Betty Shaheed remembers the day her husband suggested that they look at a new subdivision taking shape in Compton.
She was feeling particularly low. She and her husband, Hakeem, a postal worker, longed to flee the increasingly mean streets of central Los Angeles. But they had just lost a chance to buy their first house in a nicer neighborhood after a bank appraiser decided that the house was overpriced.
"When he said Compton, I said, 'Oh, no!' " she recalled.
Now, about two years later, Betty Shaheed is settled in a four-bedroom tract house in the heart of Compton, proudly showing off the fuchsia blooming at her front door, the Levelor blinds in the kitchen and the new Encyclopaedia Britannica lining her bookcase.
"This house is more peace than I've ever known," she said.
The Shaheeds are among 300 families who, ignoring Compton's reputation for crime and drug trafficking, have bought houses in Sunny Cove, a centrally located subdivision that offers new houses at bargain prices.
A four-bedroom, three-bath home in Sunny Cove costs $114,000. The median price of a home in Southern California is $170,457.
"Come here, let me show you something," Betty Shaheed said, rushing to the sliding-glass door. "I've got tomato trees, and that's a grapevine right there. And I'm going to put some more in, and I've got to get the grass growing back here."
Her back yard, she said, would be as filled with flowers as the front if she were home every day. But she works part time now.
"When I moved out here, I didn't work," she said. "But now, I want so many pretty things, it makes you work."
Sunny Cove, which replaced one of the worst slums in Los Angeles County, was built by a private developer with the aid of state housing finance bonds and a city loan. It is populated largely by black and Latino families, many headed by police officers, firefighters and teachers.
"The people out here are middle-class people," Betty Shaheed said. "They're trying to have something, you know . . . we're all trying, just to have something and live in peace."
Lionel LeDuff Jr., another original Sunny Cove buyer, said: "The . . . people we have living in Sunny Cove are working people with very good jobs. We have a lot of policemen, firemen, attorneys and professional people.
"When you talk about the city of Compton, this is the only area that has a concentration of professional people. . . . We've got white neighbors, Filipinos, Hispanics and, of course, blacks. We have a pretty good mixed neighborhood."
LeDuff directs McDonnell Douglas' equal employment opportunity programs in El Segundo. His wife, Donna, is a counselor at Long Beach City College. They have two daughters, ages 6 and 3.
House Cost $89,000
They were negotiating for a house in Carson three years ago when Donna LeDuff's father told them to look at the new development that he found in Compton. The Carson house had three bedrooms, 1 1/2 baths and cost $165,000. In Sunny Cove, they bought a four-bedroom, three-bath house for $89,000.
The couple came close at one point to buying in Ontario. "What I did was take my wife out there," he said. "We got caught in traffic coming back, and I cured her of wanting to live out there."
The Shaheeds considered buying as far away as Walnut, but also were discouraged by the lengthy commute and the housing prices. Their home, the same model as the LeDuff's, cost $91,500 when they bought it 2 1/2 years ago.
Today, the same model is selling for $114,000. But the Federal Housing Administration is lending up to $101,250, which would allow purchases in Sunny Cove with relatively small down payments.
Compton also is one of two local governments in Southern California to take advantage of a federal program that gives tax credits to new home buyers in redevelopment areas.
'Too Good to Be True'
Willie Anderson, 26, a self-employed plumber, and his wife, Tammy, 25, an employee of Southern California Gas Co., rented in Inglewood before they discovered Sunny Cove.
He said he might have been able to buy a two-bedroom, one-bath house in Inglewood for $100,000. "And when we came and looked at these for $96,000, . . . it was like too good to be true," he said.
The young couple bought a four-bedroom model on Grape Avenue last year, with about $11,000 for a down payment and closing costs.
Anderson concedes that he was concerned about the city's reputation of high crime rates. (There have been 39 murders in Compton so far this year.) "But . . . once you drive in here, you're like not even in Compton anymore," he said.
As with many housing tracts, there is a wall around Sunny Cove. There are only two entrances.
Near the two entries, there are indications that some of the initial buyers were wary of the city's high crime rate. Protective grilles cover windows on a few of the houses. As the streets wind deeper into the rows of two-story stucco homes off Wilmington Avenue, the grilles that are common on every other Compton street disappear.
Sunny Cove is just a street away from two low-income housing projects, one of them a known hangout for drug pushers, but the subdivision is like an oasis to residents who moved in from other parts of Compton.
"Where we lived before, there was drug-trafficking right up the street from us," William Sweet said.
Sweet, a paramedic for a private ambulance company, and his wife, Patricia, a secretary for a Long Beach advertising agency, have three children from previous marriages. They thought about buying a home in another city.
"We thought we'd give this a try," said Sweet, 30. "And since we moved over here, it's very quiet. . . . You can jog at night or ride your bike and nobody bothers you."
Commitment to City
He and his wife, who grew up in Compton, felt a commitment to the city in which their parents still live and where they are active in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Sweet said.
Occasionally, he said, he has driven through Sunny Cove in the ambulance to show his crews where he lives.
"They're just totally shocked at how nice it is and quiet it is," he said. "It's like a different world."
A marriage of convenience produced Sunny Cove, which will number 410 houses when it is completed this year and feature its own city park and police substation. Compton, devastated by middle-class flight that began with the 1965 Watts riots, suffers from the ills of inner cities. Twenty-five percent of its population is on welfare, and much of its housing stock is deteriorated.
City officials, determined to redevelop a city that was once the pride of middle-class blacks, approached William T. Dawson and his wife, Sonia (Sunny) Sonju, owners of AFCOM, a Seal Beach development company whose name stands for "Affordable Communities."
"We are evangelistic about providing housing that nobody else will build," said Dawson. He's chairman of AFCOM; his wife is president. The couple also owns Sonju Construction Co., which built Sunny Cove, the only new development of single-family houses in Compton in years.
AFCOM and the city conceived plans to replace Park Village with single-family housing. Once an all-white housing cooperative, the 63-acre Park Village ultimately fell into the hands of an absentee landlord--an insurance corporation--and became a notorious slum.
The city declared the area blighted, bought it for about $500,000 and resold it to Dawson for about the same price. Renters were slowly relocated to a section of apartment buildings in the village that Dawson bought, renovated and now operates with federal rental subsidies.
For the first wave of Sunny Cove buyers, $22 million worth of state housing bonds allowed AFCOM to offer mortgage rates lower than the prevailing rates. Dawson had to put up $1.1 million in cash for the bonds. He persuaded the city to lend him the money.
Dawson has been criticized for filling the campaign coffers of some of Compton's elected officials--to the tune of more than $30,000 in two years.
Some two-bedroom houses were included in the first building phase, said Glenn Traylor, subdivision sales manager, but it quickly became clear that the development was going to be family-oriented. As a result, only three- and four-bedroom homes were built in the next phases, he said.
Dawson has been "diligent" in paying back his loans with interest, said Cynthia Coleman, a housing and redevelopment specialist who oversees the Sunny Cove project for the city.
"Everything he's committed to do, he's done," she said.
Even one of Dawson's early critics, Councilman Maxcy C. Filer, is happy with the results in Sunny Cove.
Filer voted against the development plans and still believes that the houses, on 3,200-square-foot lots, are too close together.
But, Filer said, the development "has been a stabilizing influence for the community."
A Compton teacher who bought one of the first Sunny Cove houses said he believes that the future of Sunny Cove and its ability to revive Compton's middle-class roots depend on the ability of its problem-plagued school district to attract children of working, middle-class parents. The teacher asked not to be identified.
Sweet, the ambulance driver, sends his children to church schools. LeDuff plans to do the same, explaining that he is Catholic and would send them to parochial schools even if he did not live in Compton.
"I've talked to a number of neighbors," LeDuff said, "and they've all said that rather than depend on the public schools, they are going to put their kids in private school."
Many of Sunny Cove's buyers do not have children, LeDuff said.
The Compton teacher is optimistic about future prospects for increased public school enrollment, however.
"Compton is one of the last frontiers in terms of housing," he said. "My feeling is that it's going to have to come back" because of the escalating housing prices in surrounding cities.