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Staples Center’s Displaced Have New Homes and New Worries

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Their tidy apartment in a brand new downtown building is quite nice, admit Reyna and Ruben Reyes.

It is roomy, the paint is fresh and the children have their own bedrooms. And yet . . .

A year or so ago, Ruben went walking with his young daughter past the place where they used to live, a block from what would become the new Staples Center arena.

Their old building had been demolished, leaving a yawning pit of dirt. Father and daughter slipped down into it and were soon playing tag. For those few minutes, Ruben said, they felt like they were home.

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More than 250 residents like them were forced to make way for parking lots serving the sparkling new playground that will open next week as the home of the Lakers, the Clippers and the Kings. Those families, largely low-income Latino immigrants and their children, are reminders that the $375-million arena project comes with human consequences, both good and bad.

Many of the families were relocated from downtown slums into government-subsidized housing complexes, and most received assistance to help pay their new and generally higher rents for a time. They mostly are pleased to be liberated from their former homes: dilapidated, roach-infested apartments that dotted the rough-hewn neighborhood bordered by the Harbor Freeway, Figueroa and 11th streets and Olympic Boulevard.

But for dozens of families uprooted by the arena, there is a sense of yearning for homes where they lived for 10 years or more and for a way of living they believe was more neighborly and less confining, despite the conditions.

Moreover, they question whether they were sufficiently compensated by the city. Some say they were intimidated into signing unjust agreements.

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That is an issue that prompted the city to commission an independent audit. Officials insist that the yet-unfinished probe will show that the relocation process was fair.

Most worrisome to the families is whether they can afford to stay in their new homes after the government relocation money runs out.

Rental assistance was supposed to cover a period of no more than four years. However, most residents said they had to spend hundreds, sometimes thousands, of that assistance money on move-in expenses. As a result, for many households, the monthly subsidies have run out or will do so soon.

“They are going to make an awful lot of money off of the arena,” said Reyna Reyes, 38. “I think they could have provided more for the families.”

She spoke in her neatly decorated living room in the cavernous Parkside Apartments at 9th Street and Grand Avenue, a few blocks from the arena. About 25 of the displaced families moved into the 79-unit, low-income building in early 1998 with assistance from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, which shepherded the relocation of residents and businesses from the arena neighborhood.

Several of her neighbors, also displaced by the arena, joined her to talk about how their lives have changed. A few have relatively good jobs in the construction trades, some work in sweatshops producing apparel, others make their living as street vendors, selling sweets and other goods.

Maricela Ruiz said her husband, Sebastian, works long hours peddling candy to support her and their four children. They were happy to move into a three-bedroom Parkside apartment last year.

The change from their old quarters, a one-room unit on South Olympic, could not have been more stark: The now-demolished building was filthy, sewage spewed from pipes, and rats and roaches roamed freely, Maricela Ruiz said. And yet all is not quite well. They used to pay $450 a month in rent while the new apartment is $589. They will receive a rental subsidy of $225 for another six months, and then will be on their own.

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“It’s not going to be easy to pay the rent and the bills when it ends,” said Ruiz, the brow of her round face knotted with worry.

And there is something more subtle tugging at their emotions: “We were happy at first, but we also feel we’re not quite as free in the new place,” she said. “There are lots of rules and regulations and many people feel uncomfortable here.”

Some families are undocumented and reluctant to press claims, even if they believe they were treated unfairly. And for those who work in the underground cash economy, it is especially hard to make a case.

Relocation assistance is based on a complex set of guidelines, but generally depends on income and the size of the household. Larger families that are poorer would tend to get more assistance. Those who cannot document their income might get very little.

City officials say those circumstances posed a challenge. But they also contend that the process worked smoothly.

Millions Were Spent on Relocations

“I believe it turned out very well for the families,” said David Riccitiello, project manager for the Community Redevelopment Agency. While officials await the outside audit, Riccitiello is preparing his own report that will be delivered to the City Council next week.

The agency had a total relocation budget of $6.5 million for residents, a nearby child care center and administrative costs. Of that, about $1.3 million was spent directly on the 130 displaced families and individuals, Riccitiello said. The money was appropriated from the city’s general fund.

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The average package totaled $9,300, with $5,250 paid in advance and the rest coming in monthly installments. But the average is skewed a little on both ends. On the high end, one family received about $27,000. On the low end, a group of 27 families had been living in hotels, where a different standard applied for calculating assistance. Those households received lump sums: $2,000 for individuals, $5,000 for couples or families.

Of the remaining households, 10 got rental assistance packages of $5,000 or less; 45 received from $5,000 to $10,000, and 47 got more than $10,000.

Riccitiello said every effort was made to move families into housing with rents that would be affordable after the assistance ran out.

But Anne Crawford, a tenant advocate with the group Inquilinos Unidos, said it has not worked out that way for many. She and other advocates question the calculation used to award the settlements. They note that in residential relocation projects in other parts of the city, average assistance packages can total $15,000 or more.

Even now, Crawford said, some are still waiting for promised payments, and a few have been threatened with eviction because they cannot pay their rent. The CRA played hardball with the residents and they had to fight for everything they got, she added.

Her opinions are echoed by Randy Nielsen, an expert with Burbank-based Redevelopment Consultants, a firm used by several businesses to assist in relocation.

Some 35 businesses were displaced because of the arena construction and parking lots. Nielsen would not divulge the particulars of the half-dozen clients he represents because negotiations continue.

“I deal with agencies up and down the state,” he said. “Some take a hard line in how much assistance they are going to offer, and I would put the CRA in that category.”

Meanwhile, the displaced families hope to make the best of their new circumstances. The Reyes family got $8,000 in rental assistance and their $168 monthly subsidy will end in about five months.

Reyna now talks of forming a tenants group to fight for more open spaces and better security. “I think we can make this work,” she said.


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