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Caltrans-owned homes get costly new roofs

Roofs installed on more than 30 Pasadena-area homes cost taxpayers an average of $71,000 — far higher than a typical homeowner would pay. Caltrans has owned the properties for decades, awaiting a freeway extension.

June 18, 2011|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • Don Jones was evicted last month from the Pasadena home he and his wife had rented for over a decade. The dispute with his landlord -- Caltrans -- began over a leaky roof.
Don Jones was evicted last month from the Pasadena home he and his wife had… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Sacramento — The roof on the three-bedroom Pasadena rental where Don Jones used to live seems unremarkable until he hands over the invoice showing what it cost: $103,443.

Fortunately for Jones, he didn't have to pay that. His landlords, California taxpayers, footed the bill.

The state Department of Transportation, which bought the houses on Jones' block decades ago to bulldoze for an extension of the 710 Freeway, also spent $103,472 to replace a roof across the street and $80,606 to install the one next-door, agency records show. On a nearby avenue, a once-grand house, now dilapidated, sports a $171,508 roof that was put on in 2006 even though nobody lived there.

Document: Caltrans' bill for new roofs

"Looks like they put a million-dollar roof on something that's not worth saving," said Robert Richardson, a retired Caltrans employee who handled rental of the properties and agreed to a tour of the neighborhood recently. "This house has been vacant for at least a decade."

The prices are four to five times what most homeowners could expect to pay for a new roof on a similar house in the area, said Kim Smith, a contractor at J.N. Davis Roofing who said he has been fixing roofs in Pasadena for nearly 30 years.

"This is such a waste," Smith said.

The houses are among more than 500 the agency bought in a swath of Pasadena, South Pasadena and Los Angeles along the planned freeway's path. In response to a Los Angeles Times public records request, Caltrans provided documentation of 33 roof repairs and replacements between 2005 and 2010 on houses the department owns in Pasadena. The average cost to taxpayers was $70,994, the records show.

In addition to putting on new shingles, many of the jobs included replacing the wood supports beneath the roofs and the trim around the edges. Others included smaller repairs, such as gutter replacements and paint touchups, records show. Some garage roofs were repaired too.

The expenses were challenged by three private contractors and a state agency that reviewed the records at The Times' request. A state lawmaker who represents the area, a longstanding critic of Caltrans' ownership of the houses, has demanded an investigation.

"I'm very, very alarmed," said Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), who asked the Assembly's government accountability committee, of which he is a member, to investigate how the costs climbed so high. "If there are questionable practices here, we need to get to the bottom of that."

Jones, who was evicted in late May in a dispute with Caltrans that began over the roof, said he hadn't asked to have the old one replaced because he never had a problem with it. But the new one leaked, he said, bringing in more than rain water. "Bees were also coming in.… It was like a plague," Jones said.

Caltrans does not rely only on tenant complaints to decide when to install a new roof, said department spokeswoman Deborah Harris. She could not say what prompted the replacement in Jones' case.

Andrew P. Nierenberg, the Caltrans deputy director in charge of managing properties in the Los Angeles region, said the costs are so high because many of the houses — which may still be bulldozed one day or sold if the freeway plan is scrapped — are historic landmarks and must be expensively retrofitted when repairs are needed.

"I have to go through this very detailed process of submitting all the plans to the State Historic Preservation Office," Nierenberg said. "This is not like a roofing job, it's more like a restoration job."

And it's not just top-of-the-line shingles running up the bills — although those chosen for Jones' house by Caltrans' in-house architectural historian cost $32,000. Taxpayers also shelled out thousands of dollars to replace rotten wood and waterproof sheeting that had been neglected for decades because of state budget crises, Nierenberg said. The state has owned most of the houses since the late 1960s and 1970s.

Milford Wayne Donaldson, who runs the State Historical Preservation Office and reviewed the Caltrans documents at The Times' request, said blaming the high price of the roofing on historical standards is "bogus." The shingles, which are made of asphalt but look like cedar, were only about a third of the overall cost of the roof on Jones' home.

Donaldson said that disposing of old shingles cost $10,000 for one neighboring home and $8,000 for another. The agency also spent $3,000 to replace some rotten wood.

"That's an awful lot," said Donaldson, an architect and former contractor who said he had overseen hundreds of roof replacements.

He also noted a "whopping fee" tacked onto each project. Broken into a series of separate charges, the fee went to the Direct Construction Unit, a small arm of the state's General Services Department. It amounted to nearly 20% of the cost of each job, the records show.

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