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Building Resentment 

Pico-Aliso tenants evicted in the name of progress

Wednesday, Jul 21 1999
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If your creaky, barrackslike rental home, surrounded by monotonously similar structures, was pushing its 60th birthday and was haunted by crime problems, wouldn’t you welcome your landlord’s proposal to rebuild with roomier units, better security, a pleasant design and more upscale neighbors? A number of tenants at East L.A.’s Aliso Village housing project aren’t so enthralled with the plan from their landlord, the Housing Authority of the City of L.A. (HACLA). The $86 million make-over, you see, has two major catches. First of all, the Housing Authority is demolishing 685 low-income units and replacing them with only 269, permanently displacing many of the project’s 2,600 residents.

Secondly, the reconstruction will not be completed until 2002 or 2003, so tenants, who’ve already received 90-day eviction notices, face three or more years of limbo even for a chance at making it back, all of which makes many of them both anxious and angry.

The discontent reached a new plateau last week with the filing of a lawsuit alleging that the Housing Authority has used deception, censorship and police intimidation to silence residents’ dissent about the reconstruction.

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According to the lawsuit, David Ochoa, president of the project’s elected resident advisory council, with the collusion of Housing Authority administrators, used threats and goon-squad tactics at project meetings to silence the three middle-aged women — the plaintiffs in the lawsuit — who questioned the reconstruction most vocally. The trio — Julia Toledo, Maria Torres and Josefina Castellanos — allege that Ochoa changed the times of monthly tenant meetings and then held them without adequate notice or circulation of the agenda. Critics, who nonetheless appeared at meetings, were ruled out of order, threatened with arrest for "slander," and finally, they claim, were physically abused by housing police officers. At an April meeting, according to the lawsuit, officers tried to confiscate their copy of the renovation grant application, and at meetings in April and June they allege that officers forcefully removed them from meetings, with one woman being thrown to the ground. Two of the women were arrested, falsely they say — charges were dropped in one case and are pending in the other.

They also charge that, in an attempt to silence critics, Ochoa threatened opponents with eviction or immigration-service investigations, an ominous threat in the heavily Latino project.

Ochoa, who is also on the Housing Authority’s payroll as a staffer on its in-house newspaper, denies most of the allegations, although he acknowledges that meeting times were changed "for security reasons." He also insists that the three women and the organization they belong to — La Union de los Vecinos (Union of Neighbors) — are "troublemakers" funded from "outside" who have tried to intimidate him. The Union, whose fluctuating following is drawn from Aliso Village and adjoining projects south of First Street, has received grants from a variety of foundations to underwrite, for example, sending tenants to national housing conferences. Ochoa suggests that they or their associates — he won’t name names — recently kicked in the door of his mother’s unit in the proj ect at about 7 o’clock one evening.

Underneath the acrimony and mutual distrust lies a conflict of vision between the Housing Authority and some — perhaps a minority — of its tenants. Housing officials wax as poetic as any private real estate developer about the future look of a rebuilt Aliso Village. Instead of the World War II–era ghetto for the poor, the refurbished development will include nearby senior housing as well as 66 town homes for sale — to add pride of ownership to the neighborhood mix.

Beyond that, planners promise that the new, more surveillable layout will reduce the project’s present crime rate and gang activity. Meanwhile, the cluster design of the housing should augment privacy for tenant families.

No critics have denied that the slant-roofed townhouse-style "casitas" represent a major aesthetic advance; occupants of the completed ones in adjoining projects are generally happy with their more modern homes.

But when the application for federal funds was announced in May 1998, some tenants objected to the dem-olition scheme, arguing that renovation would have been both sufficient and more cost-effective. The across-the-board eviction of tenants (which was avoided in adjoining projects by phased reconstruction) was also a sore point. And the shrinkage in low-income units means that most of today’s tenants won’t find a place here post-renovation.

The consolation prize, for those who don’t, is a federal subsidy, called a Section 8 certificate, to help pay for housing elsewhere. But elsewhere is nowhere in particular. Low-income-housing advocates already bemoan a shortage of low-income units in the Los Angeles area. The Section 8 certificates don’t guarantee a home, merely a rent subsidy if one can be found. Some residents take a rosy view of moving to Rosemead or the like; others dread being uprooted from Aliso Village. For Josefina Castellanos, a resident for 20 years, it’s not just a collection of buildings: "Except for my granddaughter, my relatives live far away," she says. "My neighbors are my real family." Castellanos told officials she didn’t want the Section 8 certificate. They told her the alternative was the sheriff coming to evict her, she says.

Father Greg Boyle, a well-known activist priest who works with troubled youth out of nearby Dolores Mission, is not among those bewailing the changes. For starters, the renovation gives some young men that Boyle counsels a chance to segue out of gang life through construction apprenticeships. Besides, Boyle asserts, "Almost everyone who has moved has ‘come up’ in their living situations," some graduating to home ownership.

The reduction of housing units for the poor, say experts, is a national problem, stemming from the unwillingness of Republicans in Congress to support public-housing construction at even a maintenance level. While the mixed-income rebuild is preferable to "ghettoizing the poor," notes housing advocate Jan Breidenbach, a real downside is the diminishing pool of units for L.A.’s neediest.

One measure of the crunch in L.A.: The waiting list for Section 8 certificates has now hit 150,000 households — while only about a quarter as many (some 40,000) certificates have been authorized in the federal budget for the city of Los Angeles. Housing Authority Section 8 director Steve Renahan says at least a 10-year wait for a subsidy confronts people granted eligibility today.

The lawsuit, filed against the Housing Authority, three of its police officers and two other employees, won’t alter the fate of Aliso Village. The three plaintiffs have not filed to stop the demolition, seeking damages instead for deprivation of civil rights and physical abuse.

Whatever harm the women may have suffered from heavy-handed bureaucrats, the more long-lasting damage may be to tomorrow’s poor, who, despite the city’s good intentions, will find it more difficult than ever to put a roof over their heads.

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