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She won the affordable housing lottery. The odds were 140 in 3,000.

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Johanna Blocker was homeless before her application was picked for a new subsidized apartment complex

Rolland Curtis Gardens, a new affordable housing complex, hugs the Expo Line.
Photos by Jim Simmons

Johanna Blocker was walking through West Adams when she spotted a line wrapped around a local church. It was a throng of applicants entering a lottery for a new, low-income apartment complex in the area.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I’m definitely going to wait in this line,’” she says.

Blocker, now 31, had been scouting for apartments for more than a year while living with her three children in a Salvation Army shelter in Westwood, and kept coming up short.

Places were either too expensive or had waitlists as long as six years. Sometimes, landlords told her that her family was too big for the one-bedrooms she could afford; other times, she was told her history of depression did not meet mental health requirements for permanent supportive housing.

But Blocker had a good feeling this time—and her gut was right.

“They said they were only going to call 140 people back, and I was number 127, how crazy is that?” she says. “Oh my gosh, I was so happy. I was crying.”

Blocker eventually signed a one-year lease at one of the 140 new subsidized apartments at Rolland Curtis Gardens, just a short walk from USC and the Expo Line. She pays $592 per month for the apartment, which has two bedrooms, a balcony, a dishwasher, and central AC (“How dope is that?”). Plus there’s there’s a community room “where you can mingle with your neighbors” and play bingo and lotería.

The nonprofit developer Abode Communities, the landowner T.R.U.S.T. South LA, and city officials celebrated the opening of the complex last week, with Mayor Eric Garcetti calling it “a sign of progress in our work to build a more livable, prosperous city.”

The new complex has a playground, community health clinic, and space for a neighborhood market.

Abode was enlisted by the local land trust to acquire the property in 2012, as a way to take the site off the market and preserve it for affordable housing. The year before, the land owner had issued 60-day eviction notices to tenants of a 48-unit complex on the site, with plans to turn the property into market-rate housing for students.

“By keeping this property in a community land trust, we are making a promise to the next generation of black and brown families that we will continue to fight to create homes for you in South Central LA to challenge displacement and gentrification,” Benjamin Torres, who chairs the board of T.R.U.S.T. South LA, said in a statement.

But as well-intentioned as that goal was, it posed hurdles. The site’s redevelopment ended up leaving some of the existing tenants in a lurch, as documented by the Los Angeles Times. Half of the tenants of the original 48-unit complex ended up moving into the new buildings.

The new complex has a playground, community health clinic, and space for a neighborhood market. To qualify, tenants must earn between 30 and 60 percent of the area’s median income, or $21,950 to $43,860 for a one-person household.

More than 3,000 people submitted applications for the 140 apartments (two of the units are reserved for managers), and many of them, like Blocker, have struggled with homelessness, according to Robin Hughes, CEO of Abode Communities.

Before she took her family to the shelter, Blocker, who grew up in West Adams, escaped a bad relationship and lived with a friend for about six months. But her friend had a Section 8 voucher, and didn’t want to risk losing it.

“So I left, and me and my kids were at the park, and it started to get dark,” she says. “I didn’t have nowhere to go.”

They started camping there, and her kids “were happy, they didn’t question it,” says Blocker.

But now, when she wakes up in the morning, instead of worrying about where they will sleep each night, she focuses on getting them ready for school.

“I was riding the train past this building when they first broke it down,” she says. “I kept wondering what they would build, and I remember thinking, ‘How dope would it be if I could move into a brand-new apartment?’ I’m just so happy to have my place.”

Today, 2,000 applicants remain on the waitlist for Rolland Curtis.

“Is it daunting and overwhelming that we have so far to go? Absolutely,” says Hughes. “But now there are 138 families who will have high-quality affordable housing, and immediately that housing will have benefits—socially, economically, and emotionally.”

“If we can do that a building at at time, that is very satisfying,” she says.