Barrio Corp. Turns Dreams Into O.C. Homes


Two decades ago, the sharp teeth of a bulldozer swallowed the wood-frame homes of a Santa Ana barrio, forcing the exodus of hundreds of Mexican immigrant families who banded together in crisis and made el sueno imposible , the impossible dream, a reality.

Even now many of these families can't quite believe that poor factory workers forced out of a downtown neighborhood to make way for pricey pools and condos could unleash their own bulldozers.

In the early years, they pooled their money from city relocation checks and a legal settlement fund to create Civic Center Barrio Corp., a nonprofit housing group with the humble goal of rehabilitating or building a few dozen apartments each year. But in the last five years the steady rumble of a bulldozer has turned into an ear-splitting roar.

The Santa Ana-based Civic Center Barrio and its partners are cutting a relentless swath across the state, building affordable apartments and a day-care center in the border town of Chula Vista, pushing north with apartment complexes and swimming pools in Palmdale, remodeling apartments in Costa Mesa and launching developments in the San Francisco Bay Area and the upper reaches of Northern California in Butte County.

Today: real estate and land deals, vows the corporation's director, Helen Brown, a blunt-spoken former welfare case worker who presides over corporate headquarters in her power dress of faded jeans, air-brushed T-shirt and a crumpled pack of Kools.

Tomorrow: taquerias and tortilla factories, strawberry fields and landscaping firms, fitness centers and auto body shops, Brown said.

It is, after all, a housing organization that pursued the impossible dream, and it has managed to parlay its organizing skills and unconventional formulas into a $5-million organization with partnerships and interests in more than 1,200 apartments and houses across the state. With the backing of a 4-year-old consortium of the state's largest banks--the California Community Reinvestment Corp.--the Santa Ana group has become the biggest beneficiary of the consortium's loans, receiving more than $18 million targeted for low-income housing.

This infusion of money and support figured in the burst of growth of the corporation, which by 1989 had only built or helped develop about 58 apartments and houses.

"We believed in them early on while other people thought they were taking a risk with them," said Dan Lopez, the president and chief executive officer of the bank consortium. "They had the right formula, although a lot of lenders in general weren't really sure about their ideas."

Despite some misgivings about Civic Center Barrio's style, the bankers decided that they needed organizers more comfortable with work boots than pin stripes.

Civic Center Barrio's corporate office is a spare two-story complex in Santa Ana. Inside, Brown presides over a staff of seven employees who consider her a "kind and gentle boss," but so thrifty that correction fluid is considered a precious office commodity.

Her board of directors includes a recreation supervisor, an office worker and part-time factory worker Ricarda Gonzalez, who communicates with Brown in their own unique language of English, Spanish and much gesturing. Some of the directors and employees, like administrative aide Lydia Casamina, not only work for the corporation but also call its apartments home.

"If it wasn't for Civic Center Barrio, I would not be the person I (am) today," said Casamina, whose mother-in-law, Jennie Casamina, was one of the founding members of the corporation. "I never finished high school, so I always felt like I wasn't smart enough, that I wasn't going to be nobody. Now I have a position. We have a budget."

For Ricarda Gonzalez, the corporation's low rent has made it possible for her to afford a spotless, three-bedroom Santa Ana apartment with new curtains, carpets, stove and freshly painted walls on a factory worker's wage.

"I never pictured that this could happen," she said from her kitchen table. She was not just talking about her own apartment.

The roots of Civic Center Barrio are in the soil of a 14-acre downtown section two blocks from City Hall, the former neighborhood of nearly 400 families and renters who were displaced by a 1977 redevelopment project. In the protests and the lawsuits that followed, the developers agreed to pay $1.4 million to Civic Center Barrio in lieu of 58 low-income apartments that they had promised to build. Some of the dislocated families also contributed their city relocation checks that amounted to about $9,600 each.

But just as important as the money were the street-level organizing techniques that they mastered in the 1970s, applied to their tenants, and later started touting as savvy business strategy.

Their formula is to form tenant associations with unorthodox powers and rights that range from interviewing potential tenants to engineering evictions of troublesome residents. Their goal is to promote stability; instead of treating residents like tenants, they say they try to respect them like homeowners.

"This power structure doesn't make a lot of sense to good business-minded people," Brown conceded. "But our philosophy is that power should be vested in the residents that we serve."

Some landlords are drawn to the idea because it may reduce the costly turnover of tenants and the expense of refurbishing vacant apartments. The theory is that tenants who have a stake in their developments will not move. But landlords are also leery of the notion because residents may also learn to challenge authority.

"There's a great big suspicion about the social mission," said Michael Heaman, a developer who worked with Civic Center Barrio and heads Affordable Housing Group Inc. in Sacramento. "Maybe in conventional times (landlords) can feel that way, but if they're going to survive, they're going to have to address turnover."

Heaman, who has worked on joint projects with Civic Center Barrio in Palmdale, Salinas and Santa Maria, said tenant groups have worked together to install speed bumps, launch Neighborhood Watches and quell drug dealing.

They also have had their share of wackier ideas, he said, such as opening the community pool for use at 3 a.m. In that case, the landlord exercised veto rights.

"So much of that kind of thing sounds like small potatoes, but it's really how you get people empowered," Heaman said. "Once they have a vested interest in their homes, then they try to keep interlopers out, they try to reduce crime."

Eventually, Civic Center Barrio may try to apply the same grass-roots organizing approach and its resources to budding businesses, such as restaurants or landscaping firms. In the planning stage is a proposal to launch a property management company that would take care of their real estate.

When they reach that point, said Brown, their pool of potential employees is obvious: the tenants.

"I really believe that the strength of our organization is our residents," Brown said. "Without their participation we couldn't have come so far."

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