Jordan Downs’ toxic legacy

A public housing project in Los Angeles seeks to redevelop without a proper cleanup.


Thelmy Pérez stood on a cramped street corner in the Jordan Downs public housing complex in Watts, a low-income neighborhood in the heart of South Los Angeles, California.

The area’s sooty appearance makes it easy to forget that the Pacific Ocean is just 15 miles away, to the west. Behind Pérez is the homely buzz of auto shops, junkyards and cluttered recycling centers. Facing her is an empty lot that’s waiting to be transformed into attractive shops and restaurants. 
Pérez is an organizer with the advocacy group LA Human Right to Housing Collective. She has been helping tenants at this 700-unit housing project in their fight for decent living standards and an environmentally safe neighborhood.

Jordan Downs is one of the oldest housing projects in Los Angeles. It was built as a temporary shelter for factory workers during World War II and became public housing for the poor in the 1950s. Redevelopment of the housing project has been 10 years in the making, and another decade could pass before it’s complete.
Bethany Mollenkof
Jordan Downs’ difficult history goes back to the discriminatory housing laws of the 1960s; frustration with police back then would eventually erupt into the Watts Riots. By 1992, violent feuding by local street gangs had contributed to a historic spike of murders in Los Angeles — nearly 1,100 in a single year.

Currently, a $1 billion plan to overhaul the decaying public housing complex holds out some hope for change. But the persistent soil and groundwater pollution around the housing project, left behind by former steel mills and industrial companies, has some people doubting whether the residents will ever escape inequitable living standards.  

“It’s not just the groundwater plumes,” Pérez said as she stood over one of the underground contamination sites. “It’s this whole industrial area. What does that do to a body, not just physically, but also your stress levels, mental capacity?”

Watts is unlike other parts of the Southwest, or even Southern California. Instead of tall photogenic palm trees, there are forests of wooden utility poles feeding electricity to crowded households. A handful of flat, trodden parks nearby attempt to offer a natural escape, but they are too small to satisfy the local population. Life expectancy in Watts is 72.8 years — eight years less than in the rest of Los Angeles. And Jordan Downs is among the top 10 percent of California neighborhoods most affected by air pollution, poverty and proximity to toxic cleanup sites, according to a state environmental health scorecard.

Jordan Downs is a relic of the World War II era. The federal government built the townhome complex to temporarily house steelworkers during the wartime manufacturing boom. Families moved in during the second great migration of African-Americans from the Southern U.S., and Jordan Downs remained a primarily black neighborhood until the 1990s. These days, Latinos make up 72 percent of the approximately 2,600 tenants.

Monserrat Pacheco moved to Jordan Downs from Mexico 20 years ago. She and her parents still live in the same two-bedroom apartment.

The water in their apartment comes out yellow. “The shower, the sink upstairs, or the sink downstairs,” she said, sitting inside her dimly lit living room. “Sometimes it comes out like dirt.”

The problem worsened last summer. The municipal water department had to flush more than 50 miles of pipe to get rid of sediment that got stirred up by a broken fire hydrant. The water department said higher levels of iron and manganese in nearby wells also added to the brown water problem, but that despite all that, the discolored water has always tested safe for drinking.

Pacheco’s apartment also happens to be about a hundred yards from the 21-acre lot residents call the “factory site,” due to the steel mills that used to be there. The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, which manages Jordan Downs, purchased the land in 2008 for $31.2 million.

Jordan Downs tenants give one another haircuts outside their building. The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles has been planning to create an 'urban village' of shops, town homes, a park and gardens to replace the Jordan Downs housing project.
Bethany Mollenkof
The plan is to demolish Jordan Downs and build a 1,400-unit “Urban Village" with double the current number of apartments, as well as wide sidewalks and retail shops – the antithesis of the warehouses that characterize the neighborhood today. There will be a new community center, a park and a landscaped boulevard to connect Jordan Downs to the rest of Los Angeles. The mixed-used, mixed-income redevelopment should be welcome news at a time when California and states such as Oregon and Washington are experiencing a shortage of low-income and affordable housing.

But the project has been 10 years in the making, and another decade could pass before it’s complete.

Part of the delay has been due to a lack of funding. The Housing Authority failed three times in the last three years to win up to $30 million in competitive grant money from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, largely due to a civil rights lawsuit that alleged the city didn’t provide enough public housing units for disabled tenants.  

Another, and perhaps more important, reason for the delay has been the discovery of lead and arsenic soil contamination on the redevelopment site. Soil samples taken in 2009 showed high levels of diesel fuel, oil and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) left over from the site’s former days as a steel mill. Excavations pulled up black metal slag and buried storage tanks.

The Housing Authority filed a federal environmental liability lawsuit in 2011 against the former landowners. They settled in January for more than $12 million, according to court filings. Meanwhile, the state has approved the soil remediation and given the Housing Authority a green light. But anxieties about contamination linger as the first phase of construction begins this year.

Emma Cortez has lived at Jordan Downs for about two decades. When her grandchildren play outside, she worries that her lawn has been contaminated by lead from the factory site. The advocacy group LA Human Right to Housing did basic X-ray fluorescence testing in her yard and found high levels.

“When my grandkids come, they play outside,” she said in Spanish. “They like playing in the dirt.” 

Cortez is active with the Housing Collective and holds meetings at her apartment with other tenants about the redevelopment project. “I don’t trust the Housing Authority,” she said, referring to the so-called block captains or tenants who hold community meetings for the agency. “They call me a ‘contra’ because I’m always organizing with the Housing Collective.”

Housing Authority officials insist that tenants have nothing to worry about. Jenny Scanlin, the agency’s development director, said soil tests done on the housing side showed heavy metals were on average equal to or below acceptable state health screening levels, implying that the lead did not spread beyond the redevelopment area.  

“We haven’t seen anything that would indicate to us that the public housing site itself has any significant, if any, level of contamination with heavy metals that would be similar to or replicative of what was found on the factory site,” she said.

But there’s yet another problem plaguing the site: The Housing Authority must now deal with soil vapor from a plume of contaminated groundwater.

The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles had to remove approximately 259,000 tons of lead and arsenic contaminated soil found on this 21-acre lot that it purchased in 2008 to redevelop and expand the Jordan Downs public housing complex next door.
Erika Aguilar
In 2011, initial testing found soil vapors with the chemicals trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE) that exceeded state screening levels. Vapor intrusion occurs when these gaseous chemicals migrate from contaminated soil or groundwater and into buildings through cracks in the foundation. They are considered to be carcinogenic as well as dangerous to the liver, kidneys, reproductive and nervous systems.

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) spent $175,000 investigating the soil vapors, but has yet to identify the source of the pollution. So far, data suggest that they are coming from a plume outside the redevelopment site, in an area where auto repair shops and scrap-metal yards operate.

“The source is definitely there. It happened in that area,” said Sayareh Amirebrahimi, chief of cleanup operations for site mitigation and brownfield reuse at DTSC. “But we couldn’t find it.” Unless DTSC can identify the polluter, the state will have to pay for remediation, and there will be further delays.

“Those are kind of the injustices that we’re seeing,” said Pérez, standing over the plume. She’s frustrated by the pace of the cleanup, and worried that tenants are unaware of the potential dangers of soil vapors under the future commercial side of the redevelopment project.

The residents, she said, “can see a toxic brownfield, and they can see all of that dust picking up. But what they can’t see is the groundwater beneath us. They should be protected. They’re talking about putting 1,400 units in this neighborhood, and that means bringing another 700 families to a neighborhood that is highly contaminated along an industrial corridor.”

According to Scanlin, the Housing Authority is proposing to build vapor barriers into the foundations, which will lessen the effects of vapor intrusion and reduce health risks, without eliminating them. Meanwhile, the state toxic regulatory agency continues to oversee soil vapor testing.

For some tenants, like Trisha Adams, soil and groundwater contamination are only an abstract concern.

As far as the cleanup goes, she said, “I just want them to hurry up,” adding, “That scares me. You don’t know what’s going on.”

Every tenant in good standing with the Housing Authority is guaranteed a new unit at the revamped Jordan Downs. Families will move in one-by-one as new buildings are erected.

But Adams remains apprehensive. Although Jordan Downs residents complain about the dust, the air quality or the murky tap water, many of them can’t afford to move out of the polluted environment. About half of the new units will be for low-income renters without subsidies.

“I don’t know how that is going to work,” Adams said, concerned she might eventually be priced out. “Sure, they will be able to relocate me, but for how long?”

Erika Aguilar is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Los Angeles, whose stories focus on diversifying communities.

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