He was eighteen, maybe nineteen years old, with cola eyes and whiskerless brown skin, and his hair, which was swept back in an impeccable bubble, was black with a brown sheen.
With calm disdain he heard the question, “How do you like living in Villa Nueva?” — San Ysidro’s village of 394 rent-subsidized apartments, the largest of its kind in San Diego.
He considered his response, released an obscenity, and resumed silence.
Another question: “But what’s the matter with this place? It’s clean. It’s well run.’’
“It’s East Berlin, man,” he said. “You can’t do nothing. They got a curfew. Ten o’clock. That’s why they got hassles with guards, man. And they got all these rules ...”
He shook his head, beginning a grin of disbelief. “Like you can’t be sitting in your car drinking a beer, you know?! The guard comes, writes you a fine, fifteen dollars. And not just kids, man! You can’t be even forty, fifty years old and drinking in your own ear.” Expletive. End of opinion.
Villa Nueva is sponsored by the California Province of Augustinians, a Catholic order of men, nearly all of them priests, who, prior to the opening of the project in March of 1970, had had no experience in housing administration. The Augustinians — Augies, they’re called around the project — were for the most part educators. When the order came to California in 1922, its first activity was the founding of St. Augustine High School in North Park.
By the late 1960s the order was looking for ways to extend its ministry into social work. Father John Blethen, who was then the provincial leader, happened to hear through his brother-in-law who worked in a bank that the Gersten Construction Company of Los Angeles was building a low-income rental project which it wished to sell to a nonprofit sponsor. The project was going up on a hillside tomato field near the border. Most of the tenants would undoubtedly be of Mexican heritage, hence Catholic in name at least, and from that basis Father Blethen foresaw a plausible connection between the Augustinians and about 2000 people needing shelter.
After studying the tentative terms of the deal — the assumption of a $5.8 million mortgage for forty years at an interest rate of 6.75 percent — the Augustinians throughout the state put the matter to a vote, and, to Blethen’s mild surprise, they went for it.
They formed the Villa Nueva Corporation as a landlord entity, which would perform the normal functions of leasing units, maintaining buildings, and collecting rents, and which would also deal with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in applying rental subsidies to the poor. For rent the tenant would pay one-quarter of his or her monthly income, and if that amount fell short of the fair market value for the unit, the government would make up the difference. Initially the rentals ranged from $156 a month for a two-bedroom, to $182 for a four-bedroom, including utilities. A tenant’s share averaged seventy-five dollars.
Cheap, yes, but not without disadvantages. The high-density zoning put the apartment buildings, forty-seven in all, in terraces on a hill that was dominated by the U.S. Border Patrol station. The nearby station was used at the time as a detention center and had a high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and concertina, since covered by cinderblock wall. At a distance the peak-roofed apartments looked like a citadel; up close they reminded some local folks of a chicken coop, hence its nickname, El Gallinero. The best thing about the location was its outward view of the Tia Juana River Valley, vaguely divided into clumps of pasture, floodway, and freeway, and the hills of Tijuana with its overlying net of sulphur-blue lights.
The buildings neared completion at the end of 1969 but the Augustinians delayed moving in the tenants until March of the following year. They felt the project wasn’t livable yet, not without sidewalks and plantings. This caused some conflict with the Gersten Company, which couldn’t begin to recover its construction costs until the tenants had moved in and the Augustinians had taken over. “They started to feel we were incompetent,” said Ray Lynn, formerly a priest and Villa Nueva’s first executive director. Lynn and his staff made up for the delay with an exhausting move-in period, settling one hundred families a month for four months.
Even as tenants were moving in, strains began to appear in the project’s design. The number of children was unexpected; of 1800 tenants, 1100 were teen-agers and younger. Following HUD guidelines, Gersten had allowed only seven playgrounds on the sixteen-acre site. Twice that number had to be fitted in between the buildings and flowerbeds — or rather what was left of the flowerbeds after the children had trampled them. Waist-high fences had to be erected on either side of the walkways to protect the shrubs until they were well established. Thirteen years later, some of these fences still remain.
By the summer of 1970 it was obvious that something had to be done to keep the children and teen-agers busy, or else they would loose their tempests of energy upon the buildings and each other. Lynn got the idea of taking some of the units off the market and turning them into entertainment centers. (The Villa Center, the project’s sole meeting room, was too small for what Lynn had in mind.) Since the idea was new to HUD officials in San Diego, Lynn and Blethen flew to Washington, D.C., to view other projects and to lobby (Lynn called it “doing spadework”) for the plan. Eventually they converted two buildings, four units each, into a teen club, boys’ and girls’ clubs, and a classroom for adults.
Now the Augustinians were ready for the kind of labor they had had in mind. Four Dominican sisters came to run a preschool, the kindergarten, the girls’ club; a priest organized a soccer team and kept the teen-agers busy (their club had a punching bag in one comer). The guiding idea, said Lynn, was to build a you-can-do-it attitude. One sister let the children operate an ice cream store, keeping track of their money and inventory.
For the adults, in addition to the usual classes in citizenship and English, the Augustinians encouraged self help. When one woman learned commercial sewing at a trade school, she and eight other women formed a sewing club called Ten Fe (Have Faith), which took a loan to buy professional sewing equipment, formed a nonprofit company, and set about making curtains for all the units at Villa Nueva. The Augustinians paid them at cost for their work, and that success led them to sew curtains for other low-income projects in San Diego. The project took three years to complete, and taught the women a trade.
The tenor of that era seemed to be that the Augustinians wanted to establish a community, not just run a project, but at the same time, as landlords, they were careful not to be pushed around just because they were priests. “In the beginning a lot of people thought that men of the cloth would be too soft-hearted to demand rent,” said Lynn. “You know, like we’d say to a tenant, ‘So you’re six months behind, no problem; pay us when you get the money.’ But I didn’t feel that kind of attitude would do the people any good. It certainly wasn’t educational. So we evicted quite a few, and word got around. If we hadn’t, the project would never have worked.”
After a few years. Villa Nueva became in one sense an ideal low-income housing project; it was a home worth protecting. The residents generally supported the management’s efforts against vandalism and crime. These efforts often came to bear against outsiders, boys from San Ysi-dro or Otay or Imperial Beach who came to the project ostensibly to visit residents but who used the grounds as a park, especially as a place to get high, since the grounds are not well seen from the street. There was graffiti, loitering, drinking, cars broken into, batteries stolen, a few cases of people caught shooting up in cars. Lynn said he and his chief assistant, Armando Hurtado, the manager of the project, spent “an ungodly amount of hours” patrolling the project in the evening.
Their presence alone made the boys behave, but they had legal means, too; the lease agreement gave them leverage against people the management wished to remove. A curious passage in the lease agreement says that in the case of an undesirable guest, such as a previously evicted tenant or a “well-known drug addict or dealer or any other one judged as such by the management,” the tenant may face eviction if he is “hanging around in the company of said person” in any place within the property, other than the privacy of his own apartment. In other words, if a tenant is so much as seen in the parking lot with someone judged by the management as undesirable, he is up for eviction.
Lynn left the project in 1974 (he quit the priesthood to marry one of the social workers at Villa Nueva) and since then the efforts against troublemakers have moved into keeping them away physically. Hurtado proposed the erection of a fence around the project, to cut off the hundreds of pathways in and out among the buildings.
The Augustinians didn’t approve of the idea right away; fencing themselves away from the community had never been their desire. But Hurtado polled the tenants and presented a convincing show of opinion for the fence, which went up in 1979. Vandalism and nuisances dropped by as much as eighty percent, said Hurtado, whose latest plan is to close two of the entrances to the project and post guards at the remaining three. Eventually (though he has not yet proposed this to the project board of directors) he wishes to have arm gates installed to check the entrance of every car.
Lynn, who greatly admires Hurtado and calls him “a great man,” dislikes the fence. He says, “It makes it easier for the management and the social workers keeping some people out, but I don’t think it was the kind of idea I had in mind.” He added that he has been away from the project for some time and that his present opinion may not hold. What does apply, in the broader sense, is an eleven-year-old opinion. He told a reporter in 1972, “When this place was built two years ago, they said it would turn into another Watts, but we are fooling them all.”
An up-to-date opinion. Father Francis X. Riley, the present executive director, said in his office at Villa Nueva: “What it gets down to is hard management and soft management. Hard deals with project security, getting rents, keeping budgets, working with all the eviction procedures, problems in general. Soft management gets into social programs, community relations — something as simple as following through with somebody who has a cold, needs some orange juice. You can’t have soft management unless you have hard management, and that’s a fact of life in a project like this.”
Riley had just gotten in that morning and was still a bit distracted. Somebody, the night before, had punched out his Teen Club director. Pink slips of telephone messages were taped along the inside edge of his desk. He had lived at Villa Nueva since the beginning, had been the first director of social services, and now as executive director he said he felt a little out of place — “It’s a base from which to do other things,” is how he put it.
Not that he can’t handle conflict. Some years back at a Christmas dance he’d jumped between two kids to stop a fight and had found himself being jumped on by a trio of somebody’s friends. “In those days it gave me a rep,” he said. “ ‘Tiene huevos.’ [He’s got balls.] They said I was willing to mix it up. Huh! Now I’d probably run the other way.”
It’s just that given the choice between hard and soft management, Riley goes for soft right down the line. When he moved into his office, his submanagers gave him a billy club for a joke. He stashed it in the credenza behind his chair.
“Social ministry is what this place is all about,” he went on. “We have people who have never lived this way before — in apartments, one on top of the other — who are probably going to be living this way for the rest of their lives. See, the concept originally was to give these people a place to live in transition. They would live in subsidized housing for a while, then they’d get enough money and move on. But the whole world has changed since then. Interest rates went up, housing prices went out of sight. Now, a family living here with a four-bedroom apartment is sooner going to fly to the moon than find a four-bedroom house that it can afford. They can’t move out. Most of these families will be raised here; they’ll all grow up with this as their constant environment. It wasn’t supposed to be home forever, but that’s what it is.”
An in-house opinion. Javier Martinez, the father of seven and since 1970 the tenant of a four-bedroom apartment in Building 40, was watching television one Sunday afternoon after Mass at Mt. Carmel Church. With him on the couch were two sisters-in-law who live in Tijuana, and his eldest daughter. They were talking with his wife who sat in a straight-back chair next to the television, serving coffee and passing out Marlboros. A son, who had just come through the front door kicking a soccer ball, was sitting in front of the set eating potato chips spiked with hot sauce. Another son and a friend had just gone out the door with water balloons. Two little girls came to the door, sent by their mother downstairs to borrow tortillas. A tall, pudgy teen-ager also came through the door and stood for a minute in the living room, hands in pockets, watching TV, then went down the hallway and into one of the bedrooms. He didn’t look like anybody in the family.
“Who?” said Martinez, in response to a question about the boy, still looking at the set. Soccer highlights.
“That kid who just came in.”
“I think that was Julio. He’s a kid who lives around here.”
“And he just walks in anytime?”
“People always coming and going,” said Martinez. “Our door is open. The house is full of kids. We try to help them. Like that kid wants to leave school, and we tell him, ‘Hey, don’t do that.’ So he stays.”
“Is that the kid who got shot here the other day?”
“No, that was another kid, but he’s doing okay and everything,” said Martinez, his attention back on the set, where the score for his hometown team of Irapuato was about to be flashed.
The Thursday before a son had been playing with his .22 rifle in the living room and had dropped it, somehow causing it to fire and send a bullet through a cushion of the couch and into the leg of a friend who’d been sitting, watching. The boy howled and fell down on his face. The eldest daughter, Marta, came into the room, and, thinking the boys were playing a joke, held her incredulity for a minute until they convinced her that the hurt was real. The police came, followed by neighbors who stayed until the boy had been taken to Bay General Hospital. And the odd thing about it, said Marta, was that most of the neighbors came into the apartment because they’d seen the open door and the commotion and assumed that the Martinezes were having some kind of a party.
“It’s a good place to live,” said Martinez, now watching a bellyflopping contest on Wide World of Sports. “If you help people, then they help you. You need a tomato, you go to your neighbor. They need a ride, you say, ‘Sure.’ You want to be good to your neighbor because all you got is this . . . ” He reached behind him and tapped on the wall. “And you know, that’s not too much.” He added that he probably will never leave Villa Nueva, or if he does, he will go to Vista Teirace, a similar project across the street that has rent-supplement apartments for seniors.
A daughter’s opinion. Marta Martinez has lived in Villa Nueva since she was seven years old. She is the first born; her best friend is her sister, the second oldest; and together they hope to be the first to leave. Not by marriage but by renting a small house together in San Ysidro. They both attend Sawyer Business College in East San Diego, with hopes to become secretaries, pool their income, and fly.
It wouldn’t be fair to assume that her wanting to leave has much to do with Villa Nueva per se. She shows an uncertain smile when asked what she thinks about the project, but that seems to come from her readiness to leave home. Otherwise she seems content. She afforded herself of all that the community has to offer, and the offering was abundant. Twice a week her father drove her to dance lessons at Smythe Elementary School in San Ysidro, where she learned well enough to have, today, her own company of children dancers. They performed a few weeks ago at the noontime break for students at San Diego High, Marta and her sister Teresa leading the show in their black-and-white folklorico dresses, seasoned dancers who remembered to smile at the audience. As a girl she went along with the activities set up by the priests and nuns in the project; trips to the mountains or Disneyland, chauffeured in a big green bus (El Perico; the Parakeet) that Villa Nueva had bought for such occasions. “I always liked it here,” she said, “I never had problems. 1 had lots of friends, 1 never really felt crowded. But now. . .”
A great-grandmother’s opinion on how to raise kids in a low-income housing project, and how to keep your own self out of trouble: “Oh, I moved here on March 12, 1970,” said Dollie Owens, eighty years old, speaking on the telephone with a rich, springy accent that comes from Oklahoma but sounds Texan. “I was living with my daughter on Texas Street and babysitting her three kids; me and the grandchildren then moved up here, and all my girls turned out fine. Of course I brought ’em here at 5:00 p.m. No runnin’ around outside. No going to Tijuana either. Those were the rules and the girls stuck by ’em, and that’s all there was to it.”
‘‘Now that your grandchildren are gone,” she was asked, ‘‘do you feel safe living alone in your apartment?” “Oh yeah,” she said. “I’ve never had any sort of trouble, except for when they towed my friend’s car away from parking in my space. But no trouble with anybody here. All of us are neighbors.
“Of course, one thing I’m careful for is not to gossip,” she went on. “That’s important. If you know something that’s going on, and it’s none of your business, the fastest way to bring trouble on your head is to talk about it, and so I don’t.”
The guards in the development next door, Vista Terrace, carry pistols and work in tandem. At Villa Nueva, the guards are more like serenos, watchmen, armed only with flashlights. One of the guards, Primi-tivo Salazar, had this to say: “In all my other jobs I carried a pistol. When I came here they said, ‘No guns. You catch people with nothing more than your wits.’ And I said, ‘Okay, we’ll see.’ ”
“And what have you seen?”
“I’ve been in two scuffles,” he said. “Some outside kids wouldn’t leave the project and I got hit in the head, but the police took them away. Another time at the Villa Center two men got into a fight, and I ended up getting punched in the eye. But that is all. I may not carry a gun, but then, I haven’t had to use one.”
“Is there a place in this project where you’re afraid to walk?”
“Well, one little place,” he said, and pointed to the well-lighted courtyard in front of Building 40, about thirty steps away. “It’s a little bit bad there because it’s so lonely,” he said. “Very late at night I don’t like it, though I’ve never had trouble.”
He was standing on the sidewalk waiting for a tenant to move an illegally parked car. He waited until the car was moved, and while he was still there another car came and tried to park in the same space. “Five minutes?” the driver asked. Salazar sent him away. Of all the causes for squabbles between tenants who live close together, the greatest at Villa Nueva is parking.
A San Diego police officer’s opinion: “Understand, now. I’ve only been on this assignment for a few weeks, so I’m sort of green,” said Capt. Carl Ekland of the city’s San Ysidro office. “But in terms of reported crime, reported crime that is. Villa Nueva is not above the norm for San Ysidro. I mean, if you go strictly by the paper. Villa Nueva’s crime rate is not unusual, and it’s not a trouble spot.”
A parent’s opinion: “The young people here are growing up, and so the outsiders come in to make customers for their drugs,” said Ignacio Valenzuela, a father of four and a tenant in Building 14 since 1976. “The police say they want evidence, and they want to catch a ...” He struggled for the English word. “Want to catch a wholeseller instead of a retailer. But to us, wholeseller, retailer — it’s all the same.”
From the living room of his tidy apartment, Valenzuela says he can look out and see young people selling or handling marijuana cigarettes. “I think one reason they come here is they feel protected from the police department because they live in a private group of buildings,” he said. “And they have to know that this is our home, and that nothing illegal can be done here.”
An experienced opinion from Armando Hurtado, manager of the apartments since their opening: “Drugs, crime, trouble comes in waves,” he said in his office one morning. “You get rid of the bad tenants, you get rid of the troubles, everything gets calm, and then somebody bad moves in and — up! — the troubles start rising again. Then you have to fight back.”
In thirteen years the management has evicted 117 families from the project. “At the beginning it was tough,” Hurtado said. The landlords had less say than they do today over whom they accept as tenants. When the project opened, the first priority went to the families that had been displaced by the extension of Interstate 805 to the border and the widening of 1-5. About 230 families were involved, although the state highway department provided new housing for many of them in a relocated trailer park and two other small projects.
Still, said Hurtado, Villa Nueva signed on a number of troublesome tenants. “The first couple years this place was a zoo,” he said. “We had riots, drugs, fights, we had cars stolen, broken into, buildings vandalized, spray paint on the stairways — each stair . . .’’He waved a hand at all that trouble and leaned aft in his highback chair. “So we looked around, saw who was causing trouble, and went after them.”
In the first year the management evicted twenty families, in the second year eighteen, in the third fifteen, then twelve, ten, six. Last year, only four were evicted, and so far this year, two. The tenants’ council, which used to identify problems and discuss new rules (no baseball playing in the project; children caught with baseball gloves would be subject, through their parents, to a five-dollar fine) finally dissolved in 1977, by which time the project had settled down to about one eviction a year.
Now the procedure is to choose new tenants carefully to avoid future evictions. Villa Nueva has a monthly vacancy rate of one-quarter of one percent (very low), and a waiting list of 130 applicants, down from 300 since new applications have not been accepted for a few years.
The applications are handled with some finesse. For example, Hurtado rarely checks with the landlord listed as the applicant’s current reference. “If it’s a bad tenant, the landlord will say, ‘He’s great, no problems!’ just to get rid of him,” said Hurtado. Instead he checks the next-to-last reference as the likelier source of truth. Also in some cases he pays an unannounced visit to the applicants at home. “It doesn’t tell you exactly how the people are going to fit in at Villa Nueva,” he said. “You never know if they’re the type who can live in these apartments, all crowded, I mean. But you can tell a lot about the way they treat the properties they live in.”
An eviction is a curious process. It is a breakdown of the landlord-tenant relationship, and at the same time it may involve a long and cultivated relationship between the two, complete with late-night phone calls. “I would be in bed, at night, listening to the sounds of the project,” said Hurtado of the time when he and his family lived in Villa Nueva. (He bought a house in the Del Sol neighborhood, one mile to the north, in 1978.) He said he could tell by the voices outside who was breaking curfew. He kept a telephone by the bed. “ ‘Hello, Mrs. Ochoa?’ ” he said, re-creating it at his desk. “ ‘1 hear your son outside. Would you please go out and tell him to come in the house? I said I hear him outside. Yes, it’s him — I’m sure. I tell you he’s not in his room, and if you go out right now, you’ll see for yourself.’ ”
Another time late at night, when he suspected that the Ochoa boy and some of his friends were bagging spray-paint fumes in the empty lot north of the project, Hurtado tapped at the door of a tenant with a window overlooking the lot. From inside, he watched until the boys had come out of the lot and were heading back into the project, then he went out the front, waited in the dark for them at the comer of a building, let them pass, and trailed them a ways from behind, approaching slowly until he was in their midst undetected.
“ ‘Ochoa,’ ” he said. “ ‘How are you?’
“ ‘Let’s go have a talk with your mother.’ ’’
He said the talks with parents in his office usually went like this: “With all respect, your son is the type that follows the action. Maybe he can't help it; maybe he’s just that age. Why don’t you send him to L.A. for a while? Live with relatives, get away from this crowd he’s running with. Then bring him back and he’ll work in fine. We don’t want the whole family to have to leave just because one kid is causing trouble.”
To one family, the Garridos, he made the mistake of adding, “You’re not the only family in this situation. There are thirty others like you here at Villa Nueva.” He gestured to an upright file on his desk.
“At this moment there are . . . thirty families on the list of the next to be evicted,” said a bulletin issued soon thereafter by the Concerned Tenants of Villa Nueva, a group that rose to support the Garridos and other families. In other bulletins the group said, “Who is Mr. Hurtado to decide who is good to the community and who is not?”
Picketers demonstrated outside the rental office on several occasions between March and May of 1976. To no avail: the Garridos eviction, based on nonpayment of rent, was upheld in court. The Villa Nueva Corporation continued its mission of social responsibility to the many who can live in a crowd according to rules.
Except for his Fonz hair-do, Hurtado could pass for a school vice principal, stocky and wide-eyed, with a reddish mustache and sanguine skin. He has two confiscated BB rifles behind his desk. He was born the son of a lighthouse keeper on Isla Natividad, a spur off the boot of Baja California near Scammon’s Lagoon, and moved to Tijuana as a boy when his father became a fisherman. At fifteen he went to work for a bank, first as an office boy, then through the various departments — teller, collections, loans — until at last he became the manager, but quit to join a brother-in-law in Los Angeles who wanted a new partner in a business cleaning parking lots.
“It didn’t work out,” he said with a long, half-lidded shrug. Besides, his wife disliked Los Angeles, so they returned to San Diego and he put in his name at the employment office. The first time he applied for the job at Villa Nueva, the Gersten Company, which then controlled the project as its builder, rejected him because he didn’t speak English. Then four days before the project opened, the Augustinians called him back. He started work on his thirty-second birthday. Since then, in addition to running the project, he taught himself English, attended Sawyer’s College at night for a realtor’s license, then a broker’s license with an eye, he says, of one day owning his own property management company.
For the moment, though, he is busy with the planning of material changes to the project — sealing two traffic entrances, making the grounds so secure that an outsider can be caught not only for loitering but for trespassing. He said he hasn’t had time to work on evictions as he used to, on which front he recently suffered an embarrassing defeat.
“We just went after a tenant who we know is using drugs, hiding undocumented workers, bringing in outsiders, although we really can’t prove it,” he said. The tenant, call her Mrs. Ortega, happened to miss a rent payment late last year, and Hurtado thought he could build an eviction case on that alone.
But Mrs. Ortega wasn’t about to let go of her apartment. For one thing, she’d lived in Villa Nueva with her parents and was settled in her surroundings, and for another, enjoyed the use of a two-bedroom apartment for herself and her daughter for ninety-six dollars per month. (Her total monthly income amounted to $408, from welfare.)
In a court action, Mrs. Ortega explained that she had missed the rental payment because her father had died the month before and she had contributed $150 toward the total of $1187 for his burial. Her attorney, Robert Ross of Legal Aid, produced the death certificate, an affidavit from the director of the Berge-Roberts Mortuary, and a statement from Mrs. Ortega that she had attended Mass at Mt. Carmel Church every Sunday for the previous seven years.
It was a pretty convincing argument. Last December, Judge Murray Luftig ruled in favor of Mrs. Ortega, but kept the case in review for ninety days for Mrs. Ortega to show promptness in paying her rent. Hurtado says the ninety days will give him time to keep an eye out for any misbehavior. “We don’t want to lose face,” he said. “You lose face and you lose control.”
In a written opinion of his goals at Villa Nueva, Hurtado wrote that it should be “a real family-community of which we can all be proud to belong, or of having belonged.”
A last opinion from Father Francis Riley: “The crux of the issue is that we’re a religious group involved here. You don’t like throwing out a poor family, but some member might be pushing drugs, and you have to think of the broader community. It’s like running a school. You don’t want to throw anybody out, but on the other hand, you have to teach. Same here — except we’re running a housing project.”