Building Dreams : Church and Synagogue Join to Develop a Housing Project for Low-Income Families

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The idea of living in a three-bedroom apartment without rats or roaches is almost enough to make Franklin and Veronica Perez view Casa Carondelet as the Taj Mahal.

"We need a lot of room right now," Franklin Perez said, rubbing his pregnant wife's shoulder as their two daughters sipped orange juice. "This is a boon to us."

Casa Carondelet is no ordinary low-income housing project. For one thing, it's in a safe neighborhood and will be rat-free, its Westside developers pledge. And they are not the usual corporate real estate investors--the people behind this project are the members of the University Synagogue in Brentwood and the Parish of St. Matthews in Pacific Palisades.

They have joined forces with city and a nonprofit agency to develop the 18-unit complex near MacArthur Park. It is expected to open this spring, and the congregation members say they will stay in touch with the residents of the building after it opens.

"This is not some abstraction about do-gooders and some brick and mortar," said Toni Reinis, a member of Church and Synagogue Associates, the organization started by the two congregations. "It's about breaking down barriers, human to human. We want to get to know the people who live (at the complex). We want one community in Los Angeles."

The Perez family has applied for an apartment, and is grateful for the chance to move out of their one-bedroom, Mid-Wilshire apartment into a larger place at a lower rent.

"I'm very glad they're around," Franklin Perez said of the CASA members. "They make it possible for people like us to get a better life."

The dream of building Casa Carondolet had its genesis at a UCLA ecumenical meeting five years ago, where Episcopalian and Reform Jewish leaders urged congregations to come together and help provide quality housing for low-income families.

At least two people took up the challenge. Joe Steinberg, 73, a retired businessman, and John Riley, 48, UCLA economics department chairman, agreed to unite their congregations in CASA, and were made co-chairs of the effort.

Appeals were made, and donations started coming in--$30,000 from the congregations and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of free hours from lawyers, planners and other professionals.

The group was daunted at first as they faced developers, city bureaucracy, neighborhood sensitivity, scam artists and the Internal Revenue Service. And then they found Tanya Tull, executive director of the nonprofit group Beyond Shelter, which helped guide CASA through a maze of bureaucratic red tape.

Beyond Shelter develops affordable housing and advises residents on such matters as how to manage money and find child care. The organization has 300 units in development across Los Angeles.

Beyond Shelter and CASA managed to make Casa Carondelet a reality with loans from the Community Redevelopment Agency and Bank of America for $1.2 million and $2.7 million, respectively. Monthly rents are to range from $378 for a one-bedroom apartment to $574 for a three-bedroom unit.

Before he took up a shovel to participate in the groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday, Steinberg recalled that his father, an immigrant who did not speak English, got his start in the United States digging ditches. Steinberg credited his father's ability to get ahead to his work ethic and to an "accepting employer." He said he hopes CASA can play a similar role in the lives of Casa Carondelet tenants to the one that employer played in his father's life.

CASA is committed to developing more affordable housing. Construction will start soon at another site in South-Central Los Angeles.

Times staff writer Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this story.

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