Low-Income Apartments Herald New Age


Balloons and banners decorated the three newly built, low-income apartments at Villa Street and Raymond Avenue known as The Villa Parke Homes. Officials clustered outside, talking of tax-credit financing and corporate investors like Arco, the Chevron Corp., Transamerica Corp. and Levi Strauss & Co.

But inside, three women ignored the speeches. Faces beaming, they traipsed room-to-room, inspecting the apartments they would soon call home.

"We're just walking all over your carpet, girl," one woman joked to tenant Margie Crockett.

Sheila Heard, another tenant, became serious for a moment.

"I'm living with my sister and paying $300 for me and my two kids in one room," Heard said. "So, this is a blessing."

The victim of a stroke 1 1/2 years ago, Heard, 35, said her ill health halted her nursing career and forced her family to live on welfare payments of $580 a month. The move into the three-bedroom apartment--for which she'll pay $198 a month--symbolizes a new beginning for her.

It also symbolizes a new beginning for the city, which helped finance the nine units.

"It's a model for the kind of low-income housing we want to do in the future," said Bill Reynolds, director of Pasadena's Housing and Development Department, at the open-house celebration Monday.

The Villa Parke buildings were designed to resemble the architecture of the Craftsman-style homes in the neighborhood. They are a radical departure from the city's previous venture into low-income housing: the crime-plagued 313-unit Kings Village housing project in the northwest.

More small-scale housing projects like Villa Parke, that blend with the neighborhood, are planned. Yet, housing officials admit that providing low-income housing in Pasadena is like trying to fill the Arroyo Seco with teaspoonfuls of soil.

The city will need 1,466 low- and moderate-income housing units in the next five years, according to estimates by the Southern California Assn. of Governments. But the city's five-year, $13.2-million housing plan calls for only 665 units.

"Most jurisdictions don't pay much attention to (the association's estimates) because their estimates don't relate to the realities of the housing market," said Pasadena's Housing Administrator Leslie Lambert. "Most housing plans explain to the state why cities won't meet their goals."

Pasadena's explanation includes lack of vacant land in its urban environment, the high cost of land and construction and past moves by the Reagan Administration to end the flow of federal dollars to fund new, low-income housing construction.

But advocates of low-income housing say the explanation should include a history of ignoring low-income housing needs.

"For years, the city just kind of hid its head in the sand as far as low-income housing," said Saundra Knox, director of Neighborhood Housing Services. Instead of initiating projects, the city merely waited for developers to volunteer with housing, Knox said.

Some critics believe city officials followed a policy in the past of ignoring low-income housing needs in the northwest, where most of the city's minorities live, to preserve areas of low-cost land that could be developed into business parks, said community activist Don Wheeldin.

"There are some fears now, especially in the black community, that if the growth management initiative is overturned, businesses will move into the northwest where the land is cheapest and the people are most vulnerable," Wheeldin said.

The city's growth management initiative, passed by the voters in March, puts limits on new residential and commercial construction in the city for 10 years. It is being challenged in court by the Chamber of Commerce and other groups.

Wheeldin believes the city is still failing to meet its low-income housing responsibilities. But Knox said Pasadena has become more active in pursuing affordable housing, partly because of new state requirements.

And given the obstacles, housing administrator Lambert said the city has made significant progress in providing affordable housing.

"I think it's phenomenal what the city has provided in the last five years," she said.

A change in the state redevelopment law four years ago required Pasadena and other cities to spend 20% of redevelopment tax revenues on low-income housing.

Besides the nine new units, Pasadena has 515 low-income rental units. They include the 313 units at Kings Village along Fair Oaks Avenue, 150 units in the Concord Senior Housing Apartments at 275 E. Cordova St., and 52 units set aside in three separate apartment complexes totaling 260 units built by developer Tim Cantwell.

In addition, the city provided loans for 16 low-income buyers at the 80-unit Villa Marengo Townhouse Project in the 500 block of N. Marengo Avenue.

In the next five years, the city plans to oversee construction of 315 units and rehabilitation of 330 units of low- and moderate-income housing. Some of those projects include 144 units in the former YMCA building downtown, now being remodeled, 44 units in a proposed rehabilitation of the old police building and 19 units in three small, separate townhouse projects like Villa Parke.

The city also will work with Neighborhood Housing Services to provide $4.4 million in rehabilitation money, which includes city and federal dollars, to northwest residential property owners for rehabilitation. Part of the money is earmarked for development of the 15-block area there called the Lincoln Triangle.

Also essential to the city's progress, Knox said, has been Lambert.

"She opened up people's minds a little more," Knox said. "She contributed a lot in City Hall toward the awareness of the kinds of things that could be done."

Villa Parke Homes are an example of increasingly sophisticated financing methods used by housing advocates and city officials.

The city provided a $310,000 loan to the Los Angeles Community Design Center, one of more than 25 nonprofit corporations in Los Angeles that specialize in designing and operating low-income projects.

Integral to the project's construction was $560,000 provided by the California Equity Fund, another nonprofit corporation that sells tax credits from low-income housing projects to corporations seeking to reduce their tax bills.

The tax credits, available since the 1986 federal tax reform bill, have helped create more than 100,000 units of housing nationwide and 10,000 in California, said Anita Landecker, a California Equity spokeswoman. Generally, the tax credits provide about one-third of total project construction costs, she added.

"The only thing left now in terms of raising federal development money is tax credits," Lambert said, emphasizing their importance. Earlier this month, Congress reluctantly approved a one-year extension of the credits, which were supposed to expire this year, but not without cutting the amount available for the credits by 25%.

Housing advocates will have to lobby Congress next year for another extension, but Lambert won't be among them, at least, not on behalf of Pasadena. In January, she leaves her Pasadena post for a job with the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency.

In her five years with Pasadena, Lambert, who also serves as a Santa Monica Planning Commission member, said the city has made a turnaround in its commitment to low-income housing.

"Pasadena is every bit as progressive in housing as Santa Monica is," she said. But, she added, "You need an advocate in this position."

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