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Bold Housing Program Develops Big Problems : Plan Plagued by Shoddy Construction, Cost Overruns, High Vacancy Rates, Opposition

THE CENTURY FREEWAY: Planners said the most expensive freeway in Southern California would be built with care and a conscience--a freeway "that has a heart." Five years after its start, problems remain. Second of four parts. Next: How the project has fallen short of one of its major goals--affirmative action.

December 28, 1987|WILLIAM TROMBLEY and RAY HEBERT | Times Urban Affairs Writers

Troubled by high costs, shoddy construction, high vacancy rates, fierce community opposition and other problems, the attempt to provide several thousand units of affordable housing along the Century Freeway route is floundering as the project nears the halfway mark.

The housing program, part of a 1981 federal court decree that ended a decade of litigation over the freeway, is the boldest part of the $2.5-billion Century Freeway project, which also includes the 17.3-mile freeway between Norwalk and Los Angeles International Airport and 20 miles of light rail.

The idea was twofold: To provide replacement housing for some of the 20,000 people who have been uprooted by construction of the freeway and also to replenish the supply of badly needed low- and moderate-income housing along the southern tier of the city and county of Los Angeles.

The Center for Law in the Public Interest, representing successful plaintiffs in the long Century Freeway lawsuit, insisted on the housing plan, despite objections from the two other signatories to the 1981 federal court decree--the California Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.

Finally, the two government agencies decided to go along in order to get the freeway built.

A complicated formula called for construction of new apartments and town houses and for rehabilitation of existing single-family homes. These were to be built, at first, in a "primary zone" six miles north and south of the freeway route and were to be offered first to people displaced by the freeway construction and later to low- and moderate-income members of the general public.

Altogether, about 3,700 units were to be built or refurbished at a cost of more than $300 million.

Six years into the program, however, serious problems have developed. The units are costing well over $100,000 apiece to produce, at least 30% more than comparable housing costs elsewhere.

An estimated 30% to 40% of the 1,000 or so units completed so far stand empty, for one reason or another. Some have been vacant for a year or more.

Some of the sites chosen for Century Freeway housing have been ill-advised and some construction has been shoddy. Several communities along the freeway route, strongly opposed to what they perceive to be "public housing," have tried to block construction.

Recently, there have been allegations of fraud and corruption within the Department of Housing and Community Development, the state agency responsible for the program. These charges now are the subject of both federal and state investigations, officials say.

But the astonishingly high cost of building this housing--an average of at least $110,000 per unit, a figure called "mind-boggling" and "unimaginable" by housing experts--is the program's most serious weakness.

Figures Disputed

Robert J. Norris, interim director of the Century Freeway Housing Program, disputes this figure, contending that the average per-unit cost of acquiring the land and building the houses or apartments is "around $100,000" and that his agency has taken steps to reduce that figure.

But a source at the Federal Highway Administration in Washington, which provides 92% of the money for Century Freeway housing, as it does for the freeway itself, said per-unit costs now are averaging $125,000 to $135,000.

In a September, 1985, report, the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general found that per-unit costs were already averaging $100,000. A year later, the inspector general found that "the price paid for replenishment housing has escalated 36% during the period 1983 to 1985," while general construction costs in the Los Angeles area "have not increased significantly."

It is even costing more than $100,000 per home to relocate and refurbish 30- to 40-year-old structures, moving them from Hawthorne and Inglewood, near the western end of the Century route, to Downey and Norwalk, at the eastern end.

Originally, officials thought that it would be faster and cheaper to provide Century Freeway replacement housing by refurbishing existing units. That has turned out not to be the case.

One recent contract authorized payments of $125,000 per unit for moving and rehabilitating four houses.

Officials Partly to Blame

Contractors say Century Freeway Housing Program officials are partly to blame for the high rehabilitation costs.

"They want you to create a new house with these 30- or 40-year-old structures you're moving," said Ronnie Jones, whose company has relocated and refurbished eight Century Freeway houses. "They want new foundations, new electrical, new plumbing, new roofs, new sub-flooring. All that's left are the walls and the termites."

Other contractors say vague job specifications and contradictory inspections by housing agency personnel have added to costs.

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