Tenants say Caltrans ignores vermin complaints and imposes late fees meant to ‘depopulate’ 710 Corridor
By André Coleman 04/11/2013
A fter being criticized for plans to build a tunnel to connect the Long Beach (710) and Foothill (210) freeways, as well as a failure to effectively manage more than 500 properties seized through eminent domain nearly five decades ago to make way for what back then was planned as an overland link of the two roads, Caltrans is once again under fire.
Only this time, critics are the tenants of some of those homes, which are now rental properties, who claim the state transportation agency is being hostile toward renters who complain about such things as insect infestation and being charged late fees, even when those payments are made on time.
Today, with the overland connection plan all but dead, and the tunnel project far from approved, one legislator has introduced a bill to get Caltrans out of the real estate business altogether by declaring the so-called 710 Corridor properties surplus. Senate Bill 416, authored by Sen. Carol Liu, D-Glendale, would allow the agency to sell the properties at fair market value.
In August, an independent audit took Caltrans to task for its shoddy management of the properties, and recommended that they be taken over and sold by a joint power authority formed between the cities of Pasadena, South Pasadena and Los Angeles.
There is just one problem: The Roberti Bill.
Authored in the 1980s by former Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti, the bill gives people living in homes for two or more years, and are low- to moderate-income, the chance to buy the property below market value, but for no less than what Caltrans paid for it. And if a person has lived in a Caltrans home for five or more years and their household income does not exceed 150 percent of the county’s median income, they would be offered the house “at an affordable price.” Former owners who are still living there would get a chance to buy at fair market value, but if they are living there and happen to also be low-income, they too could qualify for an affordable rate.
With the value of those homes now totaling more than $500 million, it’s easy to see why Caltrans would want longtime tenants to get out now.
“Caltrans is going to tenants and telling them they have accumulated a number of late rental fees,” said Joe Cano, a resident of El Sereno and an organizer with the group No on 710, who also said Caltrans refuses to provide proof that rents are being paid late. Caltrans also has ignored complaints about the decrepit conditions of some of the aging properties, some of which are run down and infested with bugs and rats.
“Let’s face it,” Cano said, “if you don’t know about this and all of a sudden they come at you with $500 in late fees, the people being charged late fees can’t handle it and the eviction process starts.”
In a letter Cano provided to the Weekly, a tenant said that Caltrans does not always properly record the date on which rents are received then refuses to provide proof when late fees are imposed, Cano said.
“Whether your rent is considered late or on-time is not based on a Post Office postmark, but instead on a timestamp, as received by Caltrans’ cashier office in Sacramento,” said tenant Roberto Flores. “If the clerk is absent or overburdened, we are out of luck. If your check is stamped after the 10th [of each month], it is late. Every time we are late, we are charged a $50 fee. The policy leaves it completely up to Caltrans to decide when they received it. When asked to verify that it was stamped late, Caltrans again refuses to provide evidence. … The whole process is based on Caltrans practicing good faith, respect for their honor, being professional and efficient. These are all attributes in which we all know Caltrans is challenged and rarely practices. It seems to many that Caltrans is continuing and perhaps even increasing a campaign of harassment as one of many ploys to depopulate the corridor.”
Cano recently shot a video of one home in El Sereno in which bugs and rats can be seen crawling on the floor and kitchen cabinets. He posted the video on YouTube.
“Caltrans would come out and spray and then accuse her of living dirty,” Cano said of the tenant, who he did not name. “She repeatedly requested fumigation and relocation. About 80 percent of her body was covered with bug bites.”
Officials with Caltrans did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Caltrans seized hundreds of properties in Pasadena, South Pasadena and the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles through eminent domain in order to connect the freeways. But three years ago, the overland route was pretty much shelved, due to lack of federal funding. At the time, regional transit officials conceived a 4.5-mile-long tunnel to run underneath South Pasadena and Pasadena as part of a longer route connecting the two freeways.
Last summer, Caltrans and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) came under attack after residents living in West Pasadena learned of plans to connect the two freeways by building the tunnel underneath Avenue 64, which runs through the San Rafael neighborhood of Pasadena. An alternative plan would turn two-lane Avenue 64 into a six-lane highway from where the 710 ends at Valley Boulevard in Alhambra to the Ventura (134) Freeway.
Last week, LA County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who is also president of the Metro Board of Directors, told residents during a Pasadena City Council meeting that the proposal to build the tunnel would remain on the table until all studies were completed, despite calls by District 6 City Councilman Steve Madison and several residents to forget about the tunnel option.
In August, the Bureau of State Audits found that between July 2007 and December 2011, Caltrans — which did not verify the eligibility of tenants to be charged below-market rate rents — collected $12.8 million in rent but lost $22 million due to underpayment by ineligible tenants. During most of that period, Caltrans reportedly paid out another $22.5 million for questionable repairs, the audit found.
“They want to run people out and sell at market value,” said Flores. “Sometimes people get a written notice when they are late. One time I got a phone call and one time I got a letter. They add it to the next month’s rent, and if you can’t pay it the next month, they add an additional $50, so it just keeps building up. I have been in a situation in which I was told I was late and I forced them to admit they had waited a couple of days before they stamped the rent.”
According to Liu’s bill, Caltrans could sell the homes at face value without making any repairs, as was previously required by the Roberti Bill. However, SB416 would give tenants in good standing the first right of refusal to purchase their homes at fair-market value.
“We need to get Caltrans out of the rental housing business and sell off these properties,” said Liu, who sits on the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. “Real estate management is not part of the department’s mission.”