For months, Carmen Romero watched the construction of the Vernon Village Park Apartments and waited anxiously for the day she could begin applying for an apartment.
"They were beautiful and very pretty," Romero said of the buildings.
This month, Romero and her family ditched their one-bedroom apartment in Maywood and made history by becoming one of dozens of new residents to move into Vernon's first privately owned housing complex.
The $16-million apartment complex, developed by Meta Housing Corp., is a dramatic change for a city that for decades had fought to keep people like Romero out.
City and state officials gathered at the apartment complex Saturday to welcome the new residents at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The event included fruit plates, pastries, aguas frescas and face painting for children. There was a large ice sculpture depicting one of the new apartments, and residents attending the event received gift baskets from many of the local businesses in the city such as Farmer John.
Among the welcoming party was Vernon Mayor Michael McCormick.
"To every resident living here in Vernon Village Park, your Vernon city leaders have one simple message: Welcome home and welcome to the city of Vernon," McCormick said.
"It's an occasion of celebration and recognition," said state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles), who was among the attendees. "Four years ago, Vernon's future was very much in doubt. As you know, it was a city that at the time was plagued with systemic corruption as well as family cronies.
"This city has turned a new page," De León said.
State and city officials say the new apartments will not only double Vernon's population, but also, it is hoped, create an electorate that is independent of the influence of City Hall.
Historically, the city's small and tightly controlled population of about 100 residents allowed city leaders to avoid contested elections for generations. Vernon was controlled for many years by a family that critics say operated the town like a fiefdom.
There was little scrutiny of how government worked. One city administrator made $1.65 million one year, and no one who lived in the city would think to publicly complain, in part because most were city workers or had ties to City Hall.
Eventually, a weak electorate and a series of corruption scandals led state lawmakers to question Vernon's existence and threaten to strip its cityhood in 2011.
Vernon officials instead agreed to a series of reforms proposed by De León that included slashing exorbitant salaries, installing a competitive bidding process for city contracts and increasing its population.
Of the 45 apartment units at Vernon Village Park, 12 will be occupied by families that work for private companies in Vernon. The rest are being rented out to people from surrounding cities and communities such as Los Angeles, Maywood and Bell.
The 102 new residents moving into Vernon may find that the town isn't like any other city they've likely encountered. The 5-square-mile city is dotted with warehouses, factories and food-processing plants. There are no parks, theaters or public libraries, but crime is low.
Some new tenants say they haven't noticed the difference yet, partly because the apartment complex sits along the border of Maywood, across from a row of single-story houses and stucco apartment buildings.
"All the shopping centers we normally go to are still nearby," said Sarah Hernandez, a new tenant who moved from Bell.
The white Spanish-style apartments come with a small community garden and playground. There is a community room, computer lab and a self-service laundry on-site. A small substation for the Vernon Police Department is also located on the property.