Fred A. Bernstein

Making a Neighborhood Safe for Kids

A brilliant way to privilege underprivileged children

Published in The New York Times, September 17, 2006

BY day, Baldwin Village is a pleasant Los Angeles neighborhood of two-story apartment buildings, most of them with metal gates and lushly planted courtyards.

But by night, residents say, the neighborhood is anything but lovely. When George Pino and Joe Killinger, a pair of real estate investors, began buying buildings in the neighborhood, eight miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles, in 2003, the police asked them to trim their shrubbery so that drug dealers would have fewer places to hide.

"The F.B.I. raided one of our buildings - two days before we closed escrow," Mr. Pino said, explaining that a tenant had been dealing crack cocaine from an apartment.

Mr. Killinger, who grew up in rural Nebraska, was particularly dismayed by the plight of Baldwin Village children, who spent their afternoons behind locked doors.

Now, in two of their buildings, the partners operate resource centers where the children do their homework and play educational games. The centers are operated by teachers who arrive at 3:30 p.m. and stay until 6 p.m. each weekday.

When Mr. Killinger first proposed creating the centers, "I said, �We can't afford to give up units,' " Mr. Pino said. "But Joe can be pretty pushy."

Now Mr. Pino is a devotee of the program, which the men incorporated as Learning Links Centers. Despite forgoing rent on the one-bedroom apartments that became the centers, he said, their profits on the buildings have increased.

In a neighborhood where vacancy rates average about 5 percent, the partners said, the vacancy rate in their five buildings, which have a total of 104 units, is about 1 percent. They have a particularly easy time renting two- and three-bedroom apartments, because "parents see this as an opportunity for their children to get ahead," said Mr. Pino, the son of an Air Force sergeant, who was born in Japan and lived in more than half a dozen cities before moving to California.

On a recent Monday afternoon, in the resource center in a building on Coco Avenue, a fourth grader named Capri Downs worked on her multiplication tables, in preparation for a math test. Her sister, Chelsea, was reading a Rugrats book, "Discovering America." Their brother, William Darden, played a computer game.

Less than two years ago, "their mother, Tracee, wouldn't let them come out after school," Mr. Pino said. Now the children are prot�g�es of Karen Elaine Hempstead, who introduced herself as "a secondary level substitute teacher and also a parent - I put five children in college." She described Learning Links as "a wonderful program," adding that Baldwin Village parents, many of them immigrants, "may not be familiar with what their children are learning in school."

Half a mile away in a building called the Sahara, Danli Imani Bayne, also a substitute teacher, whom everyone calls Imani, is presiding over a resource center where children's artwork, photos from a recent outing to a baseball game, and inspirational quotations from Martin Luther King Jr. cover the walls. Francoise Foster, a 16-year-old resident, is serving as a de facto teaching assistant, helping younger children with their homework. When the homework is finished, the children are rewarded with the chance to play computer games.

Francoise, who will turn 17 next week, said that the center, which opened in the spring of 2003, made it easier for her to do her schoolwork. "The library at my school closes at 4," she said. "I used to have to take the bus somewhere else if I had to type something for school. Now, if it's after 6, and I have to type something, Imani will keep the room open."

Francoise returns the favor. Mr. Killinger said: "Sometimes, I'll come down on weekends, to work on the building, and the kids will say, �Open the resource room, open the resource room.' Francoise will sit there and watch the younger kids for hours."

The nonprofit Education Advantage Foundation, formed by Mr. Killinger and Mr. Pino, provides some of the equipment and supplies in the study rooms, which cost about $4,500 each to outfit. The men said they did not take salaries for running the foundation, which they at first initially financed themselves but which now depends on charitable contributions. The two said they and their investors, who bought the buildings through corporations, paid the teachers about $50 for each afternoon shift.

The two met in 1992 when both went to work for a real estate auctioneer. Three years later they began buying real estate on their own.

When Mr. Killinger first conceived of the resource centers, he said, he hoped to find teachers to run them in exchange for free or discounted apartments. But that did not pan out, in part because teachers did not want to live in Baldwin Village.

Now that the neighborhood is improving, the two hope to expand their holdings, but not in Los Angeles. Even in struggling neighborhoods like Baldwin Village, they said, buildings sell for more than $100,000 a unit, which makes it hard to turn a profit.

So last year, they flew to New York to look at buildings in the Bronx. "We got a lot of neighborhood people excited about the program," Mr. Pino said. But they were unable to raise enough money from investors.

A trip to Dallas was more successful. Earlier this month, Mr. Killinger said, they signed a contract to buy a 290-unit building in southeast Dallas (at about $30,000 a unit). And they are looking at several other buildings near Dallas.

Mr. Pino and Mr. Killinger are not the only landlords to offer after-school programs. In Prince George's County in Maryland, the company that manages the 600-unit Glenarden Apartments opened a resource center in 2005, after the complex became known as a crime incubator. According to Mary Rush, the regional director for Intercoastal Property Services, which runs the Glenarden Apartments, "in an area where there is crime, to maintain the building's value as an asset for the owners, we really needed to reach out and develop a social service network."

"If you've got a place you can send your kids after school, that's where you're going to want to live," she said. "It's about more than bricks and mortar."

If Mr. Pino and Mr. Killinger have their way, resource centers will become commonplace in low- and middle-income neighborhoods. To help make that happen, they are willing to license their manuals and methods to other building owners. "We've learned a lot since we began," Mr. Pino said.

But they are also glad to simply spread the word. "If someone wants to take the concept and run with it," Mr. Pino said, "more power to them."

Mr. Pino cites Francoise Foster, who was born in Belize and hopes to attend N.Y.U. next year. "To see a young woman who has come as far along as she has is absolutely amazing," he said. "You can't not want to help the kids."

He added, "If we can give back to the community, and still make a decent return, we consider ourselves really lucky."