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LA County officials propose selling off public housing

The county has struggled to maintain public housing units scattered across southern L.A. Sherrie King says this hole's been in her ceiling for months.
Rina Palta / KPCC
The county has struggled to maintain public housing units scattered across southern L.A. Sherrie King says this hole's been in her ceiling for months.

There's a hole in Sherrie King's ceiling. It started as a crack, but for the past two months, she's had a full on view of the rafters that make up her living room ceiling.

And that's not all.

"Tile is coming up off the floors and from my understanding, the piping is bad," she said. 

The security gate in front of her apartment building is perpetually unlocked, she said, so people use the building's walkway as a shortcut between streets.

King wants these things fixed - but she doesn't want to move.

"It's a nice building," she says. "Green grass, well kept, and it's only four units."

She may not have a choice.

King is among 772 people living in one of 38 small apartment buildings owned by the Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles scattered around the southern end of L.A. County. The agency said it's struggled to maintain the properties because the federal funding that goes into them isn't enough.

"The South Scattered Sites operate in the red," said Emilio Salas, the housing authority's deputy executive director. Logistically, since they're small buildings spread out over a large area of the city, operations costs are high.

"You need resident managers at multiple locations, you need maintenance men that have to travel to all of these different areas, and resident services are almost impossible to deliver," he said.

He points to a report by the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities that says Congress has provided only about 80 percent of what it actually costs to operate public housing in recent years. Some cities, like San Francisco, have opted to sell off all of their units because the funding issue has gotten so bad, Salas said.

So he's recommending the same thing.

"We would prefer to keep the public housing model," he said. "The only reason we're taking this action is because of the continued underfunding of the program."

Selling off  the 241 units would bring in an estimated $35 million, which Salas said could be used to buy about half as many units in new, larger properties.

If the buildings are sold, residents would either be located to another public housing building — 2,721 of the county's public housing units would remain even after the sale. Or tenants could opt for a Section 8 voucher, which allows a tenant to find a private rental and have the federal government shoulder a portion of the rent.

Advocates for low-income tenants said the county hasn't tried hard enough to find alternatives.

"Once you lose it, it's gone," said attorney Fernando Gaytan of Legal Aid, a  group that represents low-income residents. "Public housing serves such an important part of the social safety net. To lose it — there's no reversing it."

Gaytan said public housing buildings have traditionally served as the last resort for the very, very poor who simply cannot find viable housing elsewhere. Not only is there a guaranteed low rent and no move in costs, but high tenant protections and a landlord - the local government - that's accountable to the public.

Vouchers, on the other hand, depend on a tenant finding an apartment and getting the landlord to opt into the Section 8 program. It's a much more complicated process for a family that's already struggling, Gaytan said.

"You have to find the right sized apartment, one that's in range of your job, family, schools, church, friends - all the things that a family needs to maintain their daily routine and their health," he said.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors, which has to approve the plan before the agency can sell, is expected to discuss the potential sale in the coming weeks.

King said when she was first accepted for public housing in 2007, she had three properties to choose from. She chose her three bedroom apartment in South L.A. because it only had four units, not like most public housing buildings, which house hundreds of families. 

"I have to think about my sons, three boys, they're black boys, and I'm not trying to have nobody be a statistic," she says. "With kids, the fewer units, the better."

She's worried about moving. So is Andrea Jones, who lives nearby in one of the units marked for sale in the Westmont area, near where Highways 110 and 105 meet. 

Jones says she got her current three bedroom townhouse after losing her job at a hardware store in the Antelope Valley then losing her home. After living in motels for two years, the county told her she'd qualified for a slot in public housing.

She works at a nearby store and lives with her five kids.

"It was a blessing," she said. But now she might have to start over.

"Where am I going to go? Where will I work?" she asked.

She said the county has offered to move her into another public housing building in Compton, Long Beach, or Pasadena, but may have to downgrade to a two-bedroom in a bigger building. That would mean sharing a room with her three daughters, who  are 2-, 3- and 20-years-old. 

"I would share a room, sleep in a dresser drawer on the floor for my kids," she said. "But not when we're already in a position of being comfortable."