LITTLE TOKYO : Affordable Housing Complex Being Built

Construction has begun on Casa Heiwa, a $16-million, 100-unit affordable housing complex that represents another step by a community-based organization toward replacing housing demolished for commercial development.

The nonprofit developers of Casa Heiwa (Peace House) said it is the first modern, affordable family housing built in the historically Japanese neighborhood, which has had much of its housing replaced by commercial developments since the 1970s.

The six-story project, on Third Street between Los Angeles and San Pedro streets, includes single, two-bedroom, three-bedroom and four-bedroom units. The bottom floor will be used for a job-training program, a children's center, a basketball court and other social services.

Rents will range from $264 for a studio unit to $491 for a four-bedroom. About 40% of the single and one-bedroom units are designed for seniors and the developmentally disabled.

Construction is expected to take 15 months.

"There are people who would like to return to the community who only speak Japanese, but there is no housing," said Lisa Sugino, program director of the Little Tokyo Service Center's Community Development Corporation, the project's developers.

Sugino said a survey done by her organization also showed that many working in low-wage jobs at Downtown hotels or factories wanted to live closer to their work.

Before redevelopment in Little Tokyo began in 1970, Sugino said, residents of the area primarily lived in small apartment units or modest hotels. Much of that housing was replaced with commercial development, including several luxury hotels.

The Little Tokyo Service Center's Community Development Corp. raised $11 million from private organizations and obtained a $6.1-million loan from the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. The land, bought from the CRA, was the proposed site for luxury condominiums.

"I think the important thing to emphasize is the importance of housing to Downtown," said Gloria Uchida, project manager of the CRA's Little Tokyo Redevelopment Project. "People living down there use the services and support cultural activities."

The idea for the project came about when social workers from the Little Tokyo Service Center helped residents, many of them low-income, who were evicted from two buildings that were demolished in 1986 for a planned condominium and commercial development that was never built. At the time, there was no state law requiring developers to pay relocation costs to residents.

"We were the people that had to pick up the pieces and find new housing for all these people," Sugino said. "We realized there was no more housing in Little Tokyo for these people to move into. Their only alternative was possibly to move to Skid Row."

The two buildings, known as the Alan and Masago--which collectively provided 184 units of housing--is on the same block as Casa Heiwa.

One of the first projects by the Little Tokyo Service Center's Community Development Corp. was a 42-unit building for low-income tenants on San Pedro Street. The building was completed in 1991.

Other planned projects include the renovation of the Old Union Church at 120 N. San Pedro St. into an arts center, and the building of a group home for the disabled in Monterey Park.

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