Carolina Lopez had heard the neighborhood buzz for several months: Everyone on South Minnie Street was going to get a new apartment. But she dismissed it as the wishful thinking of immigrants like her.
Last week, Lopez learned that rumors sometimes are true.
Her apartment--a one-bedroom unit she shares with her son, husband and another couple in a dilapidated building on South Minnie Street in Santa Ana--and 126 others will be renovated, thanks to an $8.1-million bond offering approved this month by the Santa Ana Housing Authority.
The money will be used to finance the purchase and reconstruction of 127 units by Avalon Communities LLC, a Los Angeles-based firm that specializes in rehabilitating homes in poor neighborhoods throughout the state.
Avalon President Leo Puig said he expects the bonds to be issued next month and construction to begin in late August. The buildings are owned by Kris Kakkar, a real estate venture capitalist.
While Avalon was negotiating the purchase of the 127 units from Kakkar, the nonprofit Orange Housing Corp., which has already renovated 60 units on the street, announced that it will close escrow next week on 30 additional units the company has bought. Another 20 units also owned by Orange Housing are undergoing repairs.
When Avalon, a for-profit company, and the city finalize their deal with Kakkar, just under half of the units on the street will either be scheduled for renovation or already renovated. The Avalon-owned units will be managed by the Santa Ana-based nonprofit Civic Center Barrio Housing Corp.
Councilman Jose Solorio, who represents the area, called the renovation project "a modest quest for housing."
"But these improvements will offer [tenants] a sense of decency and pride. For many it will be the first time they have ever lived in something new," he said.
The Minnie Street apartments are among the most densely populated in Orange County. City officials said about 3,500 people live in 527 units; about 1,000 live in the 127 units that Avalon is in the process of buying. The majority of the units have only one bedroom and are home to a large number of illegal immigrants.
For Lopez, a hospital laundry room worker whose day begins at 5:40 a.m. when she catches a bus to her job in Newport Beach, the renovation could not have begun at a better time.
"Sometimes it's depressing living here. We want to move, but we can't afford a better place to live. But now that we know that our home will be fixed, it gives me hope for my son. He deserves a better home and life than we've had," she said.
City officials have promised that no residents will be displaced by the renovation project, regardless of how many live in a unit. Some one-bedroom units house up to 10 people. But when current tenants leave, only five people will be allowed to live in a one-bedroom unit, six in a two-bedroom.
The three-block area is commonly known as Minnie Street. It is a location--and a name--that officials say carries a stigma because of the area's past reputation for violent crime.
A few years ago, residents formed a tenants association and demanded action from the city and police. The drug dealers and gang members were forced out, creating a sense of empowerment among the mostly Latino residents, who renamed their neighborhood Cornerstone Village.
Barry Cottle, an Orange Housing officer, said Cornerstone Village residents are showing great pride in their neighborhood.
"These people are good, decent folks, working hard to make ends meet," he said. "You can actually see their growing pride in their homes, now that they know the stories about renovation and new homes weren't just talk."
About two months ago, Orange Housing and city officials threw a party with pizza, soda and cake for residents. The purpose was to let tenants know about the renovation.
"We blocked off an area of the street and had about 500 people show up. We walked them through the buildings we're rehabbing, so they could get a glimpse of the future," Cottle said.
The city is paying $5 million to restore the exteriors of the buildings, giving them a modern facade and landscaping.
More than a dozen of the property owners formed the Cornerstone Village Owners Assn. and agreed to fix the interiors of the buildings by 2004. In addition, they agreed to pay $15 per unit a month to pay for landscaping, janitorial, security and other costs when the redevelopment is completed.
Two buildings on the east side of the street, however, stand in stark contrast to the others being given new exteriors. The structures are owned by an absentee landlord who lives in Sausalito, Calif., and refuses to participate in the project, city officials say.
Crews are beginning to work on the exteriors of buildings on the west side of Minnie Street, prompting questions from residents about when their homes will be renovated inside. So far, about 60 units have been completely redone; several dozen more are in progress.
Eventually, housing officials hope all 527 units in the area will be renovated.
The work has inspired residents to make changes in other areas of their lives. A woman who wished to be identified only as Juanita said the renovations motivated residents to sign up for English classes at the complex's learning center.
"This [renovation] is a sign that our lives are moving forward. So, a number of us want to learn English. Maybe some of us will be able to find better jobs if we learn English," she said.
Rafael Gomez, who has lived in one of the units for five years with his wife and three children, said he has seen a new attitude in the tenants next door who live in the units refurbished by Orange Housing.
"I've noticed that there is no trash on their grounds. People appreciate their new homes," he said.