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Substandard Housing : Garages: Immigrants In, Cars Out

May 24, 1987|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ and JAMES QUINN | Times Staff Writers

For two years after journeying north to Los Angeles from central Mexico in 1982, Manuel and Josefina Acevedo were forced to share a series of cramped apartments with other families.

Eventually the young couple found a place of their own. But it was no dream home. It was a one-car garage behind a house in the East San Fernando Valley.

Three years later they are still there, living with their 5-year-old son amid a few pieces of old furniture.

They have no plumbing. Their bathroom privileges in the house expire at sunset. They collect drinking water in jugs from a garden spigot. Electricity comes from two extension cords strung from the main house. They prepare meals on a hot plate.

'This Is My Calvary'

"Life in here is no good," Josefina Acevedo said of her $150-a-month home. " Es mi Calvario --this is my Calvary."

The Acevedos have been driven by poverty into the ranks of Southern California's garage people, a hidden legion of immigrants living in structures designed for automobiles, not humans.

A systematic survey by The Times indicates that about 42,000 garages are sheltering about 200,000 people in Los Angeles County. In addition, an unknown number live in other parts of Southern California.

They lie in a swath of mostly low-income Latino neighborhoods from Sylmar through East Los Angeles into Long Beach, with pockets in the east San Gabriel Valley, central Orange County and San Diego.

Living in the structures are immigrants, most of them from Central America and Mexico, who have overflowed the region's cheap housing. Profiting from the situation are landlords who are violating laws governing sanitation, zoning and safety and adding as much as $450 to their monthly incomes.

Some of these black market homes have been remodeled. Others are simply garages. Most have no plumbing, no heating, no windows and drafty gaps around overhead doors.

Extra Inspectors

Officials in some communities have become alarmed. Santa Ana and South Gate have hired extra housing inspectors to evict hundreds of garage dwellers a year. Los Angeles, however, simply responds to individual complaints, with doubtful results.

The Times' count, based on checks at 500 houses, appears to be the first to be made countywide. Some experts said they were surprised by the large number but found it credible.

"It doesn't seem an unreasonable number," said William Baer, a USC expert on the "shadow market" that includes non-residential structures converted to housing. He noted, "That's a city larger than Torrance or Glendale."

"I would not have guessed it was that high, but . . . it's perfectly plausible," said Mary Lee, housing attorney for the Western Center for Law and Poverty.

"The low-income housing market is getting tighter all the time, but proving it is difficult," said James T. Minuto, who supervises housing studies for the Southern California Assn. of Governments. "People are falling out of the bottom of the housing market. And we are hearing about a very large shadow market."

The lack of government data has not kept the practice from being noticed by people in affected neighborhoods.

Since immigrants began moving into garages several years ago, her neighborhood has "changed so you would hardly recognize it," said Pacoima homeowner Marie Harris. "They cut down trees to plant vegetables in the yard, and they hang clothes on the fence. And people are always loitering."

Paramount mailman Gordon Hash has watched in awe for two years as immigrants have moved into garages of 75 of the 376 houses he delivers to. Many ask him to post letters stuffed with cash to their homes in Mexico.

Such neighborhoods can change rapidly.

Garbage cans overflow. People congregate on streets and sidewalks. Cars, displaced from their own shelters, jam the streets.

Public health nurses, who see a cross section of housing conditions of the poor, say garages, like slum apartments, spread intestinal ailments such as salmonella and shigella.

"Parasites, malnourishment, lice--it's all common," said nurse Rosa Perez-Minton.

Ditches Instead of Toilets

Nurses say the biggest problems stem from cold drafts, the lack of kitchen areas to properly clean, cook and refrigerate food, and the absence of bathrooms. Health officials say the most common complaint is of garage dwellers' using backyard ditches instead of toilets.

Virtually all occupied garages fail to meet requirements for ventilation and, because the overhead doors are often sealed, for multiple fire exits.

In the crudest of converted garages, safety violations are blatant. Extension cords, often the lone source of power, are draped across bushes and tree limbs and are exposed to wind and rain. Gas pipes are often laid on the ground, vulnerable to damage.

Kitchen appliances are commonly too close to combustible material. Sinks and toilets can lack vents to let sewer gases escape. Toilet drain lines often do not slope enough to permit waste to flow freely to the sewer connection at the house.

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