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No Gangs, No Blight, No Normont Terrace

Down in Harbor City, privatizers conquered their first victim and made out like bandits.

Illustration of a young Black child playing with a teddy bear in front of a housing complex
(Illustration: Kira Carlee | Knock LA)

William Witte occupies a unique position among LA’s major developers. He’s not typically considered in the same league as some of the recognizable top-tier real estate tycoons who use their wealth to exert control over the city’s politics — the Rick Carusos, Eli Broads, and Geoffrey Palmers. But as the head of Related California — one of the largest apartment owners in LA — and as the developer that has gained the most from the city’s war on public housing, he should be. 

This is not to say Witte flies under the radar. He is very well-connected and, despite a long history of profiting off of public lands and funds, he has successfully crafted the reputation of being a selfless public servant (with the help of establishment media).

“He’s very civic-minded, very honest,” Eli Broad said of Witte in a fawning Los Angeles Times profile. Related California worked closely with Broad after being chosen as the lead developer for the Grand Avenue Project in downtown’s Bunker Hill neighborhood. 

“But [he] still knows you need to make money,” Broad made sure to clarify. 

And make money he does, which then gets shoveled back to the politicians who vote to generously subsidize his projects. Most recently, in 2016, City Council granted Witte’s firm up to $198 million in tax breaks for the Grand, the company’s crown jewel being erected at the corner of Grand Avenue and 1st Street, across from the Walt Disney Concert Hall. 

Related California is an offshoot of Related Companies, a massive real estate conglomerate based in New York and led by billionaire Trump supporter Stephen Ross. Between the two companies, when including donations by employees, Related has poured over $1.6 million into California state-level politics in the last two decades, with Witte as an individual accounting for over $500,000 of these donations. Related and its affiliated entities have also spent a whopping $3.1 million on lobbying officials and agencies in the city of Los Angeles over the same time period.

Related’s Southern California empire all started with Normont Terrace, the 400-unit complex in Harbor City that was both the first public housing development to be demolished and privatized in LA, and Related’s first major project in the region.

An older man wearing glasses and a suit (William Witte) is sitting in a chair and speaking
William Witte, pictured speaking on a UCLA panel about rent control. (Photo: YouTube)

Saying the Quiet Part Out Loud

“When Normont Terrace was removed, so were the troublemakers and criminals who lived there,” wrote Kelly Saulie in a letter to her local paper, the Daily Breeze, in 2004. “These people were dispersed throughout the Los Angeles area, and most, if not all, did not (or were not allowed to) return to the area.” 

Saulie was a member of her local neighborhood council, representing the small, diverse, working-to-middle-class neighborhood of Harbor City, located near the southernmost tip of Los Angeles. To her, the 1995 demolition of Normont Terrace provided an important lesson: Only through the complete removal of “undesirable” people could the rest of the community be improved. 

Normont Terrace, like Jordan Downs, was built for war workers in the early 1940s. After the war, it was converted to public housing owned and operated by HACLA. By the ’80s and ’90s, similar to Jordan Downs, Normont Terrace and its deeply poor residents — almost all Latine and/or Black — were blamed for the evils plaguing the broader neighborhood. They were subsequently repressed: “It’s a cesspool,” said one LAPD officer when describing the area to the Los Angeles Times

Today, where Normont Terrace’s 400 units of public housing once stood are the Harbor Village Apartments, a privatized “affordable housing” complex of 400 units with restricted rents and 224 homes sold at market rate. Condos there sell for over $500,000 a pop, and while the apartments do serve those with lower incomes, households earning three times that of the average public housing family are eligible to live at Harbor Village. 

Related California, who built and manages Harbor Village, also screens applicants by their “ability and willingness to care for the unit,” their “ability and willingness to pay rent in a timely manner,” and any history of eviction or criminal activity. The poorest and most needy families, by design, are excluded.

A black and white map of public housing developments in the Harbor City area
A map of public housing developments in the Harbor City area. (Map: Camille Kaplan | Knock LA)

Exactly how many residents were displaced remains unclear. In May 2021, William Witte stated in a phone interview with Knock LA that he believes about three-quarters of the families were able to return to Harbor Village. However, Witte did not provide any evidence to support this claim after Knock LA followed up over email multiple times in May and June 2021. (Witte also claimed a similar figure for families who returned to the redeveloped Aliso Village in Boyle Heights, but that number is not supported by available evidence — which is discussed in Part 4 of this series.) 

The Housing Authority, for its part, has kept no records on what happened to the original residents of Normont Terrace, who numbered between 1,500 and 2,000.

‘The For-Profit Developer Is The Leader Here’

The idea of demolishing Normont Terrace started taking shape in 1987. Joan Milke Flores was the city councilmember for District 15, which was (and still is) home to several public housing projects. At the time, these projects included complexes in Watts, one in San Pedro, one in Wilmington, and Normont Terrace in Harbor City. At her urging, City Council convened a panel to study what the city should do with its public housing. 

Flores told the press that poor conditions and high levels of crime had prompted her action. Certainly, conditions were a problem; Normont residents had held a protest over the need for repairs at the development in 1987, and habitability concerns were a major source of frustration for residents citywide. But there were other motives at play. One of Flores’s staffers told the Daily Breeze that the report was being requested because “there is no incentive” for families to move out, and that Flores wanted to disperse low-income residents in order to mitigate “economic segregation.” 

By this point, Mayor Tom Bradley’s administration had all but given up on public housing. “In every city where they built projects after the war, it was a mistake, a disaster,” Bradley’s top housing specialist, Gary Squier, said in spring 1988

And then there was the power and appetite of the real estate industry. “Rancho San Pedro [RSP] sits on 21 acres of valuable harbor-front property in San Pedro,” the Daily Breeze summarized, “and the low density at Normont Terrace, a 37.6-acre public housing development in Harbor City, makes it viable for additional units.” The San Pedro Chamber of Commerce had outraged tenants with a proposal to tear down the 478 units at RSP, and developers were also begging HACLA to get their hands on Normont. 

By the fall of 1988, the decision had been made, and HACLA was ready to officially solicit proposals from developers interested in Normont Terrace. While she was still the Housing Authority’s executive director, Leilia Gonzalez-Correa “explained to tenants” that demolition was the only option, in response to their demands for renovations and repairs.

In November 1989, a consortium including Related Companies — which had just opened its California operation that year — was selected as the developer. Only about 40 Normont residents attended the meeting where this was announced, and their reactions were decidedly mixed. 

“If I were in your position, I would be jumping for joy,” one HACLA commissioner told the crowd, apparently unable to understand their lack of excitement for this official declaration of war on their community.

For the Housing Authority, given the lack of federal funds available, this was an ingenious and visionary effort to leverage private capital. It would take several years for the federal government to catch up with its infamous HOPE VI program, which began in 1992. Over the next 20 years, HOPE VI would be responsible for the demolition of over 150,000 public housing units nationwide, according to Alex F. Schwartz’s Housing Policy in the United States

After becoming HACLA’s acting executive director, Squier was paraphrased by the Los Angeles Times as saying Normont was the perfect place to test out this strategy “because of its prime location; it sits on a knoll and even has a ‘water view’ of nearby Machado Lake.” 

Throughout the process, there was some measure of tenant support and involvement through the Normont Terrace Coordinating Council. But according to a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1992, there was no doubt who was in charge: “There was some resident participation in the project, but the for-profit developer is the leader here.”

Criminalization Pending Removal

“In the war against gang violence in the harbor area, police are losing,” began a Los Angeles Times story in 1986. LAPD claimed to know of 1,800 gang members in the vicinity, a 156% increase over just three years. 

That year, the police helped implement a program of indoctrination in local schools, teaching fifth graders that the young men in their community were the true enemies. “Who remembers what a gang is?” an instructor asked the Wilmington Park Elementary students, as told by the reporter. Hands shot up across the classroom. One girl gave the desired answer: “They murder people.”

A screenshot of a court filing submitted by the city in support of a gang injunction covering Normont Terrace. The document features a photograph of a deceased person's hand holding crumpled dollar bills.
A court filing submitted by the city in support of a gang injunction covering Normont Terrace.

By 1989, the softer approach was traded in for naked violence and repression. In August of that year, City Council voted to spend $3 million to fund large squads of 10–20 LAPD officers to conduct constant foot patrols at “hot spots” of crime. Out of the 18 sites chosen, seven were public housing projects, including Normont Terrace, San Fernando Gardens in the Valley, Pueblo Del Rio in South Central, Pico-Aliso in Boyle Heights, and the three largest complexes in Watts (Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, and Imperial Courts). 

Later that year, the LAPD intensified its occupation of the neighborhood with the use of road blockades on the area encompassing Normont Terrace. The police set up barriers at a corner near the project and “inspected every car going in and out.” 

Almost a year later, the blockades were still being used in the “gang-infested area.” All drivers were stopped and asked if they lived in the project, and only those who could prove residence there or nearby would be allowed to enter. Those who could not “were subjected to intense scrutiny of their vehicles and given citations for any infraction.” If no infraction could be found, the officers would still take down license plates

In 1993, City Council decided even harsher tactics were needed, officially requesting a gang injunction for an area of eight square blocks centered on Normont Terrace. 

The city attorney had been trying to secure an injunction for years but could not get enough support from Normont residents for a judge to grant the order. City Council demanded they redouble their efforts.

Local business owners quoted by the Los Angeles Times were supportive of the measure, but young residents of Normont felt differently. “All they do is harass us,” one young woman told the reporter, recounting a recent incident where she was given a ticket for obstructing the sidewalk as she was walking home. 

Others said that more policing would not solve their problems so long as there were no jobs or positive alternatives. “This is our front yard,” one young man said, pointing at the street in front of the public housing complex. “We don’t have a big park or front yard to play ball in, like the white people do.”

Now, with the looming gang injunction, the act of merely hanging out with friends or family members could be considered a crime. 

The city attorney’s efforts would pay off in 2000 when a Superior Court judge granted the injunction in a hearing that lasted just four minutes. By this point, Normont Terrace had already been demolished, privatized, and rebuilt — a process that “scattered [gang members] through the Harbor City area.” 

Demolition did not solve the problem of crime in any meaningful way — it just shifted it elsewhere. But it did sanitize this swath of valuable real estate by immediately removing hundreds of deeply poor people of color. The injunction made it a one-two punch, allowing the incarceration and removal of essentially anyone deemed to be a gang member who dared to be present in public space. 

The intention of using demolition to get rid of gangs (and their entire families) was often quite explicit: In its filings in support of the gang injunction, the city attorney’s office stated that Normont Terrace was demolished “primarily because [gang activity] made it unsafe.”

A ‘Renaissance’ for Whom?

The bulldozing of Normont Terrace began in 1995. “It is the first time in 50 years that a public housing development has been completely torn down in Los Angeles to construct a new complex,” the Daily Breeze wrote.  

Glowing media reports and statements from local officials immediately followed demolition. In 1996, before construction had even begun, City Councilmember Rudy Svorinich Jr. was already boasting about a “renaissance” for the area

Andrew Cuomo, then serving as assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), was similarly cheery as he announced a $5.9 million federal loan for the project, which also benefited from $48 million in tax credits — the largest subsidy of that kind at that point in history. According to Cuomo, the introduction of 224 for-sale homes would provide a “new dynamic,” incentivizing residents to maintain the complex and keep it safe.

As construction neared completion in 1998, the declarations of victory by the media intensified. “Housing replaces ‘eyesore,’” read one headline from the Daily Breeze; “Harbor Village housing brings dreams to life,” read another; “New Development Revitalizes Area of Harbor City,” read one in the Los Angeles Times.

A photograph of.a driveway leading into Harbor Village.
A recent photograph of a driveway leading into Harbor Village. (Photo: Jacob Woocher | Knock LA)

“This is a piece of the American dream,” Svorinich Jr. proclaimed upon the project’s completion. Like other eras in this nation’s history, a dream for some entailed a nightmare for others. 

Exactly how many of the original residents were able to return remains an open question. A 1996 report presented to City Council — about two years before Harbor Village opened its doors — stated that 284 families had opted for Section 8 vouchers with plans to move back into the units. The rest, about 120 families, accepted one-time payments of $5,000 to permanently move elsewhere. 

Up to 284 families, therefore, were hypothetically able to return. But this was no guarantee that all those families successfully moved back. At Aliso Village, although tenants had similar promises from the Housing Authority, the best estimates suggest that only about 10% of residents were able to return to the redeveloped complex. 

The application process at Harbor Village was perhaps not as harsh, but it was likely far from simple — especially given the strong emphasis on the careful screening of families. This step had been repeatedly emphasized over the years by both housing officials and reporters.   

Those who did return were subject to strict enforcement of their leases by private management. A returning tenant who was otherwise happy with the new homes told the Los Angeles Times, “Some people say they feel like we’re in prison because it’s so regulated.” 

“Few if any signs of the old Normont Terrace days have materialized,” summarized that same Los Angeles Times article. The 2000 gang injunction dealt the final blow, ensuring the coffin of Normont Terrace remained shut. 

Unsurprisingly, Related California came out on top. In 2013, the developer was showered with additional public funds to renovate the complex. The Housing Authority, which technically still owns the land, agreed to renew the Section 8 contract for all 400 rental units, meaning public money would ensure that Related could collect market-rate rents — up to $2,884 per month for the largest units. Related was further granted over $20 million in tax credits, purchased by Union Bank. Citibank also got in the game by providing a tax-exempt loan of over $56 million.

The enemies of poverty, blight, gangs, and public ownership at Normont Terrace had been vanquished. William Witte, as the battle’s leading general, ascended to the elite tier of LA’s developers in the process. In 2006, when asked about Normont Terrace, Witte described his work at the project as “risky, complicated and difficult… but remarkably successful.”

Read more of this 10-part series, LA’s War on Public Housing: The Era of Demolition and Privatization, here.