The Great Divide

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Posted August 5, 2010 in Feature Story

Crack open Myra Tanner Weiss’ Vigilante Terror in Fontana: The Tragic Story of O’Day H. Short and His Family and you’ll read the details of the savage murder of a black family that migrated to Fontana from Los Angeles in 1945. The father was a member of the NAACP and decided to buy property in what today is the core of the city. In a short time, locals went to the house and told the family that if they did not leave the area they would face violence. Short held his ground even after officials with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department advised him to move and the Chamber of Commerce offered to buy the land back at cost.

 

A few weeks later, white supremacists returned to the home to make good on their threats. Evidence from the scene examined by one of the best arson investigators of the time concluded with a horrific scenario. Short, his wife, and two small children were brought inside the house, doused with coal oil and lit on fire. The first people to arrive at the scene saw the family running from the inside the house in flames. No one was ever prosecuted for the murders and the authorities ruled it an “accidental” fire.

 

The event firmly branded Fontana as being on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line for generations.

 

Gentrified Paradise?

Today, the view of Cucamonga Peak from the greens at the Sierra Lakes Golf Club is the postcard image of Fontana that city officials sell to residential and commercial developers. The California Redevelopment Law turned the rocky flood plain—where O‘Day Short refused to be segregated in ’40s Jim Crow Fontana—into the largest urban renewal area in the state.

 

The golf course lines the eastern edge of master planned communities with strategically placed shopping plazas, K-12 schools, and the Fontana Park Aquatic Center at the northern edge of the city.

 

The 38-acre park has two water slides and both a recreational and a 14-lane competition pool. A skate park has a drained pool with a half pipe and younger children can explore the multiple play areas. The 43,000-square-foot Jesse Turner Health and Fitness Center has a juice bar, periodical room, gym, dance and gymnastic studios and an enclosed multi-court basketball pavilion with natural skylights.

 

Seize—the Land!

The California Redevelopment Law was intended to spur the growth of safe and affordable homes and rebuild schools in blighted neighborhoods. Instead, to many, developers and politicians took advantage of the law’s lax regulation to divert funds away from embattled communities in the core of Fontana to create new ones at the edges of the city that are out of reach of the natives.

 

The purchase and seizure of property through eminent domain is common when an area is gentrified—the process of urban renewal that forces out longtime land owners that cannot pay the property tax hike that follows development. Some of the original land owners remain outside of the walled communities on the alluvial fan where Fontana’s founders settled over a century ago.

 

This town site was a point of historical interest and protected under state and federal laws—but the few buildings that were left were bulldozed to clear a fairway for the golf course.

 

Developer Gold Rush

The North Fontana Project Area was implemented at the same time as the Jurupa Hills Redevelopment Project Area on the south side of the city. Both projects were the initial efforts to remake the failed steel town of the early ’80s into a bedroom community for Los Angeles and Orange County commuters. In the rush to lure developers, and to make up for the city’s image problem, it only took six days for a building permit to be issued by the City Council compared to nine months elsewhere in the state. The Fontana Redevelopment Agency had city fees waived and also pushed for massive tax rebates that were combined with creative financing options for large-scale developers to build in the redevelopment zones.

 

Ten-Ninety won the contract to build the 8,000-unit Southridge housing project in the Jurupa Hills Redevelopment Project Area. But before the houses were built, a flood-control channel needed to be in place and the city was unable to afford the construction. Ten-Ninety agreed to provide capital financing for the construction and also build the channel, storm drains, streets and other infrastructure needed for a $20 million price tag.

 

The price of raw land in Fontana doubled in four years and officials claimed that soon the city would be flooded with revenue from the Jurupa Hills Redevelopment Project Area. Nationwide, the Fontana turnaround was offered as an example of how Reaganomics was the answer to the loss of manufacturing jobs as the nation transitioned to prosperity based on government deregulation. But by the middle of the decade, the bubble had burst, the city’s finance director was charged with and convicted of embezzlement and the City Council forced the city manager at the time, Jack Ratelle, to resign due to “management issues.”

 

Political Machine

Kenneth R. Hunt is the executive director of the Fontana Redevelopment Agency and also the city manager for Fontana. In fact, everyone on the City Council is also a board member of the Fontana Redevelopment Agency. Research conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 93 percent of redevelopment agencies in the state are set up in this way. In the ’90s, city-run redevelopment agencies were responsible for diverting over a billion dollars from counties, schools and special districts in need of the funds for other projects.

 

In his dual manager roles for the left and right hands of Fontana’s city government, Hunt has built a political machine. The terms of his contract require four votes of “no confidence” from the five-member city council for him to lose his job. Hunt makes a $264,000 annual salary that also comes with a benefits package and an annual five-percent raise.

 

Fontana holds city-wide “at-large” elections for the City Council instead of elections from wards or districts. The distinction is important with 70 percent of the city’s territory locked in one of the five redevelopment zones. None of the city council members come from the core of the city.

 

Acquanetta Warren, the chairperson for the Redevelopment Agency, was picked by the recently resigned Mayor Mark Nuaimi to serve on the city council in 2002. She lives in the North Fontana Project Area and is the leading contender for mayor in the November election. She lost her bid to be the Republican nominee for the 63rd Assembly District seat despite being heavily financed by outside special interests.

 

The CEO of The Lewis Group of Companies, John Goodman, donated $2,500 to her candidacy. The mega-builder wants to develop The Arboretum, an exclusive gated community of 3,800 homes on 550 acres in the North Fontana Project Area.

 

The Pueblo Fights Back

AB-1290 was added to the California Redevelopment Law in the ’90s and requires that 20 percent of the money received for redevelopment be directed to the construction of low- and moderate-income housing. An audit by the Department of Housing and Community Development found that the Fontana Redevelopment Agency “had underfunded low- and moderate-income housing efforts, failed to account for and produce required low- and moderate-income housing, provided inaccurate information and spent housing money on ineligible neighborhood beautification projects.”

 

In August 2007, the Fourth District Court of Appeal heard a case filed on behalf of two Fontana residents, Jennette Torres and Magdalena Diaz, and Libreria del Pueblo. Libreria is a non-profit organization that deals with housing inequality in the Inland Empire. The court ruled that Fontana had not met its affordable housing obligations for 20 years. The court also overturned a San Bernardino County Superior Court decision that would have allowed the city to divert $40 million marked for redevelopment to pay off delinquent debt.

 

Sorry, Poor People

The owner participation agreement Fontana had entered with Ten-Ninety in the ’80s to build the infrastructure for Southridge had become a money pit. The project came in $150 million over-budget and the city was accruing a 15.5 percent annual interest rate on the loan. The agreement had been amended four times and required that the city turn over all tax increment revenue from the Jurupa Hills Redevelopment Project to the developer.

 

The city had already paid Ten-Ninety $135 million, but the debt will reach $1.3 billion when the provisions of the agreement expire in 2027.

The Western Center on Law and Poverty found that Fontana had already used $53 million acquired under California Redevelopment Law to pay Ten-Ninety. The Fontana Redevelopment Agency, the Center claims, owes the community 8,800 low- and moderate-income homes. The agency had underfunded the construction of such projects by $67 million over the years.

 

After the decision, noted Inland Empire economist John Husing—known for his expertise on project level economic impact analyses for developers—warned that the decision would impact the ability of Fontana to upgrade in the future. The Fontana Redevelopment Agency countered the ruling with the claim that Southridge meets the AB-1290 requirements of California Redevelopment Law.

 

The City Council has made it clear that the ruling will not change the way the city does business.

 

Stockpiled Funds

In May, the state forced the Fontana Redevelopment Agency to hand over $33 million to officials with the San Bernardino County Auditor’s office. The city had let the funds stockpile to finance the Duncan Canyon/I-15 interchange in the North Fontana Project Area.

 

The Fontana Redevelopment Agency had two development projects waiting for construction on each side of the off-ramps.

The Ventana at Duncan Canyon on the west side of I-15 will be a Mediterranean-themed mixed-use Tuscan village. It will develop 435 large single-detached homes combined with a 65,000-square-foot hotel and additional retail and restaurant space. The Arboretum is lined up to be built on the west side of the interstate.

 

The City of Fontana and the Fontana Redevelopment Agency each issued a separate press release after the money was transferred. Mayor Nuaimi said the forced transfer of redevelopment money back to the state was not only a raid of city funds but also unconstitutional.

 

Heart of Fontana

Fontana City Council meetings and Redevelopment Agency meetings are held back-to-back on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. The offensive against Sacramento by Fontana officials happened as police checkpoints in the core of the city left Latinos residents feeling racially profiled.

 

The mayor’s talking points for the Duncan Canyon/I-15 interchange were later followed by 5-minute statements from residents from the city’s core. Soon the social gap that exists between the two Fontanas became the heart of the conversation. It lasted late into the night and continued through the next day on the comment board for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin website under the headline “Immigration Divide Spawns Heated Words in Fontana.”

 

The mayor left the following response to a post about the city’s past and the unequal growth in north Fontana: I am well aware of this community’s history and clearly you haven’t been to any community meeting or discussion I have held with high school students where I talk about the geographical segregation that USED TO EXIST in Fontana. Then I talk about how God has a way of taking what man does in hate and turning it on his head—today, it is those areas that minorities were segregated to that are the most desirable to live in this community—and that is our job as mayor and council to erase the division and invest all throughout this town. It’s called our “Outside/In” investment strategy where we have focused government resources in the heart of Fontana to improve facilities and develop new ones while the private sector investment comes into the north and south portions of town.”

 

In November, the “Outside/In” investment strategy—as administered by Hunt—will continue. The full potential of the North Fontana Project area remains to be seen. 


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