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New Strategy Urged Against Urban Blight

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an impassioned letter to Mayor Richard Riordan, Los Angeles housing czar Gary Squier has called for a major shift in the way the city attacks blight and decay in its poorest neighborhoods.

Squier, who in January returned from a seven-month stint working for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said Los Angeles faces a grim future unless it develops a long-term, citywide recovery plan.

Current city policy, Squier said, is too focused on limited, short-term goals. He was also critical of a long-standing strategy to pump millions of dollars into model housing projects, while allowing the neighborhoods around these “diamonds in the desert” to languish in decay.

“Los Angeles has an appetite for placing high-cost projects that use a majority of our scarce funds in the middle of declining neighborhoods,” Squier wrote. Such projects, he said, “consume resources needed to improve the neighborhoods in which they are located.”

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Squier runs the city Housing Department, which oversees the development and preservation of affordable housing. His letter to Riordan, dated Jan. 27, was released Thursday.

The housing director said he felt compelled to make the recommendations after touring about 100 housing projects across the United States while on leave from his city job.

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Assigned by HUD to restructure its financing program for project housing, Squier visited decaying projects in New Haven, Conn., Newark, N.J., St. Louis and elsewhere.

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His visits led him to conclude that Los Angeles was perhaps a decade away from creating the kind of “uninhabitable,” ghost town neighborhoods that can be found in the core of America’s most blighted cities.

“Now is the time for Los Angeles to make the right decision about inner-city neighborhoods so that we don’t go down the path of St. Louis or New Haven,” Squier said Friday. “We aren’t hopeless in Los Angeles. But if we don’t keep pushing, then we’re going to start losing the battle.”

Central to Los Angeles’ recovery, Squier said, is multi-agency cooperation on a citywide strategy.

“Rather than smaller initiatives, one or two neighborhoods at a time, let’s look at the bigger picture,” Squier said.

Toward that end, Squier called in his letter for an “early detection” program that would annually assess the condition of “distressed neighborhoods” with data from the Department of Water and Power, the county assessor, police and other agencies.

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Squier also called for improved code enforcement and was sharply critical of the city Department of Building and Safety. The department has placed a greater emphasis on inspecting new properties, he said, because such properties generate more fees for the department.

Low-income housing is thus subject to less inspection. “The result is a de facto city support for owners who rent dangerously substandard housing to lower income families and seniors,” Squier wrote. “Incredibly, Los Angeles today deploys only 77 inspectors to enforce codes in 1.2 million housing units.”

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Among the neighborhoods most in danger, Squier said in an interview, are Pico-Union, North Hills in the San Fernando Valley and the community around Belmont High School west of downtown.

Also in danger is the stretch of South-Central east of Vermont Avenue between 76th Street and Manchester Avenue.

“We’re talking about 20 to 30 neighborhoods that really need resuscitation at this point,” Squier said.

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Most of these neighborhoods also contain hundreds of illegal dwellings, such as converted garages. Squier said the city should tackle the problem, which has festered for much of the last two decades.

Five children were killed in December when they were trapped by a fire that engulfed the converted garage in Watts where they were sleeping.

Squier wrote that the city should made a “difficult policy decision” and either shut down the illegal units or “put in place a program that establishes health and safety standards for illegal units” to protect the safety of their occupants.

“Indecision will result in more deaths and the spread of ramshackle shanty conditions in the heart of our neighborhoods,” Squier wrote.

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