Building a better future for La La Land

The neighborhood was selected for help because it has suffered through deterioration and a drug gang.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Robert Bebbs and Awilda Rodriguez know the ups and downs of their East Side neighborhood.
Rodriguez and her family have lived on Jackson Street, where the hill crests from Wilson Avenue, for a decade; Bebbs has been there 30 years.
The neighbors remember when many more of the lots had homes and people lived in them. Today, the street is peppered with empty lots and a few abandoned houses that need to be torn down.
"It makes it look like a ghost town," Rodriguez said.
She and Bebbs, however, are about to witness one of the neighborhood's upswings.
Down the street, three homes will be built on vacant lots as part of 20 homes to be constructed on the city's East Side by nonprofit developer CHOICE, or Community Housing Options Involving Cooperative Efforts.
Ground was broken Friday for the $2 million project. The sale of tax credits that come from the federal government, city money and state aid all finance construction.
The homes will be like the 125 others the agency has built across the city in recent years. The $100,000 homes are two-story, have three or four bedrooms, one to two baths, full basements and garages.
The homes are set aside for lower income families. Rent for a family of four making under $21,600 a year is $350 to $400 per month. Renters have the option to buy after 15 years.
La La Land
CHOICE selected the neighborhood because the area has suffered in recent years.
Drug users once referred to the neighborhood as La La Land. That was before police broke up an extensive drug dealing operation last year. The drug business was run by the Ayers Street Playas gang.
"This is to jump-start La La Land and bring it back into a neighborhood," said Phil Smith, CHOICE executive director.
There are plans to build up to 40 more homes in the area next year, Smith said. The neighborhood has plenty of empty lots, and CHOICE wants to have a big impact, he said.
The neighborhood has among the oldest housing stock in the city and hadn't seen any new construction in many years, said Councilman Rufus Hudson, D-2nd, who actively lobbied CHOICE.
One sign of the neighborhood's age is the lead levels found in children who live in the area. Hudson said 95 percent of those children show some lead in their blood. Old homes have paint with lead that sometimes gets into children's systems.
Some city council members don't want CHOICE in their neighborhoods because its contractor uses nonunion and Amish labor. But not Hudson. His ward desperately needs new homes, he said.
The neighborhood has lost more residents than most in the city despite many people still looking for affordable housing on the East Side, he said.
"We need to see investment put into housing stock on the East Side," Hudson said.
The neighborhood remains rooted in family, something the new homes are supposed to foster.
One neighbor still lives in the home her grandfather built 100 years ago.
Councilman John Nittoli, D-7th, represents the South Side now but grew up on Jackson Street across from where some of the new houses will be built. He can still name the families that lived -- and still live -- in the remaining houses or now-empty lots.
After 30 years, Bebbs knows just about everybody, too.
The thought of walking or driving past neighbors living in new houses appeals to him.
"I sure like that. I really like that," he said.

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