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The resurrection of Jordan Downs


Continuing a nationwide policy of demolishing so-called obsolete public housing, the long infamous Jordan Downs housing projects in Watts will be torn down in favor of an “urban village” of up to 1,800 new residential units as well as retail and restaurant space and a central community park.

The Los Angeles City Council voted in the spring of 2012 to raze the 700-unit site and rebuild it as a mixed-income development. Jordan Downs, bounded by 97th and 103rd streets north-to-south, and from Grape and Alameda streets east-to-west, through the years has become synonymous with the so-called “welfare state” in one of the nation’s most poverty-stricken communities. The view from most of the 103 buildings points toward crumbling factories; overgrown, debris-strewn lots; abandoned industrial parcels and Jordan High School itself, which is undergoing extensive remodeling.

The rebuilding project could begin as early as 2015, while soil remediation on the nearby abandoned factories will commence at the end of this year.

The Environmental Protection Agency will conduct a public hearing at 5 p.m. on Aug. 21 at the Jordan Downs gymnasium to provide information as well as to gather input from residents. The term “urban village,” also used to describe the new commercial/residential development planned near USC, is an urban design concept characterized by medium density construction utilizing mixed-use zoning, pedestrian areas and open public space. “Mixed use” identifies different types of uses in the same development, such as commercial businesses on the first floor, residential units on the upper floors as well as educational and social services.

The project will be undertaken by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) and will feature four-story townhomes and condominiums, some of which will be available at “fair market” value. The majority of dwellings will be dedicated to low-income potential residents; retail space and market-rate housing will be interspersed with the hopes of enhancing “quality of life” standards for the traditionally neglected neighborhood and, by extension, improve the national perception of Watts.

Four years ago the city of Los Angeles annexed 42 acres of adjacent land to increase the size of Jordan Downs to almost 119 acres. The housing authority has invested more than $45 million on the proposed project, which is expected to generate about $1 million annually in new tax revenue, and create up to 200 permanent jobs. The development may also create some 6,400 full-time equivalent jobs during the construction phases. Housing Authority officials said they will debate over time if the name will remain or change.

Part of a long-range development objective that also includes the Central Avenue Master Plan, construction at Jordan Downs will be completed in phases over the next decade as the market demand for housing in Watts improves. The initial, critical phases include a one-to-one replacement of existing public housing units, extension of Century Boulevard between Wilmington Avenue and Alameda Street, and continual development of neighborhood-serving retail outlets. There will be mixed-use opportunities suited for high-tech, light-industrial companies, new educational and recreational facilities, and enhanced community programs.

“I am deeply grateful to (former) Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa for having the vision to address housing supply and affordability within the city,” said Councilman Joe Buscaino, whose 15th District includes Watts. “This will be a long-lasting legacy that will live for generations in Watts, and is the first step toward improving the quality of life for all families living at Jordan Downs, where improvements have been desperately needed for a long time.”

In 2011, the Jordan Downs First Family Plan was enacted to draw input from local stakeholders such as the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, while the Jordan Downs Community Advisory Committee was created to respond to the needs of the current population by increasing methods of economic self-sufficiency. Locals urged that construction be linked with program planning so that social programs and services will be incorporated into the master plan. Teams from the housing authority will survey community assets—schools, childcare, healthcare, parks, community safety, job creation and faith-based institutions—to maximize the connection between residents and sustainable resources. Also, the HACLA contracted Shields for Families, a private firm that provides social assistance and family therapy outreach, to conduct needs assessments for residents on-site, thereby providing a level of relief for low-income families who will likely be uprooted and directed to new, suitable lodgings.

The plan proposes up to 502,000 square feet of commercial, retail and light industrial uses along Alameda Street just behind the Jordan High athletic field, and up to 20,000 square feet of retail space as part of the Century Boulevard extension. A 6.38-acre park will serve as the primary open recreational area and will be supplemented by 2.57 acres of smaller open spaces throughout the plan. A 50,000-square-foot community center will serve as a training facility for programs focusing on residential transition.

This has been in the works for so long,” said John King II, director of planning and policy for the L.A. housing authority. “We bought a 21-acre factory in the middle of Jordan Downs; it is in the best interest of our community that we complete this development.”

King said community involvement is critical to the success of the plan, much different than past efforts of simply selling the property to outside investors.

“That was the problem before,” he explained. “There was little input from the community. We have strong human capital in Watts, and we have a real partnership with the residents and also with City Hall. We’re trying to apply a more holistic approach to community improvement.”

In 2008, Villaraigosa launched “Housing That Works,” a five-year, $5-billion housing plan to address housing supply and affordability, with Jordan Downs being its cornerstone. From this, the housing authority was able to engage the community in a master plan process to create a “vision document” for redevelopment.

“We want to do this with the understanding that the key to success in this community is the people in it,” Villaraigosa said. “The human capital in this community is going to drive whatever we can do here. It’s not just about buildings … it starts first and foremost with people.”

For decades, the “people” officials refer to have been African Americans—just one generation removed from segregation. Blacks born after 1975 grew up in a desegregated America void of “official” legal discrimination; they are also the first generation of Blacks to have full (legal) access to the social middle class. This generation also began life with access to higher incomes than previous generations.

As the redevelopment plans progress one controversy that has surfaced is the “gentrification” versus “displacement” debate. The federal “Homestead Program” in Washington, D.C., in the late 1990s incentivized gentrification by awarding foreclosed, abandoned and dilapidated homes at nominal prices in order to move the properties off the city docket. Thus, the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Hope VI programs for revitalizing the inner city have resulted in an undertone of fear among inner-city residents that has branded “bike lanes,” “cupcake shops” and “dog parks” as code for White people. Gentrification, it is speculated, can lead to more daycare facilities and fewer preschools in certain areas.

Some in the inner city might say that the government and business leaders have a moral obligation to prevent the adverse effects of displacing already poor and working-poor households. Within public housing, the typical displaced persons are disproportionately non-White, elderly, impoverished and comprise large households. Displacement is said to force these persons into a housing market where they often must settle for more expensive lodgings with less adequate space.

In a 2006 report published by the Urban Institute of Washington, D.C., Chicago residents from 1990 to 2000 attest that gentrification in the city’s “Uptown” region has benefited landlords and developers more than residents. Because most of the housing stock is rental, the ensuing real estate transactions occurred between private developers, with little asset building for residents. Many incumbent residents were faced with higher housing costs (for larger apartments/condos) and the real threat of expiring Section 8 contracts. The report found that, by 2000, the number of Chicago rental properties in the inner city had declined by 11 percent.

However, one advantage of gentrification can be increased use of urban land, a safer inner city, and higher tax revenues (ironically to provide more funding for social safety-net services such as rental assistance, energy assistance, emergency food assistance and more business investment). The disadvantages include displacement of residents, a loss of community identity, and a shift of financial resources (from high concentrations of social service financial allotments to more recreational/cultural expenditures).

Jordan Downs, the last housing project opened in Watts, was built during World War II as semi-permanent housing for defense workers mostly along the old Alameda Industrial Corridor.

After the war, it served as the nation’s first veteran’s housing project, and then was converted in 1955 into public housing for 2,300 residents, remaining largely unchanged for 58 years. The other housing projects in Watts are Imperial Courts on Imperial Highway, Nickerson Gardens on Avalon Boulevard and the Paul Williams-designed Gonzaque Village (formerly Hacienda Village) on 105th Street. In 1955, Los Angeles Mayor Norris Poulson ended construction of new public housing.

As Jordan Downs’ tenancy rapidly became majority Black after the postwar migration West, L.A.’s restrictive housing covenants helped funnel African American residents into South L.A.’s housing projects and away from nearby majority-White suburban communities such as Compton, Lynwood or South Gate. By the dawn of the 1960s, the Jordan Downs population was predominantly Black and reflected the ills of American society … and the debate raging within the Civil Rights Movement—either the dependency of individuals mired in the “welfare state,” or institutional racism where a deliberate retrenchment of educational and employment opportunities perpetuated inner-city poverty. Manufacturing jobs left the depressed area after the 1965 Watts Riots and, although the Johnson Administration had by then launched its “War on Poverty,” local housing projects saw little of that money.

When federal spending on poverty began to decline in the 1970s and ’80s, the Watts housing projects were further neglected and witnessed the rise of residents who were disaffected youth and formed notorious street gangs such as Jordan Downs’ “Eastside Grape Street Crips”; Nickerson Gardens spawned the “Bounty Hunter Watts Bloods” and Imperial Courts gave birth to the “PJ Crips.”

In 1989, developers wanted to buy Jordan Downs in exchange for tax credits. The housing authority would have received $11 million for the new rent subsidy program, but the run-down units were too difficult to sell. The developer wanted to enforce strict leasing rules; tenant leaders fought the plan with more than 1,000 petition signatures. Similar buyouts had failed at housing projects in Washington, D.C., and in St. Louis, Mo.

Also that year, federal housing officials revoked a $5 million grant to the L.A. housing authority destined for structural repair at various city-controlled housing projects because of financial irregularities. In 1988, the housing authority had to borrow $818,000 from the City Council for repairs at Jordan Downs.

The nation’s old housing projects are falling almost daily in favor of new mixed-use developments. Most were built during the Great Depression and were part of the Roosevelt Administration’s “New Deal” to clean up slums. Techwood Homes in Atlanta, Ga., was the nation’s first housing project (1936), and was among the first to be demolished during a new course of urban renewal in the mid-1990s. Since then, Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, Cabrini-Green and Ida B. Wells projects were each demolished in 2011. Miller Homes in Trenton, N.J. also fell that year, as did Brewster-Douglass in Detroit last year. Brooklyn’s Brownsville Prospect Plaza was demolished in 2010. The Baltimore housing authority in 2007 began demolishing up to 2,400 units.

With the advent of housing projects in the 1950s, a pattern of segregation and deterioration became self-perpetuating, as wealthier, often White residents left the urban neighborhoods in a behavior known as “White flight.”

Jordan Downs. (27163)

This left the poorest households relegated to urban neighborhoods without many resources. This concentrated poverty, according to a 2009 report issued by the Urban Institute, is detrimental to urban neighborhoods, contributing to lower-performing schools, higher crime rates, reduced investment and increased municipal neglect. “High poverty rates, especially among African Americans and Latinos, threaten the well-being of neighborhoods as well as families,” the report stated. “It is racial and ethnic segregation that fuels the geographic concentration of poverty and the severe distress of high-poverty neighborhoods.”

Federal housing subsidies have been expensive to taxpayers. In 2009, the federal government spent about $25 billion on rental aid for low-income households and another $8 billion on public housing projects. President Barack Obama has said his administration will end programs that have failed, suggesting occupancy time limits and work requirements be placed on aid recipients. His new 2014 budget proposal would essentially end decades of providing rent vouchers or operating subsidized housing by expanding a 1996 program designed to help recipients become financially independent. Under the current government housing program, only about 39 of 3,200 public authorities have incentives in place to promote work and independence.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has expressed concern about the Obama Administration’s Transforming Rental Assistance initiative which would make changes in the nation’s public housing programs. “I am concerned about the bill’s one-for-one replacement provisions,” she said in a 2010 statement while questioning HUD secretary Shaun Donovan during his testimony before the Housing and Community Opportunity Subcommittee.

“I am also concerned,” Waters continued, “about whether or not this proposal represents the privatization of public housing. I think there is a value in public housing, particularly in the fact that it is ‘public’ in the sense that its owners—housing authorities—are not profit-driven. Allowing the private sector to enter may provide housing authorities with more capital, but for-profit actors will be looking for a profit. The foreclosure of a public housing development would have a devastating impact for dozens and, some cases, hundreds of families.”

A new trend nationally invites private developers to create mixed-income dwellings on the sites of newly demolished public housing. In 1996, the federal government created the aforementioned Hope VI Program to provide grant money for demolition purposes; by 2010, the program had allocated about $6.1 billion for neighborhood revitalization. HUD has essentially gotten out of home building and has shifted its focus to providing housing choice vouchers to low-income households. Instead of building housing, HUD pays the difference between what low-income households can afford to pay in rent—usually about 40 percent of the household income and the market rate.

Whatever happens, as history at other public housing projects has revealed, by the time the new Jordan Downs urban village is a reality, the familiar faces of today may not be the future residents.