CITY SMART / How to thrive in the urban environment of Southern California : Crackerjack Idea, Disastrous Results : Once touted as the answer to affordable housing, ‘crackerbox’ apartment buildings have become a blight in Long Beach.
In this once-tranquil, blue-collar neighborhood near downtown Long Beach, the residents call them the “crackerboxes.”
And when they utter the word, there is a note of disdain in their voices.
They are talking about the apartment buildings that were hastily put up a decade ago when the city’s economy was booming and developers were hammering together buildings as fast as they could buy the land.
Now, many of these apartment complexes have become a blight on the city, particularly in this neighborhood just blocks from the beach where more than 300 Southern California bungalows were razed to make way for new construction. Crackerboxes went up elsewhere in the city, but the major concentration was in this neighborhood bounded by 4th and Anaheim streets to the north and south, and Alamitos and Redondo avenues to the east and west.
There is at least one crackerbox in almost every block, sometimes two or three. They have become a breeding ground for crime, though in the beginning they were seen as the city’s answer to the need for affordable housing. A decade has made all the difference.
Long Beach City Councilman Alan Lowenthal pulled his car over to the curb in front of one particularly egregious example of disrepair.
“It’s like a cancer,” he said. “Unless you watch it all the time, one building can ruin a block.”
Lowenthal, whose district encompasses most of this neighborhood, is incensed about these apartment buildings, most of them built on narrow lots that used to contain a single home. In the decade since they have gone up, drug activity and crime have increased as the apartments have gone steadily downhill.
And many residents now feel hostage in their own neighborhood, where sundown means it’s time to go inside.
“I won’t even let my wife water the lawn after it gets dark,” said Art Borges, a retired Sears & Roebuck employee who moved here in 1956. “The thing that gets me is that here we are, private citizens who pay our taxes, and after 6 o’clock I can’t go out.”
Down the way from Borges is Mike Kuhn, who bought a house with his then-wife in 1985, only to find a crackerbox going up next door six months later. It was not long afterward that drug dealers moved in.
“It’s not a very nice place to live anymore,” he said.
The story of how this all happened is somewhat complex, but it is mostly a product of the times in which development--any kind of development--was king, not only in Long Beach but the rest of Southern California.
Bob Paternoster, who was then the city’s planning director, remembers the early ‘80s as a time when real estate prices were skyrocketing, interest rates were out of sight and the lack of affordable housing was a very serious problem.
As a remedy, zoning laws were changed to make room for affordable apartment complexes. Unfortunately, said Paternoster, developers found a loophole in the zoning ordinances and devised a way to put eight- and 10-unit complexes on a single lot--legally.
Soon, that kind of apartment was going up all over the area. Developers were paying top dollar for bungalows, tearing them down and putting up apartment buildings that were being sold to investors for $800,000 to $1 million.
“They were paying $20,000 more than the house was worth and it didn’t matter because they were going to put up a building with eight units,” he said. “It’s been disastrous.”
At City Hall, there was talk of a moratorium on the apartment construction. Developers and builders raced to get their building permits before one was imposed.
“That week, we got more [building-permit] applications than I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Paternoster, who is heading the multimillion dollar Queensway Bay project to develop the city’s waterfront.
A decade later, the subject of the crackerbox development is still a major topic of discussion and recrimination. Lowenthal, for one, believes their construction may have been the single worst decision ever made by the city.
“It destroyed the whole fabric of the community,” he said.
While fingers are pointed in various directions when blame is being discussed--including some at Paternoster--no one is arguing about the sequence of events after the apartments were built.
What at the time seemed like a very good investment turned into a very bad one as property values began to drop. The rental market became extremely competitive and a $750-a-month apartment was soon going for $500. Many landlords, desperate to keep afloat, stopped screening new tenants and slashed maintenance costs, Lowenthal said.
When property values sank so low that the crackerboxes were worth as little as one-third of their top value, many owners simply abandoned them and banks foreclosed on the property, he added.
At the same time, crime was mounting, the alleys were filling with trash and the streets were crowded with cars because the population in this area increased by an estimated 60%. Drug dealers and gang activity became a part of the landscape to a point where parents kept their children indoors.
“We’re literally in a war zone,” said Borges. “But it’s not really a war here because a war has two sides. Here, there is only one side.”
What will happen to the neighborhood remains in doubt. But there are several programs designed to reduce crime.
A storefront police office has been set up and volunteers clean up alleys each week, picking up old appliances and furniture that have been discarded. At the same time, they paint over graffiti.
An organization known as Safe Streets Now has a policy of taking landlords to small claims court when laws are being broken on their property. In two other programs, Apartment Watch and Business Watch, property owners give police permission to question anyone loitering on their premises.
A city advisory committee is looking into alternative uses for the crackerboxes, such as housing for senior citizens. But so far, no real suitable use has been found.
“You can’t reverse this kind of thing overnight,” said City Councilman Tom Clark, who has a number of the unwanted apartments in his district as well.