Lead Story West Edition

Federal agency greenlights plan to redevelop Jordan Downs

WATTS — The federal government has approved the proposed redevelopment of Jordan Downs, one of the four public housing developments in Watts, city officials announced June 9.

The green light from U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to begin demolition at the 49-acre site is a step closer to its transformation into a mixed-use, urban village.

The Housing Authority of the city of Los Angeles (HACLA) operates the complex.

Originally developed as semi-permanent housing for war workers during World War II, Jordan Downs fell into disrepair and its crime rate rose. If all goes as planned, it will become a mixed-income community with around 1,400 new apartments, chain stores and new streetscapes.

“For years, we have worked to build the foundation for a better future in Watts, a future where affordable housing, good jobs, and economic prosperity are within reach for everyone who lives and works here,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said. “With this approval, we are one stop closer to a new Jordan Downs that will transform this neighborhood and spur revitalization across the community.”

There are currently around 2,600 residents living on the premises. They are guaranteed units in the new Jordan Downs as long as they are in good standing.

However, it hasn’t been clear what that entails.

“The housing authority has issued a right to remain certificate, it’s still a little vague but it’s a good step forward to secure the guarantee the right to return,” said Thelmy Perez, coordinator for the L.A. Human Right to Housing Collective.

“We are a little disappointed because there are several things that are happening. One is related to the housing rights component and the other is the health of the residents during what is expected to be a tenant onsite demolition and construction process, which is expected to take 10 years or more,” Perez added.

An artist’s rendering shows what the planned redevelopment of the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts might look like from above when completed. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave approval to the redevelopment plans last week. (Courtesy of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles)
An artist’s rendering shows what the planned redevelopment of the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts might look like from above when completed. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave approval to the redevelopment plans last week. (Courtesy of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles)

The new project is also meant to attract more affluent homeowners to live alongside the current, poverty-stricken residents in hopes that the area becomes more diverse and more lucrative.

“This redevelopment is a catalyst for change in Watts, bringing over $1 billion in public and private investment to the area and with it, hundreds of jobs for Watts residents, new affordable housing, and clean, safe areas for our children to play and learn,” said City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents the area.

However, not everyone from the community is confident the new project will have a positive impact.

Timothy Watkins, the president and CEO of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, believes the city shouldn’t just focus on Jordan Downs.

“I’m absolutely for the development, but let’s make it as beautiful and as impressive and as healing as it deserves to be,” Watkins said. “Let’s not shut down the recreation center at Nickerson Gardens while we build a beautiful brand new one at Jordan Downs. Let’s not board up buildings inside of Gonzaque Village where the murder rate went through the ceiling a couple years ago.  Let’s open those buildings up so people can feel safe and use the amenities that are useful to them.”

His other concern is the area’s land contamination and he isn’t the only one. In 2011, Human Health Risk Assessment concluded that the site contains elevated levels of lead, arsenic and other toxins. Those contaminants pose major health risks to the residents, such as cancer and autoimmune and neurological diseases.

Since then, Watkins and Perez have gone to the premises and tested the soil. Lead is one of the most prominent. It’s around 275 times higher than the state’s action levels and it’s right in the middle of Jordan Downs.

“How can you sit there and say OK, there are 700 units over contaminated land, and now you want to put 1,400 units on top of the land,” said Mac Shorty, a representative of the Watts Neighborhood Council.

“You want to double the capacity of the people that can get sick and become injured from this. People’s lives matter.“

He recently found out there was lead and arsenic poisoning in the water at Jordan High School. He brought it to the attention of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“Why would you have these young kids drinking this water?” he asked.

Emma Cortez has lived in the housing complex for 19 years. She worries about her future and health. Lead was found in her yard and the water is yellow coming out of her faucet. She put in a water filter, but it didn’t clear it up.

“They don’t want to clean our homes, or continue testing for toxins,” Cortez said. “It’s sad. It’s hard for me to make over $20,000, that’s possible for people like doctors. But, I’m going to stick it out till the very end and fight to stay at Jordan Downs.”

The Housing Authority’s 2015 Choice Neighborhood Initiative Application submitted to HUD explains their replacement plan. Twenty percent of the existing 700 units are lobbed off as market rate housing with an additional 10 percent lobbed off as low-income housing tax credit only units for 60 percent of the area median income.

That is out of reach for most Jordan Downs residents, where the average household income is around $16,000.

Only 146 unites in total are reserved for 30 percent of the area median income and below.

The Housing Authority states the income breakdown is consistent with the current market and the waiting list. The latest 2015 HACLA Agency Plan states 91 percent of the 45,000 families on the public housing waiting are at 30 percent of the area median income or below.

Despite it all, the Housing Authority and the city are determined to finish the project. It has been rejected twice for federal funding.

In December things began to turn around; it finally got $6.5 million from California’s Strategic Growth Council and now this federal approval.

“This is a big win for the residents and the Watts community,” said Doug Guthrie, president and CEO of the Housing Authority. “The process of trying to rebuild and transform public housing in Los Angeles is challenging, but a firm commitment by the agency coupled with the residents’ motivation to create a thriving community has made this possible.”