Christmas for Los Angeles Police officer De'Wana Hubbard arrived a few days early this year with the stroke of a pen on the dotted line of a real estate agreement.
The two-bedroom house in central Los Angeles with its big front yard, long driveway, and spacious backyard where her son could play safely is about to be hers.
"Closing escrow, that's my Christmas gift," says Officer Hubbard, a 3-1/2 year LAPD veteran. "I'm going to put a bow on the door!"
Like a small but growing number of law-enforcement officials around the country, Hubbard is moving into the city she protects, courtesy of the new "Officer Next Door" program. Administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the move is a part of the nationwide push to reclaim America's cities from crime and neglect. Indeed, people involved in the program hope that returning officers to houses in the communities they serve will not only help settle the officers' often-hectic home life, but also bring a measure of stability to inner-city neighborhoods.
The program makes federally foreclosed residential properties in urban areas available to qualified law-enforcement personnel at 50 percent of their appraised value. Since its inception in May, the program has attracted nearly 12,000 inquiries - about a third of them from officers in departments in greater Los Angeles.
For a number of reasons, including the availability of suitable housing, the total number of officers who have closed on a house is just under 400, HUD officials say. But they note that the program is just beginning to take off.
The benefits of a new home
For Hubbard, the new house means more than just a new roof over her head. "I don't have to worry about that 100-mile-a-day commute and the traffic," says Hubbard, referring to the numbing daily toll other officers have paid to afford a home - often not only outside the city but outside Los Angeles County as well.
"You go to work. Court appearances usually fall on your days off. So what time do you really have to spend with your family? The quality of the time [you do have] suffers. Communication suffers. You can really see how that can contribute to the breakdown of the core of the family - you're just not around."
Not only have notoriously long commutes stressed many an already fragile police marriage, but, as in the infamous Rodney King affair, officers living outside the city were often accused of losing touch with the sensitivities of the communities they served.
Yet it wasn't that most Los Angeles police officers didn't want to live in the city. Rather many officers found that even two-income households could afford little in Los Angeles's pricey housing market.
Officers offer stability
To be sure, the goal of giving law-enforcement officials the means to buy a house is important, but some observers point to the stabilizing influence that officers will have in their neighborhoods as perhaps the program's greatest benefit.
"There are two reasons you want to see police officers living in the city," says Buffalo Police Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske. "One, it adds people who are well-employed, earning a higher income and obviously pretty stable as stake-holders in the city - an anchor in a lot of these areas. The other is that having a police officer in the neighborhood can give people a feeling that they're going to have fewer problems because they know a police officer lives on the block."
Some participants in Officer Next Door are already intending to make a difference in their new neighborhoods. John Lloyd Jr., an 11-1/2 year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, says he's already met more than two dozen people living near his corner three-bedroom row house - and he's prepared to keep his corner of the community safe.
"Most problems start from a corner. There will never be a quality-of-life problem on this corner - none of that beer-drinking, crack-smoking nonsense going on here, because I can guard four corners at once."
Although Officer Lloyd says he won't be moving in until a lead paint removal project is completed in a few weeks, he already feels a deep attachment to the community. "I will be living in this beautiful neighborhood with these beautiful neighbors for the rest of my life. This is it, brother. If I do anything, I'm going to build a wheelchair ramp outside - that's how long I'll be here."
For Hubbard and Lloyd, each of whom had been looking for an affordable first house for some time, the Officer Next Door program has been a real boost, especially during the Christmas season.
"It helped me have a better personal outlook," Hubbard says, "knowing that one of my goals is becoming a reality. It's not just a dream anymore."