From eyesore to godsend

April 14, 2011 

When Menorah Housing Foundation cut the ribbon this week on its bright new West Los Angeles senior housing project, Terri Tippit was thrilled.

“That corner,” she says, “has been an eyesore for as long as I’ve lived here. And I’ve lived here for 37 years.”

Although the $10.9 million complex has been open for two months at Veteran Avenue and Pico Boulevard, this week marked its official grand opening. Restricted to tenants 62 and over with a maximum income of $29,000 for one-person households and $33,150 for couples, it brings 45 units of desperately needed low-income senior housing to one of the city’s priciest neighborhoods.

“We received 1,134 applications,” says foundation president Anne Friedrich, whose organization—a non-profit, non-sectarian offshoot of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles—operates 17 apartment buildings for low-income seniors throughout the county. “We held a public lottery.”

During the 1970s and 1980s, the building housed the Department of Public Social Services West Los Angeles Regional Office—a drab, beige, 37,597-square-foot welfare facility in an area of homes and apartments. All day, Tippit says, needy people would line up outside, waiting for caseworkers. Periodically, the office would reach capacity and close its doors, and the crowds would mill around the neighborhood, waiting for the building to reopen.

“It was all right at first, when it was mostly women and children,” says Tippit, who chairs the Westside Neighborhood Council and serves as president of the West of Westwood Homeowners Association. “But then it switched to more of a general relief, homeless population. There was a liquor store directly across the street—with a signal, yet—and, well, I won’t go into the gory details, but there were a lot of problems with the clients. They weren’t respectful of the community.”

Sympathetic though she was, she says, she and others pushed hard for the welfare offices to be moved to a more commercial sector. But when the move finally occurred, the now-vacant building presented new problems. Unoccupied for years, it became a magnet for weeds, graffiti and vagrants. “It wasn’t kept up,” she says. “You can’t have people sleeping in doorways.”

Finally, in 2009—and with city, county and federal assistance—Menorah Housing Foundation bought the property from Los Angeles County, razed the old offices and started construction on the new apartments. It wasn’t easy, says Lance Bocarsly, who chairs the foundation’s board. Because property values in Los Angeles are so high, low-income housing projects can be prohibitively expensive.

“Supervisor Yaroslavsky was absolutely instrumental in letting us pull this together,” says Bocarsly. “This would not have happened without him. He was the engine.” Which is why, he added, the new complex has been named the Zev Yaroslavsky Apartments.

Tippit says the neighbors are so happy that they’ve decided to be patient—for now—with an unexpected parking issue caused by the number of cars at the complex.

“Now that there’s a new building,” she says, “it’s a whole new environment.” 

For the residents, the place is nothing less than a godsend. Clean and secure, with a bus stop out front, a diner next door and a shopping center a half-block walk away on a level sidewalk, the apartments rent on a sliding scale that averages about $240 a month. Friedrich says the average tenant is 71 and the average income is far below the eligibility requirement.

“I moved in here on my birthday, February 15, and it was the best present I’ve ever had in my life,” says 63-year-old Nancy Evers, a disabled ex-waitress who had been paying $785 a month for a room over a garage in Montrose when she heard she had won the right to lease her third-floor unit.

Evers said she had been trying for years to get into subsidized housing, only to be confronted with years-long waiting lists. 

“I’m disabled and only get Social Security,” Evers says. “My rent only left me $50 a month to live on. I was living on bread. French toast, bread and butter, bread and bread. My doctor kept saying, ‘Nancy, what are you eating?’ But my daughter heard about Menorah Housing and said, ‘I think if you call, God is telling me it’ll be all right for you this time.’”

Evers was reluctant to get her hopes up.

“I’ve been working since the age of 13, when I got my first job peeling potatoes at a greasy spoon at Sixth and Bixel,” she says. “I never win anything. But I called and I got it. Now I have a one-bedroom apartment, and it’s so bright and sunny—full-sized fridge and stove, beautiful butter-yellow bedroom carpet. You could probably get four people in my shower. I’m just so blessed, and I think everyone in here feels the same way.”

Posted 4/14/11

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