Where L.A. riots flared, a housing boom

Developers are turning the lots of South Los Angeles into new apartment complexes and condos.

Since the 1992 riots left more than 50 dead and more than 1,000 buildings destroyed, "South Central" Los Angeles has conjured such violent imagery of racial strife that in 2003 the city council deemed its very name pejorative.

Now, to the surprise of many, developers are turning the lots of South Los Angeles into the city's latest housing boom - erecting new apartment complexes and condos where abandoned factories and homes once stood.

In many ways, the changes taking place here differ little from what is happening in New York's South Bronx or in the neighborhood surrounding the Cabrini Green project in Chicago. A heated housing market, federal tax credits that have turned blighted buildings into good investments, and the changing lifestyles of residents who opt to give up gated communities for more square feet and a shorter commute have spawned interest in some of America's toughest neighborhoods.

Yet this is not a typical gentrification tale - at least not yet.

Even though more for-profit developers are seeking opportunities in South L.A., the majority of what they are building now is affordable housing. They have conformed to the realities of the community in other ways, too, in some cases negotiating peace with disparate gangs employed at their sites and holding meetings with community members leery of projects on the rise. All this is fueling hope that tides are turning in parts of South Los Angeles that have long been neglected and left as among the nation's worst.

"People are driving by every day asking, 'What's going up here?' They want an application right then," says Ebony Steppes, working a shift as a security guard on a construction site where a 66-unit apartment complex called Las Brisas is on the rise. "This is the first big building in our neighborhood. It was a blessing to get this."

Since 2001, some 1,500 units of housing - 1,000 of which are in redevelopment areas - are under construction, approved, or in the pipeline in South L.A., according to the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. While that is far less than development in other parts of the city, such as downtown Los Angeles, the CRA says that is only because of its later start.

"While other areas [of Los Angeles] are becoming pretty well saturated ... and are reaching their peak now, South Los Angeles becomes the new land of opportunity," says Kiara Harris, a CRA spokeswoman.

AMCAL, the company that is developing Las Brisas and will soon break ground on market-rate, for-sale homes nearby, has been one of the groups pioneering revitalization in South Los Angeles. President Percival Vaz says that many developers thought they were "crazy" when they first began seeking land in the area eight years ago. "A lot of the market-rate developers still think we are crazy," he says.

Indeed, though "South Central" has officially been renamed South Los Angeles, some of its tougher qualities still plague pockets of this community, which was once an industrial center and has long been home to immigrant minorities. By day now, streets that are lined with single-family homes and tidy yards are quiet. But many in the community say gangs run the nighttime.

That's one reason Dawond Rowles, a former Crips member, was hired at Las Brisas - to mitigate tensions between the gangs that demand to be employed when sites go up on their turf. "Around here they get along," he says. "I tell them to leave all their problems at the gate."

Despite obstacles such as crime - supervisors often hire 24-hour security to keep their equipment safe - development projects continue: Federal tax credits gave many developers the incentive to build. Awarded twice a year - in what Mr. Vaz says is an increasingly competitive process - they are then sold to banks and other corporations as investments.

At first, says Kerman Maddox, a longtime political analyst, the interest in South L.A. land "struck a lot of people as odd," he says. But "[developers] found out, lo and behold, 'I can make some money down here.' " Ever since, the rate has not seemed to slow.

As demand rises, prices do too. Peggy Hill, president of FAME Housing Corp., which concentrates on housing for the working poor and on relief for rampant overcrowding in parts of the city, says that as it has gotten more acceptable to build in South L.A., it has gotten harder to build affordable units.

"You can barely afford to do it anymore," says Ms. Hill. "The deal just doesn't pencil like it did five years ago."

Indeed, according to DataQuick Information Systems, home appreciation for 14 zip codes of South L.A. grew by 38 percent from 2003 to 2004. While the downtown area and the city overall outpaced the appreciation in South L.A. from 1999 to 2002, South L.A. caught up in 2003 and surpassed both last year. The median price in 2005 was $318,000.

For some residents, the appreciation could not come soon enough. Mr. Maddox says the investment he made on his home is finally on par with that of his peers who live elsewhere in L.A. "For years, it barely went up," he says. "You'd think, 'Wow, I have property, but I can't take out loans on my property like you guys can.' "

Many are hoping that the uptick in affordable housing is just the beginning of a story of renaissance in South L.A. In fact, experts say, housing stock often plays a pivotal role in the comeback of a community.

"If you don't have housing that communicates a message that this community is OK or a good place to be, there is no way to attract supermarkets," says Anne Habiby, senior vice president of Initiative for a Competitive Inner City in Boston. "Housing is an overriding and overpowering message."

A better housing stock could mean that more people from outside the community opt to move in. Developer Jeff Lee says that demand for market-rate housing is growing in South L.A. - both from within the community and beyond. This is especially true as residents are priced out of their current neighborhoods and commutes get longer.

"People don't want to spend two hours a day on the freeway," Mr. Lee says. "It's a lifestyle choice."

Already the building frenzy in South L.A. is providing shorter commutes than some thought imaginable just a few years ago. Booker Turner, a contractor, has been in construction for 35 years. During that time he has traveled as far as Bakersfield and San Diego for work. "Now," he says, on a break at a construction site about five minutes from his home, "I can work right here in the neighborhood."

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