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Caltrans Tenants Complain of Neglected Homes, Rent Hikes

Bureaucracy: Agency has managed 585 houses on stalled freeway route for decades. It admits maintenance problems but defends increases.

July 28, 2002|CARA MIA DiMASSA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

About 100 tenants of Caltrans-owned houses criticized the agency Saturday for raising rents and accused it of neglecting to maintain their houses, some of them historic, along the route of the decades-delayed Long Beach Freeway extension.

It was the latest chapter in a protracted dispute between Caltrans and tenants of the 585 homes along the corridor in Pasadena, South Pasadena and the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Some of the homes have been in the agency's possession since the 1950s, when Caltrans bought the houses when freeway construction seemed imminent. South Pasadena has long opposed the freeway, arguing it would bisect and destroy the community. The city has fought the issue in court while government funding has dwindled.

At a meeting at El Sereno Senior Center, neighbors complained about fungus on their walls and ceilings, cockroach and rat infestations, uninsulated houses and steep rent increases that could take effect as early as Thursday. They showed pictures of corroded pipes, overgrown trees and serious water damage.

"This very diverse neighborhood has a commonality," said one Pasadena resident, Lyn Miller, "and now it has a rallying point: a slumlord named Caltrans."

Miller, who is living in one Caltrans house while waiting for another, the one she originally rented 10 years ago, to be renovated, said that the agency is forcing rent increases on its tenants of as much as 23%.

A Caltrans spokeswoman, Deborah Harris, said the rent increases, which she described as a 10% increase last August and another 10% this year, are part of the agency's efforts to bring the rental prices on all of its properties statewide up to fair market value.

"We have a responsibility to all taxpayers to manage the properties to the best of our ability," she said, "and to get a return on taxpayers' money."

Harris conceded that it appears "there is an ongoing problem" with maintenance of the properties. Residents have been complaining since the 1980s about issues similar to the ones raised Saturday.

A 1973 federal court mandate ordered the state to make its "best efforts" to maintain the properties and rent them out to "prevent vacant structures from becoming public health and safety hazards."

Of particular concern in recent years have been 92 historic homes in Pasadena in the freeway corridor. The agency had allowed the Victorian, Craftsman and Spanish revival structures to fall into disrepair. It began to renovate the homes in 1995, but a state audit in 2000 showed that the agency had spent its entire allocation--nearly $20 million--to rehabilitate only 39 of the houses.

While the state did not offer numbers on how many of the houses are vacant, residents estimated that there are 40 uninhabited homes in Pasadena alone.

"Caltrans does not belong in the landlord business," said Suzanne Reed, chief of staff for Assemblywoman Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge), who has been working on behalf of the tenants.

Larry Stevens, Caltrans' regional director of property services, was occasionally heckled as he tried to present the agency's side of the dispute. He said he had been on the job for just a few months and asked tenants not to dwell on the past. "Give us a chance," he pleaded, "and see if we can win your trust."

Stevens said that the agency had fielded 3,500 service requests and spent $2.7 million on maintenance and repairs for its 710 properties in the last year. Because the state budget has not yet passed, he said, he currently can make only the repairs that are matters of health and safety.

Some of the tenants expressed concern that comparable rental prices Caltrans had used to set their rent increases were for houses that did not exist or were owner-occupied. They said that the state had a responsibility to provide affordable housing, and pointed out that the article of the state Constitution cited by Michael Rodrigues, Caltrans' senior right-of-way agent, to justify the move toward fair market value pertains to motor vehicles.

Others worried that their speaking up about the conditions in their homes and the rent increases might bring retribution from the agency.

Marie Salas, who is organizing the El Sereno tenants, said she had been served an eviction notice after refusing to allow an inspector, who did not identify himself, to enter her home. "Why are they harassing my family?" she asked. "Am I being targeted? They know I am an activist toward this immoral and unjust rent increase. I feel that I am being targeted to keep me quiet, shut me down."

Harris of Caltrans denied that charge. "We are trying to be as fair and equitable as possible," she said. If some residents "feel they are not being treated properly, we would like to know about that."

Stevens said that Caltrans plans to create a committee to help evaluate how the agency determines free-market rents. The panel is to include a representative from each of the communities in the freeway corridor.

Spokesmen for some of the elected officials from those communities suggested that Caltrans place a moratorium on rent increases until that committee can be formed.

Miller, who said that she holds a memo of understanding with Caltrans that it would not raise the rent on the house she occupies until her original house has been renovated, said she had been told recently that the agency would not rehabilitate the first house and was instead raising her rent.

"This is a David-and-Goliath battle we are being forced to fight," she said. "We will sling every stone we have until we are victorious."

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