Revamping An L.A. Housing Project Takes Army of 'Life Coaches'

Los Angeles's infamous Jordan Downs public housing project in Watts is getting a makeover. For the last 18 months, the city's housing authority has dispatched life coaches to assist longtime residents with a myriad of social services from career counseling to parenting classes. These coaches are there to help make way for a new development. The plan is to try and attract hundreds of middle-class residents who will be living side-by-side with some of the city's poorest people. But some families living in Jordan Downs say for all its ills, the community is also a place where people care for and look out for each, and they fear that will be lost forever amid the restaurants, retail outlets, and condos.

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Public housing has received its share of makeovers with both controversy and success. In Los Angeles in the heart of Watts, a plan is under way to redevelop the 60-year-old Jordan Downs housing project. This not just a physical renovation. As Gloria Hillard reports, the effort involves a large-scale social services program.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: Entering Jordan Downs for the first time is a bit like a puzzle maze. Sidewalks crisscross and meander through 50 acres of identical two-story buildings, sun bleached and shades lighter than the original pink. Denise Richardson has strolled these paths for 40 years.

DENISE RICHARDSON: Hey, Lorraine.

LORRAINE: Hi. How are you doing now?

RICHARDSON: All right. And you?

LORRAINE: (Unintelligible).

RICHARDSON: She's been over here a long time too.

HILLARD: Richardson has seen a lot of changes here over the years through what she calls the ups and downs of gangs, drugs and up-close violence. Still, she says this is home to generations who cherish its strong sense of community.

RICHARDSON: We actually are like a family here. Our community, we stick together. And a lot of these young moms that don't know how to cook, I teach them how to cook, and I encourage them to go to these classes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You need a piece of paper?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Mm-hmm.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What do you say?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I need a piece of paper.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you.

HILLARD: These classes - both after school for kids as well as adult classes in computer skills, finance and even parenting - take place at the Jordan Downs Community Center. In recent months, many of the residents have earned their high school equivalency diplomas. L.A.'s housing authority contracted with Shields for Families to provide the teachers and a wide array of social services.

John King, with the housing authority, says the program is all about leveling the playing field for the residents of Jordan Downs, preparing them for the mixed-income redevelopment.

JOHN KING: We want the families here to be a part of the future of Jordan Downs before any building has begun, any, you know, demolition has started at all, is this investment in the people.

HILLARD: That includes a team of outreach workers like former resident Robert Thomas.

ROBERT THOMAS: I love it at Jordan Downs. You know, I just want everything to be better for these residents. You know, that's the main thing, our main goal.

HILLARD: The 48-year-old Thomas says he's a little bit like a life coach for many of the single mothers who call Jordan Downs home.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Mama. Mama, somebody's here.

CYNTHIA GILL: Coming.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: She's coming.

THOMAS: OK.

HILLARD: Client Cynthia Gill is a 25-year-old single mother of three. Since being in the program, she has completed parenting classes, just received her GED and feels a lot more confident now about job prospects.

GILL: So when I go to an interview, I know how to present myself, how - what to say, what questions to ask and to know to ask questions and how to dress and how to carry yourself.

HILLARD: Thomas checks in with her every week. She calls him coach.

GILL: Bye.

THOMAS: Take care. Take care.

GILL: OK, coach.

THOMAS: All right.

HILLARD: Artist renderings of the proposed redevelopment show four-story townhomes and condos set within green space, restaurants and shopping. The development would double the existing 700 units at Jordan Downs with a little more than half dedicated to fair market apartments and condos. Today, small groups of men and women socialize in backyards where clotheslines sag under the weight of fresh laundry. David Sims was born here. He has three children and is hoping to land a job in construction when redevelopment gets underway.

DAVID SIMS: Hope I'll be around, God willing. I hope I'll be there to be part of it. That's why I'm participating in these classes and stuff like that so I have a better chance of getting in with these contractors and having a job for that period of time because that's a life-changing experience right there. And, man, I'm looking forward to it.

HILLARD: But some of the residents are skeptical of the promises being made. Mervin Cenance is one of them.

MERVIN CENANCE: I believe somebody else is getting ready to benefit from this redevelopment. You know, I don't really think that it's going to benefit our community because a lot of us might lose our homes, you know? My mother, she's been living over here for 50 years.

HILLARD: There are examples across the country where mixed-income developments have displaced public housing residents. Housing authority's John King says that won't happen at Jordan Downs.

KING: If you take the other areas across the country where that may have happened and then you look at what's happening here, it just doesn't point to that.

HILLARD: The cost of the project is estimated at up to $1 billion, and there are still questions as to how it will be financed and when construction will begin. In the meantime, longtime resident Denise Richardson says she's looking forward to her new apartment and the planned farmers' market.

RICHARDSON: I mean, who wouldn't want to stay where it's going to be rebuilt and beautiful?

HILLARD: And while some of her neighbors may raise an eyebrow wondering how middle-class neighbors will fit into the community that is Jordan Downs, Richardson doesn't bat an eye.

RICHARDSON: I'm going to acquaint myself when they move in, and I'll say, you know, I'm Denise Richardson. If you need anything, feel free to knock on my door.

HILLARD: Richardson says being a good neighbor is how she was raised. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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