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Evictions Questioned in Boyle Heights

Residents want to know why their neighbors were told to move out before an environmental impact report was released.

March 12, 2005|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

The Jacobos of Boyle Heights smile sadly at the prospect of being forced out of their home. It has happened to them before.

In 1996, when the city tore down the notorious Aliso Village housing project, they scrambled to find something inexpensive and big enough for their family of six. Now, they may have to move out of their four-bedroom rental home on Chicago Street, this time to make room for the long-awaited expansion of the Hollenbeck police station.

"We've looked and looked, but all the rents are too high," said Francisco Jacobo, 56.

Despite a letter from the city ordering them to leave, the Jacobos have stayed and continued to pay their Section 8 rent to a city real estate officer. All around them, houses and apartment buildings that a year ago housed 56 families are boarded up, awaiting demolition.

But the city may have acted prematurely, even unlawfully, according to residents who confronted city officials at a community meeting Wednesday night.

The California Environmental Quality Act requires that governments complete an environmental impact report before purchasing property for a public project.

The city bought the properties around Hollenbeck starting in February of last year. The draft environmental impact report wasn't released until this week.

The city attorney's office would not comment on the residents' challenge. But Bill Fujioka, the city's chief administrative officer, said Friday that last year's decision to buy eight parcels near the station for its eventual expansion "seemed reasonable," because "one would think that the environmental impact issues would not be as severe" as they would be if a new station were being built in the middle of a community.

Sam Tanaka, a manager in the Bureau of Engineering whose office is overseeing the expansion project, defended the purchases without the report. "Look at it this way," he said. "The final approval of this project is determined by the Los Angeles City Council. Until then, the project is not a project."

But he confirmed that money to buy the properties came from Proposition Q, a $600-million bond that voters approved in 2002 for the revamping of public safety facilities.

For many Boyle Heights residents, the expansion of the police station is long overdue. About 400 people work in the cramped 36,000-square-foot building, which was built in 1964 and floods in some places during rainy weather, said Yvette Sanchez-Owens, commanding officer in the Los Angeles Police Department Facilities Management Division.

The new building would bring the workspace to 54,000 square feet. Vince Jones, a city engineer and project manager for the expansion, told residents that the station's bright interior lighting would provide "a lantern effect" in the neighborhood, marred by gang violence and graffiti.

At a special meeting of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council on Wednesday night, area residents pressed officials to explain why the properties were acquired before the project was approved.

"It seems here the EIR is just a formality," said resident Miguel Flores. "I would like to know why these laws were disregarded." Flores, 28, said he began researching the station expansion plan when he noticed people moving from their houses near the Hollenbeck station early last year.

Officials at the meeting said they would get back to him.

Jones said the report released this week was not merely a formality. He told the audience that the city wanted to work actively with them to deliver a new police station everyone could be proud of.

"I come from a community like yours. I come from Compton," Jones said. "We didn't set out to harm anyone. We want to do this right.... It's about all I can say."

Many residents who attended the meeting said they were looking forward to the opening of the new police station, scheduled for 2007. It is the process for getting it to the community, though, that has angered some.

"This community has been torn apart by every project you can think of," said Joseph Coria, a member of the neighborhood council. He and others said the station expansion is another example in a long string of land-use controversies that have displaced people in the city's Latino neighborhoods, including the planned extension of the Metro Rail's Gold Line into the Eastside.

"The land-use issue is coming back to Boyle Heights, after the freeways back in the '60s, the MTA; and now the community is entering another round," Flores said.

Since he moved back to the neighborhood where he grew up, Flores said, he has been troubled by how many people had to move because of the project. The only way he can imagine to notify them would be to send mail to the empty addresses informing them the city may have acted illegally, and hope it would be forwarded.

Flores, who left Boyle Heights to attend Yale and then Boston College Law School, said, "I triple-checked my research. I thought there must be a loophole they're using, and I couldn't find one. No one was able to answer the questions."

Officials said this week they didn't know how many people had lived in the houses and apartments. Fujioka said relocation assistance was offered to the displaced tenants, but he couldn't provide details. The Jacobos said the city offered only to pay for a rental van.

Since November, when they received a letter informing them they had 90 days to leave their house, they've been paying their rent of about $900 to a city real estate officer.

The family's 90 days have passed, but everywhere they look, the rent is $1,500 or more for a house that can accommodate them.

Francisco Jacobo remembers that more than a year ago, two Spanish-speaking police officers came to his door asking if he owned the house. No, he said, they were renting.

"Don't you know," Jacobo recalled the officers asking him, "that all this is going to be gone soon?"

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