Andrew Edwards, Staff Writer
Posted: 11/26/2010 06:56:01 PM PST

SAN BERNARDINO – The question of how best to respond to foreclosures and blight has been at the center of city politics.

Since 2008, Mayor Pat Morris and San Bernardino Economic Development Agency leaders have followed an “Integrated Housing Strategy” to address not only foreclosures but also decaying apartments and a shortage of affordable senior housing.

Some efforts are directed specifically to foreclosed houses.

For example, the EDA has a roughly year-old deal with Inland Empire Concerned African-American Churches Community Development Corp. to buy, repair and re-sell foreclosed houses.

A two-bedroom house in the 1500 block of West Virginia Street was the first property to be sold under that arrangement. The home went for a reported $76,000.

But that is not the kind of project that generates the most energetic debates.

Redevelopment projects often require setting aside living spaces for low- or moderate-income residents. Thus, some of San Bernardino policy-makers’ most profound disagreements arise when plans call for refurbishing apartments and reserving units to any number of low-income tenants.

Morris and like-minded officials in the EDA support financing projects that help developers to acquire and rehabilitate rental property.

Doing so enables officials to recruit responsible landlords and set covenants making it easier to evict troublemakers, they say. Do nothing, and the city’s future will be left to absentee landlords, they say.

“What’s happening in our city is these apartment complexes, of which we have a host, is that as they are aged there is a sell-off,” Morris said.

Council members Wendy McCammack and Chas Kelley are among those with an opposing perspective: that the EDA should fuel an all-out drive to promote homeownership via such policies as down-payment assistance for first-time buyers.

In McCammack’s view, the EDA can meet its legal requirement to help low-income residents by supporting senior housing projects while using other dollars to aid prospective homebuyers.

Do otherwise, she says, and the city will not attract people whose purchases and tax payments will keep local businesses and the city running.

“I’m not talking about how good people feel about helping low-income families. I’m talking about the economy,” McCammack said. “It will be a 20-year turnaround instead of a 5-year turnaround, and the city cannot afford to wait that long.”

McCammack’s side prevailed on Nov. 1, when the council canned a Morris- and EDA-supported project involving a $5.75million loan to subsidize the purchase and and rehabilitation of the Northbrook Apartments complex on 30th Street.

The council said “no” after a throng of residents packed City Hall to protest the potential of low-income tenants, although the deal would have set aside 151 Northbrook units for moderate-income earners.

For a family of four, that means a maximum of $77,000 per year in San Bernardino. Only 38 Northbrook units would have been set aside for low-income tenants.

Morris and EDA officials, including interim chief Emil Marzullo, defended the proposal after the vote. They think Northbrook was an opportunity to strike an early blow against blight.

“If it goes down, the whole neighborhood north of 30th will be victimized by that degraded asset,” Morris said.

The Northbrook outcome was the reverse of what happened in July 2009, when the council greenlighted the more ambitious “19th and Sunrise Project,” which was intended to transform an eastside neighborhood of fourplexes bounded by 19th Street, Guthrie, Sunrise Lane and Argyle.

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