‘I Need a Place of My Own’ : Santa Ana Program Helps Displaced Find Low-Cost Housing

Times Staff Writer

Ricardo Olivo and his family were in dire straits a few months ago when their landlord raised the rent on their dilapidated, three-bedroom Santa Ana house from $900 to an unmanageable $1,200.

The Olivos, a family of six, were on the verge of joining the ranks of impoverished Santa Ana families forced to share living quarters--or, if things got desperate, to live in their cars or on the streets.

But neither happened. Instead, the Olivos, who have three children in school, obtained a two-bedroom apartment on West Myrtle Street for $650 a month--thanks to the nonprofit Civic Center Barrio Housing Corp., a group formed by displaced residents a decade ago to provide families with low-cost housing in Santa Ana.

‘We Had No Place to Go’

“Thank God for them,” said Olivo, a custodian at a swimwear factory in Tustin. “We had to leave, and we had no place to go.”

The apartment is one of 58 units in Santa Ana that Civic Center Barrio owns or helped develop. Although that number may not make a huge dent in the crunch in low-cost housing in central Orange County, the group has had a powerful impact on the lives of dozens of Santa Ana residents.


Take the case of Herman, who lived on the streets for 3 years before he got a room in a five-bedroom house that the corporation owns in east Santa Ana. He says he would still be on the streets without Civic Center Barrio’s help.

“They picked me up,” says Herman, 60, who declined to give his last name. He now works part time for the corporation, helping take care of the properties, and pays $225 a month for his room. “I think that if a corporation like this existed in every city in the U.S., there wouldn’t be so many people out there on the streets.”

There are corporations like Civic Center Barrio in other California cities--mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area--and their number in Los Angeles County is growing.

But in Orange County, Civic Center Barrio remains unique.

Community Group Turns Developer

“This is a community-based group that became a housing developer,” said Helen Brown, executive director of Civic Center Barrio. The only other nonprofit housing developer in the county, the Orange County Community Housing Corp., has built about 80 inexpensive apartment units countywide, but without the kind of input from low-income residents that characterizes Civic Center Barrio.

Patricia Whitaker, who manages the city of Santa Ana’s housing programs, said groups like Civic Center Barrio are badly needed.

“They are successful,” Whitaker said. “They have really persevered to create a large number of affordable units.”

Still, Santa Ana suffers from a severe shortage of low-income rental housing.

The city provides assistance, through federal housing subsidy programs, to about 1,500 families--but it also has a growing waiting list of 3,000 more families. Funding for the programs has remained flat the last few years, yet the population has grown, Whitaker said.

Federal spending on Housing and Urban Development programs increased only marginally during the last eight years. HUD officials say outlays have increased from $14 billion in 1981 to $18.6 billion in 1988.

Separate studies have shown that California has the worst rental-affordability problem in America, with a bigger shortage of low-priced apartments than any other state, according to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

Some people may have to wait five or six years under one of the programs, Whitaker said. “There’s no turnover.”

Started in Mid-1970s

Civic Center Barrio Housing Corp. was born out of the destruction of a neighborhood of low-income housing in Santa Ana in the mid-1970s.

The city was just embarking on its ambitious campaign to redevelop the downtown area, and one of its first targets was the dilapidated neighborhood along 3rd Street between Ross and Flower streets--home to about 300 families, most of them Latino.

City Manager David N. Ream, who was then head of the city’s redevelopment agency, called it “probably the worst residential blight in Orange County.”

The city’s plans called for the houses in Civic Center Barrio, as the neighborhood came to be known, to be razed and replaced by a 316-unit apartment complex. But barrio residents, aided by community organizers and the Western Center on Law and Poverty, protested. So the city agreed to improve its relocation benefits and promised to set aside and subsidize 58 of the new apartments for low-income tenants.

But in 1979, project developers decided that it would be more profitable if the new apartment units were sold as condominiums, leaving the low-income tenants out of the picture. The city agreed. A lawsuit followed, and the following year the developers agreed to pay Civic Center Barrio Housing Corp.--which the residents had voted to form that year to represent their interests--$1.4 million in lieu of the 58 low-income units they had promised to build.

“Those (families) could have taken the money . . . and split it up,” Brown said. Instead, the money gave Civic Center Barrio the means to do something concrete with its political muscle, she said. “All of a sudden, we were no longer just a community organization.”

Apartments Acquired

With the money, the corporation set out to replace the stock of low-income housing that had been lost in the redevelopment project. A 12-unit project was bought and renovated on Raitt Street. Eight more existing apartments, including some four- and five-bedroom units that could comfortably house some of the corporation’s large families, were bought on West Washington Street.

And the corporation kept building up its housing stock incrementally. In 1984, it completed an attention-getting project in west Santa Ana in which 20 prospective condominium owners gained “sweat equity” by working nights and weekends to build their own units.

“It was very hard; don’t get me wrong,” Oscar Tovar, one of the condo owners, said recently. “But it gives me such a sense of responsibility. . . . I just can’t sell it.” Brown, who came into contact with the corporation as a county social service worker in the late 1970s, has led Civic Center Barrio to firmer financial ground since taking over as director in 1986.

“Nonprofit doesn’t mean you’re stupid and don’t make a profit,” Brown said. “Nonprofit means you don’t pay taxes.”

Brown seems to be more comfortable on the streets of Santa Ana’s west side, talking in broken Spanish with longtime residents or jiving with the area homeless, than she is at a board meeting or City Council session.

Firsthand Familiarity

And it is her firsthand familiarity with Santa Ana’s problems that has enabled her to emerge with legitimacy as one of the city’s most outspoken advocates for the homeless. Her argument is that self-managed, low-cost housing is the only long-term solution to homelessness.

“Homelessness is a situation where there’s a lack of affordable housing,” Brown said. “We do affordable housing.”

Several of the corporation’s tenants were homeless before being given a chance to rent a room or apartment in a Civic Center Barrio project. In some cases, Brown lets new tenants work for the corporation to pay part of the rent until they can find jobs.

“There’s always something that needs doing,” she said. And giving people a stake in how their projects are run gives them something to be proud of.

“Given quality housing and an opportunity to learn, I believe people will come up with solutions far better than what people outside the neighborhood can do,” Brown said.

Participation Is Key

Condominium owner Tovar agrees that the participation of residents is the key to the corporation’s success.

“We’re not a charity organization,” said Tovar, one of six low-income residents on the corporation’s board of directors. “It’s helping people help themselves. Once people get their break, it’s up to them if they can keep going.”

Tovar, an immigrant from Mexicali who works at a Lucky supermarket distribution center, said he was unsure of himself when first asked to serve on the corporation’s board. “I thought, ‘What could they want me for? What could I do for them?’ ”

But Tovar agreed to join, and today he stands alongside Brown in her ongoing battle with the city for more housing funds.

Said Tovar: “I love the program. . . . I am proud to the max.”

Today, the corporation has a six-unit project under construction and has plans to start another owner-built condominium project. It is also trying to build a housing complex for the elderly but so far has been unable to secure the financing.

$300,000 Requested

Brown has asked the city to allocate $300,000 of next year’s Community Development Block Grant funds to the project.

“The city subsidizes big developers with public-works projects all the time,” Brown said. “If they could do the same thing proportionately for us, that might make or break . . . the project.”

Annie Holloway is typical of the tenants the project would help. Holloway, 85, lives with her sister, Louise Killebrew, in one room of a house on 2nd Street next to the planned housing for the elderly.

The sisters pay $200 monthly rent for the room. Holloway said they cannot afford an apartment at market rates, but they can manage the $300 that Brown estimates a unit in the new project might cost.

“I’m praying to get one,” said Holloway, who is on Civic Center Barrio’s list for the project. She has rented rooms in Santa Ana houses for years, she said, but is not fond of it.

Holloway would like nothing better than to live out her life with her sister in one of the new apartments for the elderly. “I think I need a place of my own.”