Run-Down Adobe Units Sat on Prime Real Estate : Latino Immigrants Lose Refuge as Developer Demolishes Apartments

Times Staff Writer

Abel Coria speaks wistfully of life at the low-rent Cozy Court apartments in West Los Angeles, where he and hundreds of other mostly illegal Latino immigrants found refuge for years.

"We lived as if we were in our homeland. Everyone knew each other and helped each other," said Coria, 38, who asked that his real name not be used.

Search for Work

For decades, the one-story white adobe apartments at the corner of Olympic and Sawtelle boulevards served as an informal port of entry for hundreds of Latino immigrants who flocked to Los Angeles in search of work.

But the run-down complex was also situated on choice real estate--in the shadow of both a major freeway and high-rise office buildings--and what may have been inevitable has finally happened: The land was sold to a developer, the tenants were evicted and the apartments were torn down.

For the developer and some area merchants, the razing of Cozy Court was an important step in upgrading an increasingly commercial urban strip. But it also meant the uprooting of several hundred immigrants who were forced to find new places to live.

Many of the tenants were families with children, and many were the young men who stand on street corners, dodging occasional raids by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and waiting for the offer of a day's work, usually construction or gardening, from patrones who pass by in their cars.

Many of the residents were from the same areas of Mexico, such as Durango or Mazatlan, who regularly sent money back to relatives, according to Coria, a nine-year resident of Cozy Court.

An Oasis

Despite overcrowding, crime and shabby conditions, the apartment complex--along with a couple of other low-rent buildings nearby--over the years became a sort of transplanted Mexican colony, providing low-income immigrants with a community, an oasis of semi-stability in the often haphazard life of the undocumented.

Raleigh Enterprises, a Los Angeles-based developer and real estate firm with movie studios and first-class hotels, bought the Cozy Court property last year for $7.5 million, a company source said. The tenants were given 30-day eviction notices.

The company, working with City Councilman Marvin Braude's office, said it paid legally required relocation fees ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 for most of the 134 families at Cozy Court. It also offered other aid, such as providing the tenants with lists of comparably priced housing and transportation to go apartment-hunting.

Raleigh President George Rosenthal said in an interview that the purchase of the 100,000-square-foot lot was key to the expanding development of that commercial stretch of Olympic Boulevard near the San Diego Freeway.

"We have made a commitment to the Olympic corridor," Rosenthal said. Raleigh's other holdings in the area include the 11-story Executive Life Center.

The Cozy Court site "has been of interest to us and to other developers for a long period of time," he said. "I suppose no one (until now) wanted to take on the numerous problems involved in the relocation of all those people."

Final Decision Pending

He said that he may construct an office building on the site, but plans to hold a design competition before making a final decision on what to do with the property.

Rosenthal said that some tenants were not eligible for relocation fees because they were more than 30 days behind in their rents. (By law, relocation fees are not required when rent payments are delinquent.) In those cases, he said, the company offered to forgive the back rents and pay them a small amount to move.

Most "went away happy," he said, but about 10 people refused to leave and were sued to force them to vacate the property. It took about six or seven months to complete the evictions--"really not a long time considering the complexity."

"The issue of (the tenants) being illegal didn't enter in to it. We never asked for green cards," Rosenthal said.

List of Violations

The apartments, first built as motel units around an open patio, had fallen into disrepair. The city had outstanding citations back to 1985 against the former owner for poor maintenance, broken screens and dirt driveways that had to be paved, according to Braude's chief deputy, Cindy Miscikowski.

The owner replied that he was selling the property, she reported.

Even though assistance was provided to tenants to relocate, many met with new hardships and became discouraged. Rents elsewhere were higher, and many found themselves forced to move farther from where they awaited work on the corner of Olympic and Sawtelle.

"It is all right here," Coria said as he sat in the one-room apartment on La Brea Avenue, where he now lives. "But it was better there.

"Before I only had to get up and go out the door and there was everything--close. There, I had all my friends. Here, I come home, close the doors and don't know what's happening outside. Everyone is a stranger."

Now he has to leave earlier to travel about 45 minutes down the freeway to the corner where he hopes to find work, he said.

Will Return to Mexico

His rent has gone up from $223 a month to $408 for the apartment he shares with two other former residents of Cozy Court. One of Coria's companions said that the forced move has so complicated his daily search for work that he plans to return to Mexico, as have about 20 or 30 of his friends.

Some business owners near the former site of Cozy Court were glad to see bulldozers tear down what they considered to be an eyesore. The presence of men standing on street corners had frequently drawn complaints from pedestrians and residents, according to the police.

An office complex, if that is what Raleigh decides to build, would be better for business than low-income housing, merchants said.

"We (used to) get a lot of comments from our customers. It is not an attractive area," said Marty Berg, manager of a restaurant across the street from the now-vacant lot that used to be Cozy Court.

"The neighborhood is a little rough. But it's getting better. . . . We weren't having problems with the people (who lived at Cozy Court), just with the looks. It just didn't look good."

Police say that the Cozy Court community was often the site of burglaries, public drunkenness, drug peddling and other crimes.

"A guy would go in there and be lost. You couldn't find him," said Officer Chuck Smith of the West Los Angeles police station. "From a crime perspective it was good they closed it down. It was not a good place."

Some youths who belong to the "Sotel" gang--Sotel is a derivation of Sawtelle--lived at the apartments, he said.

But Smith, who runs a community outreach program for children, lamented the scattering of families. He said that about 75 children between the ages of 7 and 14 were forced to drop out of his program after Cozy Court shut down.

"It was kind of sad for the kids. I couldn't even get hold of them for the Christmas party. They've spread out too far away," he said.

"They were threatening to tear it down for years and (the families) were hoping they wouldn't do it. Then all of a sudden, they didn't know where they were going."

Effect on Area Unclear

It is not clear whether the demise of Cozy Court, and the scattering of its tenants, has made any dent in the number of Latino immigrants who look for work on the street corners of the Sawtelle area.

Authorities attribute any decline more to new immigration legislation that discourages the hiring of undocumented aliens than to the removal of the apartments that sheltered them.

Seventy people were arrested in a raid on area street corners in October in one of several periodic crackdowns.

A spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service said its agents do not monitor fluctuations in the numbers of immigrant workers on Sawtelle-area street corners. But they surmise that the number is declining.

"I suspect the numbers have decreased," said John Belluardo, a spokesman from the INS' Western regional office.

"A lot of the people congregating on street corners are finding it more difficult to find work. We expect that as they find it harder to make a living, they'll return to their home country."

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