City works with outside groups to transform the Vista Los Mares neighborhood
By Stacie N. Galang
It’s one of the city’s more densely populated neighborhoods. It houses some of the lowest wage earners. It boasts a population much younger than the rest of San Clemente. It was one of two areas listed in the gang injunction — the court document authorities use to tamp down on illegal activity.
Yet the Vista Los Mares neighborhood exists as an island — multi-million dollar homes surround the 1,300 residents of the two-block stretch. As such, the city can’t direct federal housing funds, as it does in other neighborhoods, to help with programs to improve one of its neediest sections, said Denise Obrero, San Clemente’s housing specialist.
“The census block doesn’t give us leeway to go into the neighborhood,” she said.
But in recent years, the city has taken a different strategy and organized programs with local nonprofits, faith-based organizations and law enforcement. It has encouraged outside groups like graduate students from the University of California at Irvine to bring fresh ideas to the discussion.
“It’s important that we continue to try and create opportunities, programs and events,” Obrero said. “We try to provide and get programs and activities and additional social services going on.”
Los Mares is filled with multi-family residences, four-plexes, for 175 households. The average household size is seven compared to the rest of San Clemente of 2.65, according to UCI graduate students’ report. More than 90 percent of the residents earn less than $35,000 a year compared to the average median income of $81,983 in all San Clemente.
Obrero said the neighborhood was formed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and only two property owners actually live there, meaning renters dominate the population. When the project was constructed, no homeowners’ association was formed.
The neighborhood also became a haven for gangs, but the gang injunction imposed in 2008 helped curb members’ activity. Reported gang activity in Los Mares went from 31 incidents in 2009 to 22 in 2010 and three in 2011, according to the UCI report.
For a time, residents rarely left their apartments during the daytime because of the conditions, Orbrero said. It took nearly three years for her to form relationships with residents in the neighborhood.
“A lot of moms were fearful so they kept their kids inside,” she said. “Folks just kept to themselves.”
By making the community safer, neighbors have grown comfortable enough to interact with one another, Obrero said.
“We see clearly that this type of work has a positive effect,” she said.
For the city, it’s also about social justice, Obrero said.
“As a mom, you be able to take your kids out whether you live in Talega or Los Mares,” she said.
Seeds of Change
The effort formally started with a $40,000 grant for a community garden, Obrero said. The city partnered with nonprofit OC Human Relations to build the garden across generations.
“People would come together,” Obrero said. “There’s really a lot of passion for gardening.”
It was the first time an outside group held monthly community meetings, and the nonprofit’s work helped to build trust in the neighborhood, the housing specialist said.
While an element of the gangs continues to exist, their ability to intimidate is diminished as other groups come in and work with families.
Mission Hospital sends two employees into the neighborhood to work with moms on healthy living. They have organized Friday evening walks with mothers and spoken about ways to improve eating habits.
The housing specialist noted that area has no green space and as such kids have very little space to run and play. The Mission Hospital workers are also offering programs like zumba in the streets.
Resident Marcela Perez has emerged as a leader though she describes herself as terribly shy. The mother of three said she was spurred into the role about five years ago when she met with city officials after a fire scorched a tree on her property.
She has called San Clemente home for 22 years, and she and her husband Jaime Martinez purchased their four-plex 11 years as their second home. Her brother and his family lives in one of the units and they rent out the two other apartments.
“I would like to become a strong leader in my neighborhood,” said Perez, who works part-time as a student supervisor at Las Palmas Elementary. “That’s one of my goals.”
Perez and her husband raise their children 11-year-old Eduardo, 9-year-old Jahir and 10-month-old Leonel in a modest home in the neighborhood.
She has seen first hand the transformation the area is undergoing. They chose Los Mares because it provided more space for their growing family.
“For the last year and half, it’s been really, really good,” said the soccer mom. “Things are changing now. The neighbors are more friendly. They like to help each other.”
Perez welcomed the influx of groups who have helped create a more closely knit community. She appreciated them and the city for its efforts to make improvements.
“It’s been really nice with all the organizations that are interested in these neighborhoods to help. We like that,” she said.
Still problems with absentee landlords persist. Perez said she often hears the frustration of neighbors whose landlords can’t be bothered to help with trash or respond more quickly to problems on the property.
Obrero is often frustrated by the lack of response by property owners. Her messages, more often than not, go unreturned.
Making Progress in Los Mares
Obrero said she is working with Mission Hospital to seek additional grant funding from the St. Jude Foundation to tackle topics such as childhood obesity and diabetes.
More recently, volunteers from Saddleback Church turned out in droves June 30 to help with a neighborhood clean-up day. The city provided eight dumpsters, and the volunteers and residents collected discarded items, especially large items like couches and mattresses left behind by renters.
Saddleback has committed to helping implement the programs and worked with the UCI students. On August 11, the church will hand out backpacks filled with school supplies. They are still collecting donations for the project.
The city is also taking steps to implement the suggestions offered by the UCI students: Brian English, Lindsay Horn, Ryan Kelleher and Jared Riemer.
“We want to leave them with a community plan they can use,” Ryan Kelliher said at the time of their second community meeting in Los Mares.
Before the city’s work, residents thought the city didn’t listen or wouldn’t respond to their concerns, Perez said. As crime reduced more people came out of their homes and connected. The mother of three has been able to encourage neighbors to call the city and police when they have problems with trash, crime or graffiti.
“It’s more calm,” she said. “It’s a lot more comfortable… You can walk around. (There’s) not that pressure about the scary things that were going on. You can walk outside and you can see more the things.”
The housing specialist noted that changes are indeed afoot in Los Mares.
“At the end of the day, it’s a vibrant community,” Obrero said.
The transformation has been notable enough for residents to start their own tradition, like the annual Las Posadas procession in December for the past three years, Perez said. In Latin American countries, it’s a Christian practice stemming from the Mary and Joseph’s journey to find an inn to stay in Jerusalem prior to Jesus’ birth. A group goes from door to door seeking a place to stay.
“Things are changing,” Perez said. “A lot of things are going on.”
Perez noted that problems happen everywhere. She’s committed to her neighborhood and the city. She and her family has had the opportunity to visit other cities and states, but they would choose no other place to live.
“I guess people, their minds are changing,” Perez said. “I’m glad to be here. I’m just happy.”