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Group Seeks to Build 132 Low-Cost Townhouses

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A nonprofit organization that wants to build housing for low-income families throughout Los Angeles County has proposed a $12-million, 132-unit gated condominium complex on the city’s eastern border.

Nehemiah West Housing Corp., a church-based development group, has asked city officials for $1 million to help build two-, three- and four-bedroom townhouses on the site of a vinyl manufacturing company and weed-covered field near Gage and Garfield avenues.

The townhouses would sell for just under $70,000, less than half the price of a comparable townhouse in Southern California and about $37,000 below the average cost of existing condominiums in this densely populated city, where the per capita income of residents is less than $6,000 a year.

Lou Negrete, vice president of Nehemiah West Housing Corp., said that in Los Angeles County the gap between the number of low-income families and available affordable housing widens every year.

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“This would make it possible for families who live in Bell Gardens to buy instead of rent,” Negrete said. “I envision a mother and father who have been working in a factory for 15 years. They can afford the $600 or $700 a month in rent, but they can’t save the money for a down payment on a house. They are stuck. These are the people who can take advantage of the opportunity to own their homes and share a part of the American dream.”

Though the City Council has yet to formally discuss the plan, city officials are enthusiastic.

The Nehemiah West project fits “exactly into the council’s overall goals,” City Manager Claude Booker said. “We want to increase the number of homes that our residents can afford. When people live in their homes, there is greater stability in the community, people take greater care of the property.”

According to 1990 Census figures, 77% of the people who live in Bell Gardens rent, a higher percentage than any other Southeast area city except Cudahy. City leaders have sought for several years to encourage homeownership. The city is now planning two housing developments, one of which is also a gated townhouse community affordable to low- and moderate-income wage earners.

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Nehemiah West has already signed a deal to purchase the land and wants the city to use $1 million of its redevelopment funds to help foot the bill. If the Bell Gardens project goes as planned, first-time buyers who earn up to $26,000 a year would be eligible to purchase the homes. Buyers will be asked to put down 5%, which they can borrow from a Nehemiah lender at a below-market interest rate. The monthly mortgage payment on a typical three-bedroom, two-bath townhouse with a private patio and garage would be about $635, according to the proposal given to the city.

The numbers are music to the ears of such longtime residents as 45-year-old Maria Ambriz, who has rented apartments in Bell Gardens for the last 15 years. She and six of her children now live in a three-bedroom house with a big dirt front yard not far from the proposed site of the Nehemiah West project. The rent is about $900 a month, which taxes the family budget. Her husband, Benjamin, earns about $320 a week.

“My parents think about having a home but they know they could never afford one,” said Ambriz’s 19-year-old daughter, Myra. “We pay too much rent now. We’re just making somebody else rich.”

City Council critics who have berated the council for not providing affordable housing to residents are unimpressed by the plan. Josefina Macias, a member of the committee that is now seeking the recall of four of the five council members, said she feared that crowding low-income families into a small area could eventually turn the complex into a slum.

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She also questioned why city officials would support a high-density housing plan when they are trying to reduce housing density in the city. “We’re talking about overcrowding, about putting families close together with little space,” Macias said. “Yes, I think our people want an opportunity to buy a home, but I don’t know if this is the answer.”

Booker said the proposed townhouses would be in an area zoned for high-density residential development. According to the proposal, Nehemiah plans to set aside about 25% of the 4.7 acres for open space.

Negrete disputed predictions that the project would eventually become a slum.

“These are not people who are going to let their property deteriorate,” he said. “They are people who have been working steady jobs, who already have some financial standing. It’s just that they are low-income.”

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“We could build 10 homes here and 10 homes there, but the concept of Nehemiah is to help form a community of homeowners. Together they will defend the quality of life in their neighborhood.”

Nehemiah West is modeled on the successful Nehemiah Homes of East Brooklyn, N.Y., where 1,700 similar homes were built and sold for $50,000 in the late 1980s.

In 1989, Negrete and other members of the church-based groups United Neighborhood Organization and the South-Central Organizing Committee went to New York to tour the Nehemiah project. Impressed with its success, Negrete said, they came back to Los Angeles convinced that they could build similar projects here. UNO and SCOC represent about 150,000 church families in east, southeast and South-Central Los Angeles. Members of UNO and SCOC make up the board of directors of Nehemiah West Housing Corp.

Though Nehemiah West has an impressive list of supporters, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and Mayor Tom Bradley, it has yet to get a housing project off the ground. Last summer, the group received initial approval from the Los Angeles City Council to build 316 townhouses in South-Central Los Angeles. The corporation is still acquiring the land, said Bill Chandler, a Bradley spokesman.

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In 1989, Nehemiah West proposed building 600 townhouses in Compton. Council members rebuffed the group, saying the land was targeted for commercial development. The council’s denial triggered a storm of protest, but city officials refused to back down and later sold the development rights to a truck company.

Nehemiah’s Negrete said that the corporation has still not given up on Compton and is searching for sites in other cities in the southeast. However, in as few as 12 months, Bell Gardens would be the home of the first Nehemiah West.

Negrete said the Los Angeles Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church has committed $3 million for the Nehemiah project and pledged to raise an additional $5 million from other churches in the Los Angeles area. The project’s organizers also are counting on a $2.75-million grant from the Century Freeway Housing Program, a state fund for replacing homes demolished for the freeway, and mortgage financing primarily through Great Western Bank.

The council is expected to hear a formal presentation from Nehemiah West Housing Corp. in September or October.

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