Hemet Involves Landlords to Revitalize Neighborhood

The City of Hemet won an Award for Excellence for this project in the Housing Programs and Innovations category of the 2007 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more information about the award program, visit www.cacities.org/helenputnam.

In the City of Hemet, located in eastern Riverside County, finding affordable housing has become more difficult for seniors and families as this rural retirement town has grown to a suburban community of 70,000. Faced with a blighted neighborhood, the city took innovative steps to revitalize the area and created a unique association of local apartment owners.

Rental Properties in Disrepair

During the 1960s, a 10-block residential area in the older part of downtown (which became the target area for this project) comprised owner-occupied single-family homes and blocks of fourplex rentals owned by one corporate entity. Problems started in the target area when the fourplexes were sold off separately to absentee landlords who allowed their rentals to gradually fall into disrepair.

By the late 1980s, the target area had the highest crime rate in the city and was the most active area for code enforcement. Crime and over crowded rentals became too much for property owners to handle. As vacancies increased, land lords filled units with undesirable tenants who were not screened for a criminal background or past evictions.

In a particularly difficult case, 40 absentee “mom and pop” landlords managed 40 different fourplexes at the Crestwood Apartments. These landlords had limited property management skills and did not communicate with each other. (Becoming a rental property owner requires no training or license.) A few responsible landlords maintained their rentals for a while, but they soon learned that if neighboring properties were slums, their property would succumb to the same downward spiral. As one frustrated landlord put it, “You are what surrounds you,” which is why most good tenants soon moved out.

The hundreds of children living in the Crestwood Apartments were often adrift with nothing to do. Gang activities in the surrounding streets and alleys forced the many children and adolescents crammed into the small units to stay inside.

There were also no affordable senior housing units in town and few affordable homeownership options. How could the city turn the derelict target area back into a viable working class neighborhood and create some affordable housing?

Transforming a Neighborhood

Hemet lacked the financial resources to buy the 40 fourplex Crestwood Apart ments, so the city put its efforts into revitalizing the neighborhood. After numerous weekend meetings with property owners, the city formed an apartment owners association. The city began making code enforcement and police sweeps and offered landlords a series of financial incentives to join the association. Several features made this association unique:

  • 100 percent of Crestwood owners agreed to join;
  • The covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) bound all the 40 four-plexes together permanently; and
  • The association members taxed themselves a $300 monthly assessment to pay for professional on-site management, security and maintenance.

This was a major coup. The association also fined member landlords who did not comply with its landscape standards, thereby allowing code enforcement to focus on other areas of the city.

The city council formed an Interdepartmental Task Force responsible for:

  • Identifying problematic landlords;
  • Entering into contracts between the city and problem landlords to improve their properties;
  • Monitoring properties and educating landlords in the principles of multifamily crime-free housing;
  • Facilitating access to arrest information to help landlords evict criminal tenants;
  • Providing suspicious activity reports to the Police Department;
  • Posting “letters of agency” on individual properties that allowed the police to arrest trespassers on private property; and
  • Conducting workshops to teach landlords how to manage their properties and tenants.

Three affordable housing projects were developed in the target area: Sahara Senior Villa with 75 affordable units for extremely low-income seniors; three Habitat for Humanity homes built on an underutilized parcel; and the Crestwood Apartment Rental Rehabilitation Program with 90 rent-controlled units.

Also, in an effort to promote positive youth behavior, improve school attendance and reduce dropout rates, the city pays for Crestwood children and teens to attend a youth center. The California Family Life Center (CFLC) is a local social service nonprofit organization that manages various child-related services for at-risk children and youth. The center’s objectives are to increase positive youth behavior, improve school attendance and reduce dropout rates. Its Empower Youth Opportunity Center provides a computer lab, vocational training, substance abuse counseling, tutoring, parent education and community service projects. About 35 children and youth from Crestwood attend CFLC’s programs.

Newly Revitalized Community Flourishes

The three government-funded housing projects add stability to the neighborhood and are managed and maintained better than the private sector housing surrounding them. The new housing brightens the neighborhood by providing more streetlights and on-site lighting.

Calls for police service decreased 15 per cent in the neighborhood during 2005 and 2006. The need for code enforcement services has also been reduced signifi cantly as a result of the CC&Rs maintenance requirements. As tenant screening improved, good tenants stayed longer. As conditions in Crestwood improved, so did neighborhood stability. Repaved streets, curbs and sidewalks at Sahara Senior Housing and the Habitat projects also improved the appeal and appearance of the entire target area. The Crestwood area is now a safer and nicer place to live.

The sounds of children playing and laugh ing in their front yards underscore the reduced crime and blight in the target area. When the CFLC identifies specific problems with Crestwood youth, it pro vides individual assistance.

Seven years ago, none of these programs and projects existed in the target area. Ensuring a decent quality of life in affordable housing doesn’t happen by piecemeal activities — such as providing subsidized housing, making random and repeated arrests, citing landlords for lack of landscap ing, rehabilitating housing or providing children with opportunities. It takes a coordinated, comprehensive strategy using all these approaches to create a safe and affordable neighborhood.

Contact: Mark Trabing, housing and code enforcement manager, Hemet Planning Department; phone: (951) 765-2381; e-mail: mtrabing@cityofhemet.org.

This article appears in the March 2008 issue of Western City
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