They Have Simple Hopes for a Complex Problem

Share via

Far from the cul-de-sacs of Orange County’s planned communities, the 1980s real estate boom left another, very different legacy: a ghetto of high-density apartments in central Santa Ana that has become a magnet for poor immigrants and violent gangs.

A place where three families routinely crowd into two-bedroom units. Where children are yanked in and out of school so frequently some teachers hardly notice the new ones. Where families huddle behind closed doors at night to keep safe from the gunfire outside.

A place that after more than a decade of deterioration is only now beginning to turn around.


The tattered and dingy buildings that these residents of the Eastside--the neighborhood southwest of 1st Street and Grand Avenue--reluctantly call home were part of a strategy, then in vogue in many aging California cities, to fix deteriorating neighborhoods. Through zoning laws, developers were encouraged to tear down faded old homes and replace them with modern housing, with the hope of attracting more upscale tenants and revitalizing the city’s center.

The apartments were designed, approved and built fast, with no thought to whether the local parks, schools, police protection or other services were up to the burden of so many new residents, or whether upscale residents would really be drawn to them. And they become slums almost overnight.

Populated primarily by recent immigrants, the Eastside today is one of Orange County’s poorest and most transient communities.

Its history painfully illustrates how unrestrained market forces and a seemingly simple land-use decision can push a neighborhood to near ruin. Its story of quick deals without regard to long-term impact is perhaps a cautionary tale in urban planning for today, as the real estate market warms up to a similarly heated state.

But this story, although still lacking a happy ending, is in the process of being rewritten. New, community-minded investors are bringing both money and stricter housing rules to the area, while activists provide everything from health care to a sense of neighborhood.

“We just go after one problem after another,” said Rita Corpin, president of the Eastside Neighborhood Assn. “That’s why a lot of people have moved away. They just got tired of it. But I still love this neighborhood. That’s why I stay.”


In Rush to Build, Caution Crumbled

The saddest lesson of the neighborhood’s decline is that it probably could have been avoided, had city leaders listened to local residents and national urban planning experts.

“I’m flabbergasted . . . that private developers would go wholesale into the downtown on what seems like a whim,” said Roland Anglin, a community development specialist at the Ford Foundation. “Where were the marketing studies? Where were the zoning hearings? The lessons of building high-density apartments in inner cities are legion in the United States, going back more than 30 years, and the results have been disastrous.”

“It wasn’t only here,” said Santa Ana City Manager David N. Ream, who moved quickly to ban apartment construction after taking the job in 1986. “Long Beach, Anaheim, Garden Grove, Pomona, they’ve all experienced the same problems. There were a lot of apartments built in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and a lot of problems came with them.”

At one point, low-income housing proponents filed a lawsuit to stop the city, arguing that its strategy was unrealistic, and possibly racist. The suit was later dropped in an out-of-court settlement, but leaders of the group remain bitter.

“It was all about trying to get rid of the wrong people and bring in the right people,” said Sam Romero, a downtown Santa Ana business owner who helped bring the suit. “They wanted to stop the influx of Hispanics by renting to yuppies.”

Those opposed to the apartments were up against overwhelming market forces. Orange County was in the middle of a hold-onto-your-hats real estate boom, similar to the one shaping up now. With land prices soaring, no dream seemed too large, no investment too risky.


Santa Ana city leaders, who watched with envy as affluent commuter suburbs sprouted to the south while low-income workers landed on their doorstep, were eager to benefit from the boom.

“It was a high-flying time for real estate development, with no end in sight,” Ream said. “Back then, people assumed that if it was new, it was fine.”

Now in the Eastside, apartment blocks and fourplexes bump up against the sidewalks where a mix of modest and elegant homes once stood. Their trampled landscaping and junk-filled balconies give the neighborhood a feel of profound failure that mocks the bullishness of the ‘80s.

“I call it the rape of Chestnut,” said Corpin, a high school history teacher and longtime Eastside activist, referring to a street near her childhood home that was once lined with Victorian houses.

“Everyone was gung-ho for development,” she said. “They were tearing down beautiful homes all around us, and nobody would listen until it was too late.”

Left to Ruin, Eastside Struggles to Recover

Less than a decade after they were built, many worn-out apartments were simply abandoned by investors who bought when the market was hot and overpriced. They are among the reasons that Santa Ana had the highest foreclosure rate in Southern California in the early 1990s.


Owned by distant banks, some in other countries, the buildings were largely ignored, left to ruin. Into the vacuum walked young thugs who sold drugs on street corners and fought over scraps of territory, contributing to a spate of gunfights and murders.

In one half-mile-square police grid that overlaps the Eastside, 17 people were killed from 1993 to 1996. In those four years, there were more than 200 reported assaults with deadly weapons.

“I used to hate the weekends,” said Isabel Lopez, who has owned an Eastside home with her husband, Eddie, for 30 years. “Even in daylight, I was afraid to go outside.”

These days, a new wave of hope is washing across the Eastside. Crime is down and another upswing in the California real estate market is drawing investors back to the area.

The new buyers are scooping up buildings at a fraction of their original cost. They’re kicking out drug runners and gang members, replacing rotted roofs and filthy carpets, and in some cases, painting the grungy walls inside and out.

But the neighborhood remains one of the county’s poorest and most densely populated. Its schools are among the worst performers in the region. High transiency continues to confound efforts to organize and educate tenants.


Despite years of work by county and city departments, schools, neighborhood groups and nonprofit health agencies, it’s hard for even the most optimistic to imagine a day when the Eastside will fully recover from the mid-1980s building frenzy.

Those who live here no longer expect prosperity. Their aims are more modest: peace, safety, stability. A clean sidewalk. A decent school. A place for children to play and grow.

Transient Tenants, Optimistic Owners

Socorro Calvillo lives in a weathered three-story apartment complex at 510 E. Chestnut Ave., known simply to its tenants as la Chestnut. Opened in 1986, the 46-unit building is typical of the Eastside apartments.

Tudor beams and brick accents facing the street hint at the high hopes of the ‘80s. But the stucco is falling away in chunks, gray water stains streak the facade, and security gates swing open uselessly, their locks stolen long ago.

In many ways, Calvillo, who moved here from the state of Jalisco eight years ago, is typical of its tenants. She stays home with her three children while her construction-laborer husband earns what he can at day jobs. To help cover the $750 monthly rent, the couple lease one of their two bedrooms to boarders. Last year, they took in Calvillo’s brother-in-law and his wife, who live behind a flowered curtain in the living room.

The county’s booming economy has given her husband plenty of work lately, one reason they’ll soon be taking back their living room. The flowered curtain will come down, but the bed will remain. Calvillo said her children will sleep there, freeing up the bedroom for the new baby.


When Calvillo arrived at la Chestnut, the streets were already wracked by violence. She heard gunshots nearly every night. Some neighbors took to sleeping under their beds, fearing stray bullets.

She has many stories: Gun-toting gangsters broke up a family New Year’s Eve party in the courtyard; drug dealers beat a former manager with a chain until he fled; a boy was shot in the leg just outside the apartment entrance. There were also serious maintenance problems. One example: Calvillo used to wade through ankle-deep water in the laundry room.

“It was very ugly when we came here, but they cleaned it up,” she said. “Things have calmed down a lot lately.”

Residents credit a new owner and his managers for much of the improvement. Three years ago, entrepreneur Alex Muruelo of the Pizza Loca chain bought la Chestnut from First Federal Bank of California for $1.3 million--a full $1 million less than its original price.

“I see it really improving down there, and I walk the walk,” said Muruelo, who owns more than 400 units in central Santa Ana and is one of a handful of investors pouring millions into the area.

In one “gang-infested” building, Muruelo evicted all the tenants. But at la Chestnut, he simply repaired a leaky roof, added carpeting, stoves and some interior paint, and raised rents about $75 a month.


His manager now demands deposits and credit checks of new tenants. Muruelo also sends around an inspector every week, he said, “to make sure they’re kept up and they have a good atmosphere.”

One continuing problem for Muruelo and other owners is the constant turnover of tenants. High transiency is a defining feature of the Eastside, once home to a stable middle-class population, now a gateway for new immigrants.

A 1996 survey by the nonprofit agency Latino Health Access, which is conducting a three-year study of Zip Code 92701, an area that includes the Eastside, found that half the residents had been in the United States five years or less.

On average, residents were young: half were younger than 20, less than 2% were 60 or older. Few had medical insurance, public or private; instead, they relied on storefront clinics. About one-third of the children had been properly immunized.

In one approach to create a more stable, healthy community, several women from the area, trained by Latino Health Access in basic health care, visit hundreds of apartments, organize parties and conduct classes, hoping to bring residents out of their isolation and establish a network of neighbors. “The important thing is to get people enthused and to raise their self-esteem,” health aide Adela Montanez said.

In addition, a partnership between the city and Santa Ana Unified School District helped Roosevelt Elementary School, in the heart of the Eastside, open its doors to students and adults after-hours. The program, which started last spring, offers students tutoring, sports programs and hands-on computer work, while their parents can learn English or take citizenship classes. About once a month, there is also a “family unity” night.


Principal Nadine Rodriguez said the school grounds give kids an alternative to the streets in a neighborhood without a single park or playground. At the same time, the program pulls adults out of their apartments and helps create a community spirit that may eventually encourage families to stay and cut the devastating turnover at the school, which was 50% last year alone.

“If we just touch 20% of the population, I think we will see positive change,” she said. “A lot of times, people become so cynical and depressed. They’re overwhelmed, and it’s really keeping them from enjoying life.”

Agents of Change Up to Challenge

With the city’s help, nonprofit agencies have transformed several apartment complexes into models of low-cost housing. In one such case, the Orange Housing Development Corp. used a low-interest city loan to buy a crumbling 84-unit building on Civic Center Drive known as the Garden Court apartments. Only 10 years old, the complex needed a complete overhaul, from fresh paint to a new roof. The agency also added playground equipment and repaired the swimming pool in the central courtyard.

The agency offers discounts on half the rents for qualifying tenants, who pay only $549 for a two-bedroom flat. In turn, tenants pledge to hold occupancy down to six people or less in a two-bedroom unit--far lower than the neighborhood average. Now instead of vacancies, the building has a waiting list at least 50 names long. No tenant has moved out in nine months.

In another community-building effort, the Eastside Neighborhood Assn. meets every two months, usually with speakers from the city’s police, code enforcement and community development departments. The association also helps neighbors meet and stay in touch with each other. One frustration: Apartment tenants rarely attend.

“I can really sense a change,” said Bruce Dunams, Santa Ana’s community preservation manager. “Six years ago, we were really at a bad point.


“I was doing a lot of crying. But now I go into the community and I see kids out playing, folks out raking the grass. The city is on an upswing, and I feel very confident about where it’s heading.”


More People, Less Space

The building boom of the mid-1980s brought dramatic change to the 500 block of East Chestnut Avenue. Twin apartment complexes built on opposite corners at Oak Street replaced eight single-family homes. With more than 80 new places to live on the block, density increased sevenfold, the population multiplied by 10 and living space was cut in half. A closer look at how life changed in 1986:

No. Places to call home

1980: 14

1990: 100


No. People living on the block

1980: 41

1990: 420


Living space per person

1980: 517 sq. ft.

1990: 199 sq. ft.

Source: City of Santa Ana

Eastside Santa Ana / Eastside stats

Population (1990 census): 14,615

Renters: 65% in Eastside

49.4% average in city

Education: (Age 25 and older)

55% of adults have less than 9th grade

76% never finished high school


Apartment Boom

Apartment building boomed during the ‘80s in Santa Ana.

Number of multiple-family building permits, by year

1980: 497

1981: 527

1982: 331

1983: 551

1984: 758

1985: 1,226

1986: 2,168

1987: 1,372

1988: 468

1989: 167

1990: 34

1991: 14

1992: 6

NOTE: No building permits were issued from 1993 to 1995.


Crime in Eastside

Police believe apartment construction, combined with overcrowding, poor maintenance and foreclosures, contributed to a spike in violent crime in the Eastside. New owners are cleaning up apartments and violent crime starting dropping two years ago.

Crime in police grid 186


1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 Homicide 3 4 7 3 0 Robbery 73 85 50 52 38 Assault/weapon 59 57 45 47 27



Growth Spurt

Santa Ana’s population grew by 44% in the 1980s, much higher than the countywide rate of 24%. Much of that growth was concentrated in apartment areas.


Density per square mile

1970: 5,800

1980: 7,430

1990: 10,799

Sources: Roosevelt School (1990 census), Center for Demographics

Research at CSUF, Santa Ana Police Department, City of Santa Ana

Graphics reporting by NANCY CLEELAND and BRADY MacDONALD / Los Angeles Times

South side of East Chestnut Avenue

510 East Chestnut Ave: 46-unit apartment complex

Built: 1986; 34,200 sq. ft.

Replaced 1920s homes, each approx. 1,500 sq. ft.; demolished 1983

520 East Chestnut Avenue: Single-family home

Built: 1924

Sq. ft.: 1,600


522 East Chestnut Avenue: Single-family home

Built: 1922

Sq. ft.: 1,400


526 East Chestnut Avenue: Single-family home

Built: 1915

Sq. ft.: 1,900


North side of East Chestnut Avenue

311 S. Oak St.: 48-unit apartment complex

Built: December 1986; 39,900 sq. ft.

Replaced 1920s homes, each approx. 1,500 sq. ft.; demolished 1985


517 East Chestnut Avenue: Single-family home

Built: 1947


523 East Chestnut Avenue: Single-family home

Built: 1922


525 East Chestnut Avenue: Single-family home

Built: 1924


Graphics reporting by BRADY MacDONALD / Los Angeles Times