Las Vegas Sun

April 21, 2014

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In evictions, neighbors see hope for clean sweep

There may be sympathy in the neighborhood for Jennifer Ellis and about 800 other tenants of the Buena Vista Springs apartments after the federal government told them they had to pack up and leave.

But even as tenants such as Ellis fight to find new places to live, some of their neighbors are quietly applauding.

It may not seem polite or even correct, but there's reason for the enthusiasm.

You know what? these neighbors say. Sometimes, people got to be hurt to clean up a neighborhood.

That uncomfortable tension appears to be playing out in the area surrounding the North Las Vegas site, where the largest-ever federally ordered relocation of tenants is under way.

The weathered and faded stucco apartments, more than 40 years old, stretch across about 25 acres of hardpan peppered with broken glass. And they are in the government's cross hairs as an unfit place to live.

The federal Housing and Urban Development Department finally grew so impatient with the owner for not taking care of the place, it yanked a $2.5 million annual subsidy from that owner in July. As a result, about 800 people in more than 200 apartments have to move.

And North Las Vegas City Hall has recently pummeled the owner with notices of about 180 code enforcement violations.

Some see moving everyone out as part of cleaning up a neighborhood targeted for upgrades.

So the tough times facing Ellis and others in the coming months may lead to good news for thousands of others down the road, they say.

"It's not a miniature step," said Kenny Young, an assistant in the city manager's office. "It's a major first step to getting that area revitalized. If you're not a resident (of Buena Vista), it's really good news."

Young is leading a plan to improve a square-mile section that includes the beleaguered apartments. It's called the 40 Block Project and, to some people, the most important block is the one that Buena Vista sits on.

North Las Vegas has spent about $2.5 million in local and federal money to start the project , and banks are offering low-interest loans to home buyers and nonprofit groups.

There are plans to build a neighborhood resource center where residents can learn how to maneuver through the bureaucracy to find help.

Although Buena Vista is privately owned, city officials have a definite say in any plans for the site.

"I'm going to make sure whatever happens with that corner makes sense," said Councilman William Robinson, who has been in office since 1983.

Buena Vista's owner, Creative Choice West, has said in recent weeks it would like to improve the apartments and rent them at market rates. John Wooldridge, director of asset management for the company, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

However, Robinson, who lives nearby, spoke for many when he mentioned his idea of a best-case scenario.

"I'd like to see that entire corner imploded," he said.

Inez Phillips, 67, lives on Bluff Avenue across the street from Buena Vista and says that , after living in the neighborhood for 43 years , she keeps a .380-caliber pistol near her seat on the porch.

She says she wants the buildings gone - even though one of her daughters lives there.

"Tear 'em down to the ground," she says. "They're full of roaches and half the people don't have nothin' but a mattress on the floor anyway."

Samuel Smith owns Native Son, a nearby bookstore specializing in books about black history.

He was of a mixed mind about the whole thing.

Speaking from the back of his store, a town square of sorts for the past 15 years, he wonders whether moving tenants out of Buena Vista would be a step toward the type of urban renewal seen in other U.S. cities, with minorities pushed out.

"Would it be good for the neighborhood?" he says rhetorically. "It depends. Maybe there won't be any neighborhood left."

Seventy-five-year-old Katherine Joseph has lived in the neighborhood since 1971.

Sitting at a folding table in her living room on Helen Street, she said moving the tenants out of Buena Vista is a good thing.

"It's sad that some of the girls over there will be put out," she said. "But that place needs to go."

One of those "girls" is Ellis, who has been running from one landlord to another and a temporary government office across Martin Luther King Boulevard from Buena Vista. She had found the house of her dreams, but somehow her Section 8 federally funded voucher and her own payments were $37 short, the result of bad math.

She couldn't pay more and neither could the government. The landlord couldn't charge less.

Stepping back from her Sisyphean toil, she echoed others when it came to looking at the bigger picture.

"To be perfectly honest, I feel like they need to tear them down," she said.

Ellis, like most of Buena Vista's residents and others in the area, is black. She related a theory about how nicer surroundings affect black families. She made reference to West Side, the mostly black neighborhood that crosses into Las Vegas.

"I feel like black people have been down so much that some of them stay down in their minds," she said.

But " if you give somebody an opportunity to get the hell out ... or in a better place on the West Side, it's amazing how much better they act."

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