The detailed architectural drawings and optimistic pronouncements of the city Housing Authority promise a new future for Los Angeles' largest public housing project, a collection of fading apartments infamous as one of the city's toughest and most violent neighborhoods.
After the rubble of Pico-Aliso in Boyle Heights is carted away, a new Pico-Aliso will rise and a "mixed community" of homeowners, renters and senior citizens will be established. No longer will Pico-Aliso be a series of overcrowded tenements for the poor.
What has been less said--and what is an underlying premise of the Housing Authority plan--is that not all of the 543 families living in Pico-Aliso will have homes in this new, lower-density community. About 150 fewer units are being constructed than are being destroyed.
Demanding guarantees that they will be able to move into the new Pico-Aliso soon after it is completed, 65 families in the projects have refused to cooperate with Housing Authority efforts to relocate them during construction.
"They've lied to us," said Manuela Lomeli, a 20-year resident of the projects. "Where are they going to put everyone who wants to come back? They can't."
For months now, the dissenting residents have organized a persistent resistance to the government plan. They speak of their love for and ties to a dilapidated and dangerous neighborhood that so many others disdain.
"My children were born and raised here," said Lomeli, the mother of two teenagers. "Even though they say this is a bad area, it hasn't affected us. I want to live in my community. I love my community. There's a communication between people here, they care about each other."
Still, Lomeli and her fellow protesters don't dispute that the new Pico-Aliso will be a better place to live. A $50-million federal grant will help create a park and a child-care center. The old brick buildings will be replaced with townhouse-style apartments. There will also be 81 single-family homes clustered around landscaped courtyards, along with 60 units that will be reserved for senior citizens.
The project is scheduled for completion in December 1999.
Xavier Mendoza, the Housing Authority official overseeing the redevelopment, says it "gives us an opportunity to deal with the problem, which is too many people in one place, in a very high density, in old buildings arranged like barracks."
Despite the numbers gap, Housing Authority officials insist that no current resident will be denied a home in the new Pico-Aliso. Their relocation plan assumes that a large number of the current residents will leave voluntarily.
About 120 residents have agreed to leave the projects on a temporary basis under the condition that they can return when the construction is completed, officials said. Vouchers issued under the federal government's Section 8 subsidized housing program will pay their rent in the private sector. Housing Authority spokesman George McQuade said he believes a large number of these residents will eventually change their minds and decide they do not want to return to Pico-Aliso.
"Research shows that when they go out to those areas [with Section 8 assistance], they don't come back" to housing projects, McQuade said. "They like the lifestyle, they make new friends."
The dissenting residents dispute this argument. If the new Pico-Aliso is anything like the model neighborhood officials are promising, the residents say, everyone will want to come back.
"It's not that we want to stay living the way we are," said Carmen Mendoza, who raised three children in her two-bedroom apartment. "After 16 years of living in an old apartment, I'd like a new one. We just want there to be more houses, houses for everyone. We want [the Housing Authority] to guarantee houses for everyone, in writing, but they won't do that."
Officials say they will give residents a guarantee, provided they agree to be temporarily relocated. Those tenants who do sign "transfer amendments" to their leases--authorizing the Housing Authority to temporarily move them out of Pico-Aliso--are given a "Certificate of Guaranteed Return."
Housing Authority officials acknowledge, however, that the guarantee may entail being placed on a long waiting list for an open apartment if, as expected, the new Pico-Aliso is filled to capacity.
Last week, residents were told that if they did not sign the transfer amendment by 3 p.m. Friday they would not be eligible to live in the new Pico-Aliso project. Officials said similar ultimatums had been issued twice before.
By Friday's deadline, 65 families had still refused to sign, officials said.
Earlier in the week, about 30 protesters held a meeting at a home on Gless Street, just across the street from the projects. On a muggy night, the men and women crowded into a narrow living room, spilling onto the porch outside as they asked questions of attorney David Etezadi of the California Mutual Housing Assn., who has agreed to represent them.
"The Constitution gives you the right to due process," Etezadi said, mixing English and Spanish terms. "Un procimiento justo."
Two residents provided simultaneous translation for the handful of English speakers present.
"I know a lot of people are afraid," said Elaine Diskand, 54. "They said if we don't sign this, they're going to give us 90 days to move out. I think that's horrible, that's an outrage. I'm going to start crying. If they kick us out of here, I'll be homeless."