sure that even the drug problem, as bad as it is, will be solved in time.”


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