NO MORE ‘KEEP OUT’

New apart­ment com­plex will dou­ble the pop­u­la­tion of Ver­non, where out­siders were any­thing but welcome for many years

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Ruben Vives

There was a time when the city of Ver­non went to great lengths to keep peo­ple from mov­ing into the small in­dus­trial city south of down­town L.A.

Ver­non had only about 100 res­i­dents, and the city owned all the homes, which it gave to em­ploy­ees and rel­a­tives at heav­ily sub­si­dized rates. Over the years, the city evicted dis­senters, drove out new­com­ers and even tore down homes to pre­vent out­siders from mov­ing in.

Now, Ver­non’s pop­u­la­tion is ex­pected to boom, thanks to a re­form ef­fort the city em­barked on af­ter a se­ries of cor­rup­tion scan­dals al­most caused the city to be dis­solved.

Next month the city will of­fi­cially open Ver­non Vil­lage Park Apart­ments, wel­com­ing 102 new res­i­dents. The apart­ments will be Ver­non’s first pri­vately owned res­i­dences in decades and mark a dra­matic pivot for a city that fought so hard for so long to keep peo­ple out.

“The times have changed, and Ver­non is chang­ing with the times,” said Mayor Michael McCormick, who joined the coun­cil in 1974. “I’m look­ing for­ward to meet­ing the res­i­dents.”

The $16-mil­lion apart­ment com­plex, de­vel­oped by Meta Hous­ing Corp., sits along the Los An­ge­les River, a short walk from the 710 Free­way.

Of the 45 new units, 12 will be

oc­cu­pied by fam­i­lies who work for pri­vate com­pa­nies in Ver­non. The rest will be rented out to peo­ple from sur­round­ing cities and com­mu­ni­ties.

Those who move into Ver­non will find that the city isn’t like any other town they’re likely to en­counter.

There are about 1,800 busi­nesses in Ver­non, with roughly 55,000 work­ers. The smells oc­ca­sion­ally waft­ing around the city from busi­nesses such as the Farmer John meat pro­cess­ing plant can be off-putting. But at night and on week­ends, there is lit­tle traf­fic to com­plain about, and crime is low.

“I love the quiet­ness,” said Coun­cil­woman Melissa Ybarra, who said Ver­non has a pe­cu­liar, in­dus­trial charm for the few who have ever called it home.

The new hous­ing is part of a se­ries of re­forms Ver­non un­der­took af­ter staving off a leg­isla­tive ef­fort to dis­in­cor­po­rate the city.

Since state law­mak­ers threat­ened to dis­band the city in 2011, Ver­non has slashed salaries of coun­cil mem­bers, set term lim­its and im­posed more com­pet­i­tive bid­ding for city con­tracts.

But none of the changes are as dra­matic as the cre­ation of new apart­ments that will dou­ble Ver­non’s pop­u­la­tion.

His­tor­i­cally, Ver­non’s small and tightly con­trolled pop­u­la­tion al­lowed city lead­ers to avoid con­tested elec­tions for gen­er­a­tions. Ver­non was con­trolled for decades by a fam­ily that crit­ics claim op­er­ated the town like a fief­dom.

There was lit­tle scru­tiny of how gov­ern­ment worked. One city ad­min­is­tra­tor made $1.65 mil­lion one year, and no one who lived in the city would think to pub­licly com­plain. In re­cent years, three top city lead­ers were charged with public cor­rup­tion.

The new apart­ments are sup­posed to in­tro­duce a de­mo­graphic to Ver­non that will be in­de­pen­dent of the in­flu­ence of City Hall.

“It is the crit­i­cal piece from all the re­forms,” said Se­nate Pres­i­dent Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los An­ge­les). “When you dou­ble the elec­torate with new hous­ing, that brings in­de­pen­dent vot­ers... and that’s true democ­racy.”

De­spite the steps Ver­non has taken to change the way it does po­lit­i­cal busi­ness, the city re­mains a cu­ri­ously con­fig­ured odd­ity — Cal­i­for­nia’s small­est city — that strug­gles to scrub away the stain of sus­pi­cion.

Its past has now inspired tele­vi­sion pro­gram­ming: The sec­ond sea­son of the HBO se­ries “True De­tec­tive” is mod­eled in part on the cor­rupt history of Ver­non, which in the show is called “Vinci.”

Ybarra, who was elected to fill her late fa­ther’s coun­cil seat as a re­form can­di­date, said she knows that there will be skep­tics who think the city is just do­ing what it has to do to avoid be­ing tar­geted for dis­so­lu­tion again. But she said Ver­non re­ally wants to do bet­ter than its past.

“What hap­pened in the past hap­pened, and we’re go­ing to take the ex­tra steps to move for­ward,” Ybarra said. “Ver­non is go­ing to grow with the help of the res­i­dents.”

Ver­non’s near col­li­sion course with po­lit­i­cal ex­tinc­tion came shortly af­ter it was re­vealed that city ad­min­is­tra­tors were col­lect­ing huge salaries.

At the same time, the city had a closed-door pol­icy for new res­i­dents.

In 2006, a small group of peo­ple in­tent on forc­ing the first con­tested elec­tion in a gen­er­a­tion moved into a boxy com­mer­cial build­ing in the in­dus­trial town. Ver­non util­ity trucks quickly ar­rived, and work­ers turned off the power and put red tags on the prop­erty. Armed pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors fol­lowed some peo­ple. One in­ves­ti­ga­tor was ar­rested in South Pasadena af­ter draw­ing his gun on an as­pir­ing coun­cil can­di­date.

In 1980, the town’s re­tired po­lice chief de­clared him­self a can­di­date for the Ver­non coun­cil — and was promptly evicted from his city-owned home.

The scan­dals led thenAssem­bly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los An­ge­les) to try to dis­band Ver­non by in­tro­duc­ing leg­is­la­tion that would dis­in­cor­po­rate any city with fewer than 150 res­i­dents.

The leg­is­la­tion—AB 46— was ap­proved in the Assem­bly, but ul­ti­mately died in the Se­nate. De León said he ini­tially sup­ported it but changed his mind when he con­sid­ered the eco­nomic im­pact it would have on Ver­non and the county. He pushed the city to agree to a se­ries of re­forms.

“The cul­ture of cor­rup­tion was very deep, there’s no ques­tion about it,” De León said. “It was a com­pany town con­trolled by the cor­rupt politi­cians and City Hall staff.”

John Kruissink, a Ver­non his­to­rian and for­mer con­sul­tant, says the city’s in­dus­trial suc­cess would have been dif­fi­cult with a large pop­u­la­tion.

“They did ev­ery­thing right in the be­gin­ning,” Kruissink said of the city’s founders. “It was sen­si­ble not to have a large pop­u­la­tion.”

When the city was founded in 1905, it was cre­ated solely to foster in­dus­try, he said. Its motto is “Ex­clu­sively In­dus­trial.”

Ver­non ac­tu­ally used to have a larger pop­u­la­tion, but in the 1920s saw a de­cline af­ter an out­break of a plague. Homes were burned or de­mol­ished and later re­placed with fac­to­ries and man­u­fac­tur­ers. As time passed, the city op­er­ated more like a busi­ness, Kruissink said, pro­vid­ing busi­nesses with power at low util­ity rates.

When Es­mer­alda Be­navidez, 24, and her 9-year-old daugh­ter, Natalie, move from a cramped South L.A. apart­ment into a spa­cious new unit in Ver­non, she said she won’t think much about the city’s com­pli­cated past.

The kitchen will have cho­co­late-col­ored wooden cab­i­nets and mar­ble coun­ter­tops, and energy-ef­fi­cient ap­pli­ances.

There will be a small play­ground for chil­dren and a com­puter lab, and when she stands on her bal­cony, Be­navidez will have a view of the L.A. skyline and the San Gabriel Moun­tains.

“I’m very happy and ex­cited,” she said. “We’ll have our own place.”

‘The times have changed, and Ver­non is chang­ing with the times. I’m look­ing for­ward to meet­ing the res­i­dents.’ —Michael McCormick, mayor

Pho­tog raphs by Kent Nishimura Los An­ge­les Times

THE LOS AN­GE­LES RIVER runs along­side the city of Ver­non. A new 45-unit com­plex, Ver­non Vil­lage Park Apart­ments, sits along the river. The apart­ments, with 102 res­i­dents, will be Ver­non’s first pri­vately owned res­i­dences in decades.

ES­MER­ALDA BE­NAVIDEZ, 24, and daugh­ter Natalie Ro­driguez ad­mire their fu­ture home dur­ing a tour of Ver­non Vil­lage Park Apart­ments.

Kent Nishimura Los An­ge­les Times

WORK­ERS PUT the fin­ish­ing touches on the Ver­non Vil­lage Park Apart­ments. The new hous­ing com­plex is part of a se­ries of re­forms Ver­non un­der­took af­ter staving off a leg­isla­tive ef­fort to dis­in­cor­po­rate the city in the wake of a long se­ries of cor­rup­tion scan­dals.

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