NORWALK — Nearly empty blocks with boarded-up homes dot neighborhoods closest to the ever-evolving Century Freeway as it pushes to its meeting place with the San River Gabriel Freeway.
The listless streets have remained almost unchanged since the early 1970s, when Caltrans bought homes and either boarded them up, demolished them on the spot or moved them to other sites.
But life is stirring once again on streets that have resembled suburban ghost towns.
Families who were displaced by construction of the 17-mile Century Freeway--which will eventually stretch from Norwalk to the Los Angeles International Airport--have been trickling into the neighborhoods to set up new households in homes constructed with state funds. Other families will soon move to other lots where both new and refurbished homes are under construction.
Most of the home sites came from design changes in both the Century Freeway and planned expansion of the San Gabriel River Freeway.
Caltrans, in conjunction with the state Department of Housing and Community Development, will replace homes it tore down to make way for the freeway as part of the six-year-old Century Freeway Replenishment Housing Program. The state agencies will construct at least 3,700 homes and apartments for displaced families as part of a legal compromise hammered out in 1981. The agreement sprang from a 1972 lawsuit that confronted a variety of freeway-related issues.
The rapidly accelerating pace of new and refurbished home construction marks a "milestone" in the project's history, said Julie Stewart, housing issues manager for the housing and community development department.
"We now have the highest number of units being constructed," said Stewart, who called the program the "largest such project in the nation."
So far, 432 owner-occupied units and 202 rental units have been completed; 490 units are under construction all along the path of the Century Freeway, which snakes through Norwalk, Downey and Lynwood. Stewart said the state agencies will meet the court deadline to build 1,100 housing units by the end of June.
Homes have been slowly appearing on thoroughfares like Borson Street and Behrens Street. Others will soon line Angell Street and Domart Avenue. Most of the homes will be clustered at the juncture of the two freeways, just south of Imperial Highway.
One of the new residents on Borson Street is Margarita Urbina. She said it was distressing when the Century Freeway pushed through her Inglewood neighborhood and she and her husband and four children had to move. But she said the housing program has turned that misfortune into a good thing.
"When was I ever going to be able to buy a house? The cost for interest and a down payment is too high," said Urbina, who was renting a two-bedroom apartment for $450 a month in the path of the freeway. The family now has a three-bedroom refurbished home.
Housing Assistance Options
The state gives displaced families a choice of either a four-year rent supplement or a lump sum to be used toward a down payment on a house, said Robert Norris, an assistant to the director of the program.
New homes built by the state generally cost about $89,000 to construct but the displaced families can buy for far less. State officials said the purchase price ranges from $25,000 to $42,000, depending on a family's ability to pay.
Before a home is sold, the purchaser must sign an agreement that will allow the state to buy back a home within 30 years to avoid having owners make a huge profit, said James Fisher, a housing agent with Caltrans.
The homes are first offered to displaced families, who must go through an approval process and credit check, Stewart said. Next in line are low- or moderate-income families; finally, if no sales are made to people in those categories, the homes are sold at market value to the general public.
Fisher said most of the displaced families have decided to take relocation benefits instead of purchasing a home. "We've been filling rentals quite well. Selling (homes) is our biggest problem," he said.
When property is not going to be used for housing, it can be offered to local and state agencies.
Norwalk Seeks Parcels
Since November, at least 14 surplus parcels have been considered by the Norwalk City Council, which has proposed buying at least two vacant lots. Ken Montgomery, the city's public works director, said the property might be used for relocating people displaced under Norwalk's redevelopment plans. The redevelopment agency is studying various sites for redevelopment projects, including a parcel with 13 homes on it near Rosecrans and Pioneer boulevards.
City officials say they are looking forward to seeing the empty lots and vacant homes come back to life.
"Anytime we get a few homes, whether they are new or renovated, is definitely a plus for Norwalk," said Mayor Robert White. "We gain more taxpayers."
White said he asked for a staff report detailing the disposition of the vacant homes, which have drawn the attention of quite a few of his constituents. Some people have complained about rampant rat infestation and vandalism at vacant houses left empty since the 1970s. But others indicate interest in purchasing the homes.
"There is a great interest in those places that aren't going to be used," White said.