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Six ‘Dreamers’ Find a Home

Times Staff Writer

A good father, Roman Reynoso reasoned, sacrifices for his family. So the 39-year-old decided to leave his wife, Cleotilde, and their four children.

Reynoso’s family had a shot at something unheard of: a five-bedroom apartment renting for $530 a month. But applicants for the Canoga Park complex, Tierra del Sol, would undergo a rigorous screening process, and Reynoso, who is unemployed, has spotty credit. Bad credit is enough to keep a family out. So he left his name off the application, thereby disqualifying himself from living in the complex.

Reynoso’s decision to live apart may have been extreme, but the city’s chronic shortage of housing affordable for the working poor has made competition cutthroat.

When New Economics for Women, or NEW, the nonprofit developer of Tierra del Sol, began accepting applications, it set off a stampede. More than 1,000 families applied for the 119 apartments. Today there are 600 families on the waiting list.

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The rush is typical. When the Hollywood Community Housing Corp. accepted applications last February for its 56 affordable units at Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue, 3,000 people lined up; some slept outside the night before.

That is why families such as the Reynosos view getting into Tierra del Sol as winning the lottery. Three-bedroom apartments there rent for as little as $434, and four bedrooms, as little as $486 -- about $1,200 below the fair-market value for similar apartments.

Tierra del Sol is the only affordable housing development in the state that offers apartments with five bedrooms. It is the first development to have a K-5 charter school. Also planned are a 10,000-square-foot gym, a child care center for 100 children and a community center with a computer lab and library.

The $53-million project was financed with a mix of tax credits and loans from investors, the city Housing Department and the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles. The charter school was funded by $23 million from Los Angeles Unified School District, said Bea Stotzer, a NEW board member.

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NEW built the school, then sold it to the school district, which then leased it back to the nonprofit for $1 a year.

The cramped apartment where the six Reynosos slept in two bedrooms is so close they could almost see the Tierra del Sol complex go up. They filled out an application to move in once it opened. Then Roman dropped his family off for the obligatory family interview.

It did not go smoothly, said Sandra Villalobos, an administrator at Tierra del Sol. The Reynosos’ 12-year-old daughter, Maria, started to cry. That’s when Villalobos realized there was a father in the famly.

“Then the oldest son said to me, ‘I want a new place to live, but I don’t want to live without my father,’ ” Villalobos said. “Then everyone started to cry.”

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Villalobos went outside the building and told Roman to add his name to the application; they would determine whether his credit was a hindrance.

She did not want to see the family split, but Villalobos and her staff would make their decision based on who best fit the community, not just who deserved a break. If one family cannot meet its criteria, there is no shortage of others who can.

“We are looking for dreamers, for people who have a vision for themselves and for their children,” Villalobos said.

“We want people, for example, who not only want education for their children but who when they talk can see their child getting a college diploma; they can picture them walking across the stage and describe it in detail.”

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She checked both parents’ credit and their assets. Roman did not have major obstacles, such as an eviction or bankruptcy. All that stood between the Reynosos and their dream apartment was a home inspection.

A few days after their office interview, Villalobos and another inspector arrived at the Reynoso’s apartment building across from Lanark Park. Outside the big pink stucco complex it was almost 100 degrees.

Another tenant let them in the building as they walked up -- something forbidden at Tierra del Sol, where among the nine pages of rules are regulations not only about visitors but also about how to clean bathrooms and carpets, and to supervise children.

Cleotilde, Roman and their daughter were waiting in the living room. It was only slightly cooler indoors. They offered the inspectors the bottles of iced water they had set out in anticipation.

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Villalobos moved from the living room to the bathroom to the bedrooms, Cleothilde and Roman trailing behind. They glanced at her face, looking for signs of approbation or disapproval.

The master bedroom was tidy but revealed the family’s lack of space and privacy. Maria’s twin bed with a Winnie-the-Pooh coverlet abutted her parents’ full-size bed.

The room also served as den and office, with a television in one corner and several short file cabinets wedged into another. Villalobos opened the closet door and found clothes neatly folded and stacked from floor to ceiling. She has seen this space-saving measure before.

Then she moved on to the kitchen, where she checked counters and walls for out-of-the-ordinary damage. Finding none, she opened the refrigerator. If there is not enough food or milk in the home, it does not necessarily disqualify a family, but it tells her the parents may need help from a caseworker or parenting classes.

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There were no cockroaches to be seen, but she asks about them at every home inspection.

“Yes there are cockroaches here,” Cleothilde said. “We can’t get rid of them no matter what we do.”

If they got an apartment in Tierra del Sol, Villalobos told them they would have to pack all their clothes and belongings in boxes and then spray before moving.

Then Villalobos checked the heating vents for dust. Except for typical teenage disarray in the boys’ room, the home was spanking clean.

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Back in the living room, Roman Reynoso said: “I would do anything for my children, and they are in danger here -- three weeks ago they killed two people on that corner.”

The boys, shy and soft-spoken amid a roomful of visitors, nodded at their father’s words.

An hour later, Cleothilde answered the telephone. She burst into tears and threw her arms around her husband. He did not have to leave them.

His willingness to do so, however, is what cinched the deal. They started to move in immediately.

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“That they would be willing to split up to give their children a better life shows that this is a family that is ready to make changes,” Villalobos said. “That’s the level of commitment we’re looking for.”


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