DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - On a recent weekday afternoon, Wendy Brooks rushed ahead of two visitors who were coming to see her apartment. She moved a few clothing items out of view and quickly cleaned the sink. The 61-year-old then ushered her guests in with a wide smile.
At about 220 square feet, Brooks' place has just enough room for a bed, a TV, a small refrigerator, a sink, a microwave and three people. It also holds a bathroom and a tub, something the former paralegal adores.
"Just to be able to take a bath in my own place makes this feel like a little piece of paradise in the middle of Skid Row," she said.
Brooks is one of 150 new residents of the Ford Apartments, a former crime magnet at 1000 E. Seventh St. The first 90 units opened in December, and the remaining 60 will be filled by the middle of this month.
Developer SRO Housing Corporation held a grand opening celebration for the $28 million project on Dec. 9. The six-story edifice houses formerly homeless individuals suffering from mental illness and low-income residents earning up to 50% of the Area Median Income (approximately $60,000).
The county Department of Mental Health contributed $18 million to the project while $4.5 million came from the Community Redevelopment Agency. The rest of the funds were secured from tax credits.
Rooms at the 86-year-old structure range from 220 to 250 square feet and come furnished. There is a library, a community room and a computer room on the ground floor, along with a communal lounge on each level. Ford residents also have access to on-site case management services that will help them with things such as job training, and counseling for mental health, addiction and job placement issues.
The property has been completely revamped. Exterior granite walls wrap around the base of the building beneath new windows. A sign that once said "Ford Hotel" now simply reads "Ford."
Perhaps the most dramatic change involved turning an indoor lobby into an open-air courtyard. It now has slate tile floors, a tree and a granite fountain.
"This was one of our more proud moments," said Joseph Corcoran, director of planning and housing development for SRO. "To be able to create an open space and bring light into a building that was devoid of light."
Crime Hub No More
The 1925 building originally contained 295 units that averaged about 120 square feet. It had common bathrooms and showers. Over the years it deteriorated and became known by the LAPD for the prostitution, assaults and even murder that occurred there.
According to information provided by SRO Housing, the hotel was declared a public nuisance in 1999, the same year a woman was stabbed to death outside the building and a 9-month old girl was thrown to her death from one of the units.
When SRO Housing acquired the property in 2008, 158 people were living there. Those residents were relocated to SRO buildings throughout the city.
SRO Housing officials are used to seeing buildings in terrible shape. Still, the Ford was one of the worst, agreed Corcoran and Anita Nelson, executive director of SRO Housing.
"It was cold, unwelcoming. It looked grimy and dirty," said Nelson.
Added Corcoran, "It was infested with rats, roaches, vermin. It looked like a boarded-up hotel."
During the 18-month renovation, the building was gutted. Once the concrete and steel were exposed, architect Wade Killefer of Killefer Flammang Architects discovered further damage.
"We found out the columns could not hold up the building," said Killefer, whose other projects include numerous market-rate residences in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles.
The Ford's columns were so deteriorated that, like almost everything else in the building, they needed to be replaced. The decorative emblems on the top of the building and the molding that crown the structure are the only recognizable fixtures from the old hotel.
"With the use of nice materials, nice fixtures, the color palette, it's a building that would now fit anywhere in Downtown," Killefer said.
The Ford is the latest SRO Housing property to open on Seventh Street. Nearby, the organization also runs the Lyndon, New Terminal, the Prentice, the Rivers and the Yankee. Overall, SRO Housing operates 29 facilities and provides more than 2,300 residential units in the Skid Row area.
Brooks is happy to have a roof over her head. Still, her home at the Ford is a far cry from where she thought she would be at this point in her life.
A few years ago she said she had $300,000 in retirement funds. She lost it all in the Enron collapse and, with no other money, ended up in shelters and temporary housing.
"I've never been homeless before this," she said. "They're helping me get back on my feet."
The new surroundings make Brooks feel like she is living in a regular building, not a low-income project. That, she says, helps her keep her dignity and self-esteem. The apartment also keeps her from a life in a shelter, or worse, on the streets of Skid Row.
Contact Richard Guzmán at email@example.com.
©Los Angeles Downtown News.