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Ambitious makeover planned for old housing project

Denise Penegar puts a little extra effort into the teenage girls, the ones who've dropped out of high school to care for their firstborns.

Don't be afraid, the outreach worker tells them. Come down to the housing project's community center, get your GED and some job skills. Change your life.

"I was one of those girls," said Penegar, now 51 and still living in Jordan Downs, the Watts housing project where she was born.

Sometimes, she imagines how different her life might have been if someone had knocked on her door when she was 17, caring for her first baby. What would it have meant just to have "someone who is here who can help pick me up"?

Penegar is on the front lines of a bold social experiment underway at Jordan Downs, a project notorious to outsiders for its poverty, blight and violence but seen by many longtime residents, for all its problems, as a close-knit community worth preserving.

In the last year, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles has begun an effort to transform Jordan that could cost more than $600 million. The plan is to turn the complex of 700 aging units into a mixed-income community of up to 1,400 apartments and condominiums, with shops and restaurants and fancy touches such as native plant gardens. The city hopes to draw in hundreds of more-affluent residents willing to pay market rate to live side by side with the city's poorest.

Spurred by changes in federal funding and policy, such "mixed use" developments have sprung up in place of infamous housing projects all over the country. But experts say Jordan is taking an approach that has not been tried on this scale.

Typically, public housing residents are moved out ahead of the bulldozers, scattered to search for new shelter. In Los Angeles, the housing authority has promised that any of the 2,300 Jordan residents "in good standing" can stay in their old units until the day they move into new ones. The project is to be built in phases, beginning with units on 21 acres of adjacent land purchased by the authority in 2008 for $31 million.

To ease the transition, the city has dispatched "community coaches" like Penegar, along with teachers, social workers, therapists — even police officers whose charge is not to make arrests but to coach youth football and triathlon teams.

In essence, officials intend to raze the buildings, not the community — and radically change its character.

It will be an enormous challenge, with success likely to be measured in tiny increments.

Only 47% of adults at Jordan reported any wages to the housing authority last year. As in many urban projects, poverty and social ills have multiplied through the generations, leaving some residents unfamiliar with opportunities and expectations beyond the neighborhood. Some rarely leave the area.

Before inviting in new neighbors with expectations of safety and comfort, the housing authority has begun flooding Jordan Downs with social services. Many of the programs are focused on women, because more than 60% of Jordan Downs' tenants live in households headed by single mothers. But men are targeted too — for job training and lessons in parenting, for instance.

By December, 10 months into the effort, more than 450 families had been surveyed by intake workers and 280 signed up for intensive services.

"Most people would say it's ambitious, but I think it's essential," said Kathryn Icenhower, executive director of Shields for Families, the South Los Angeles nonprofit that is running many of the new programs under a more than $1-million annual contract with the housing authority.

It is unknown, however, how effective the social services will be, how easy it will be to draw in wealthier residents and how many millions of dollars the federal government — a major source of funding — will provide.

Already, the housing authority has picked a development team — the for-profit Michaels Organization and the nonprofit Bridge Housing, both with respectable track records in other cities. But with financing still uncertain, it is unclear exactly how many units will be built or how much various occupants would pay.

Ultimately, a working family could pay hundreds of dollars more in rent than unemployed tenants next door for a nearly identical unit. Officials say they do not expect Watts to draw the same kind of high-income residents as the former Cabrini Green project in Chicago, which sat on prime real estate near downtown. But Jordan is in a convenient location, near the intersection of the 105 and 110 Freeways; and in a high-rent city like Los Angeles, even the steepest rates at Jordan are likely to seem a bargain.

Despite the onslaught of social services and some palpable changes — including a 53% plunge in the violent crime rate at Jordan last year — financial risks abound.

Later this spring, the authority plans to put in an application for $30 million from the federal government's Choice Neighborhoods Program as seed money. Without it, the project could be delayed.

Officials at Shields for Families said the city housing authority cut its contract by 30% this year, forcing them to scramble for replacement money from other sources.

L.A. Housing Authority Chief Executive Douglas Guthrie, who has worked on revamping other urban projects, including Cabrini Green, acknowledged the vagaries of the federal budget and other risks. "We have an uncertain path in front of us," he said.

Still, he characterized the housing authority's cut as a "slight reduction" — given that the Shields contract this year covers a shorter period. No matter what, he and a spokesman for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said, the city remains committed to improving the lives of residents at Jordan, where many families, particularly among the 40% of residents who are African American, have lived for generations. (A rising number of occupants are Latino, reflecting a larger demographic change in South Los Angeles.)

Over the years, the housing authority's management of Jordan has repeatedly been derided by residents and their advocates as neglectful and corrupt. Former Chief Executive Rudolf Montiel claimed some units had been commandeered by the Grape Street Crips and used for drug dealing, brothels and dogfights. In 2005, a federal audit found that hundreds of thousands of dollars intended for services at Jordan Downs had not been properly spent.

"There was so much corruption in the past in Jordan Downs, and people were just promised things that never came through, and when you keep doing that over and over and over again, folks start to lose hope," said Icenhower, of Shields.

This effort, city officials insist, is different. In recent months, Jordan's 49 acres of trash-strewn, scruffy grass and grubby pink buildings, sometimes bedecked with shrines to murder victims, has acquired the feel of a very unusual college campus.

At the community center, there are classes in financial literacy, computers, parenting, Spanish, English, "job readiness" — even in how to clean a stove and reduce clutter. Dozens of people have been enrolled in high school equivalency programs; 11 in the last year have graduated.

In late 2011, the housing authority began paying the Los Angeles Police Department $1 million a year to send officers into Jordan and other Watts housing projects to steer children toward healthy activities such as team sports.

Though reasons cannot easily be pinpointed, there has not been a homicide inside the project since August 2011, said LAPD Capt. Phil Tingirides. By contrast, in 2006, the LAPD reported 19 shootings and seven homicides around Jordan in a single month.

Officials have invested heavily in building community support for their proposed "urban village." They've held frequent community meetings with residents, launched a Facebook page — featuring idyllic sketches of a bucolic park with picnicking families amid smart new four-story town homes — and given nearly everyone, it seems, a T-shirt proclaiming "Watts Is Worth It."

"We are going to get to enjoy our new development," said Anita Smith, 47, who has lived in the project for decades. "They say it's gonna be seniors, middle-class people and low-income people; we gonna all mingle and get along."

Others are not convinced their community needs a makeover.

"We are a family. We get along," said Daritha Perkins, 51, a longtime Jordan Downs resident. "I have nothing bad to say about these projects."

Many residents are aware that in other cities, when housing projects were razed in the name of reducing social ills, the efforts also ripped apart communities where people helped each other with such things as rides, child care and other essentials.

"The goal is basically to get rid of the folks they don't want in the new development," said L.A. tenant activist Becky Dennison. "It's hard to prove, but if you look at what's happened in every other development across the country, there's reason for concern."

Housing authority officials deny they are pushing people out. Grounds for eviction, which include conducting illegal activities in units and not paying rent promptly, have not changed, they say.

Across the country, moving impoverished public housing tenants next door to wealthier neighbors has not always worked smoothly.

"There was animosity, conflict, friction, tension … between both sides," said Chicago activist Willy J.R. Fleming, who grew up in the former Cabrini Green project and has closely followed its makeover.

"People would have a gathering, and the [high-income neighbors] would assume they were dope dealers, gang members, and they would call the police and then the police would say, 'No, this is just part of these people's culture. This is a children's birthday party.'"

Penegar, the outreach worker, sees a big upside to mixing impoverished residents with wealthier ones — something as important as social programs.

"I might run into someone who has a bakery, who wants to hire someone," she said.

jessica.garrison@latimes.com

One in a series of occasional stories on the efforts to transform the Jordan Downs housing project in South Los Angeles.

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