Published : Saturday, December 15, 2018 | 4:58 PM
Residents of Caltrans-owned housing along the corridor of the recently doomed 710 Freeway tunnel project proposal planned a traditional holiday Posada procession Sunday to protest what they call unfair practices as the state agency begins the process of selling the homes back to the residents who occupy them.
The Posada, in which a group traditionally escorts a couple portraying Mary and Joseph as they are rejected at many homes before being finally taken in, was set to begin at 4 p.m. at Sheffield Avenue at Allen Street in the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles before heading to the El Sereno Community Garden by 5:30 p.m., according to the United Caltrans Tenants, who were organizing the event.
“Along the way, they will pass empty homes sharing narratives of those affected by Caltrans’ home hoarding,” UCT said in a written statement. “Speakers will include families forcibly removed, either through unjustified evictions or rent raises that resulted in de facto evictions.”
The group then plans to reassemble at the Holy Family Catholic Church, 1527 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena and make its way to St. James Episcopal Church, 1325 Monterey Road. in South Pasadena by 7:30 p.m.
Caltrans has rented owned and rented out hundreds of homes along the route of the former 710 Tunnel project, which was in the works for 40 years until the agency formally pulled the plug earlier this month.
Now that the project is abandoned, Caltrans is moving to return the land to the surrounding cities and sell back homes and other buildings to those who have been renting them for years or decades. State law, known as the Roberti Act, requires the agency to sell homes to low-income residents under reduced rates, but some tenants say Caltrans is treating them unfairly.
Tenants are being asked to pay more than the 25 percent of their income that policy calls for, UCT Coordinating Committee member Roberto Flores said. But that’s only one of their grievances.
“In relation to all of this, what Caltrans has done over the years, historically, is that they de-populated the corridor because they were anticipating that many people were going to qualify for affordable (housing), and therefore we’re going to buy their houses at a very low rate, even the inflated rate,” he said.
“So the ideal thing for them is for people to leave their houses and getting evicted and or just leave on their own. And so they’ve been raising rents at an inhumane pace — the rate of 10 percent every six months for many people,” Flores said. “Can you imagine that? More than 21 percent per year.”
Many residents have been forced out because they were unable to afford the rent hikes, he alleged.
“And so what they’ve done is, through attrition and pressure and harassment, they’ve evicted tons of tenants or the tenants have left on their own,” he said. “And so now, the corridor has about 150 empty houses.”
Additional complaints include the policy that allows Caltrans to keep ownership of the new equity developed by the homes sold to low-income residents, according to Flores. “ We’ve never seen those types of covenants. We think they’re unfair.”
And residents cannot will the properties to their heirs unless they also qualify for low-income status.
“They have to qualify to be affordable, so they have to be poor to inherit the house,” he said.
Caltrans officials say the process has been conducted properly and continues to be improved.
“Caltrans always intended for Phase 1 to provide experience and refinement for the larger Phase 2 of the sales program,” Caltrans District 7 spokeswoman Lauren Wonder said. “As Phase 1 is nearing completion, Caltrans is already applying lessons learned to Phase 2, which is anticipated to begin in 2019. The Phase 2 sales process will follow the timelines set forth in the regulations that implement the Roberti Act.
No specific timeline has been announced.
“Caltrans is preparing to offer the remaining surplus residential properties to current tenants, including nonprofits, under the regulations that implement the Roberti Act,” Wonder said.
“Caltrans is eager to move forward with the preferred alternative, which will not only maximize the efficiency of the existing transportation system by improving capacity and reducing the effects of bottlenecks and choke points, but will also increase efficiency and capacity for other modes in the transportation system,” she said. “Additionally, Caltrans remains eager to begin Phase 2 of the sales program and sell the remaining surplus residential properties on the SR 710 corridor.”
In addition to filing a lawsuit against Caltrans, the tenants are also pressuring politicians to intervene. Two bills related to the 710 corridor have been introduced in the state legislature.
State Assemblyman Christopher Holden has authored AB 29.
“This bill would remove the portion of Route 710 located north of Route 10 from the California freeway and expressway system,” according to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest.
Holden said it’s a simple but necessary step.
“It would take out of the highway code any reference to 710 between the 10 and the 210, and it would also allow for there to be a smooth and orderly transition of land that was to be used for a freeway back to the adjoining community,” he said.
There is yet much work to be done, Holden said.
“I think a lot of effort has been made up to this point to really start to address the issue of returning the properties back to those communities,” he said. “But it’s going to be a process and it will be a little bit of time, but at least there’ll be a confidence that there’s open road if, you will, for the moment in a direction that they’ll bring harmony to the communities. And I think that what the end goal of all this will represent. And that’s a good thing.”
State Senator Anthony Portantino has put forth SB 7.
According to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest, “This bill would require for surplus nonresidential properties for State Route 710 in the County of Los Angeles that purchases of those properties by tenants in good standing be offered at fair market value as determined relative to the current use of the property if the tenant is a nonprofit organization or a city.”
Additionally, “This bill would prohibit the department from implementing a freeway tunnel or surface freeway or expressway for Route 710 between Route 10 and Route 210,” the states.
As the bills move further along in the legislative process, they may get refined and even combined, Holden said. “That’s a potential outcome: That they would be brought together as one bill at the end of the process,” he said.
State officials have been keeping in contact with legislators, Wonder said.
“Caltrans has been communicating with Senator Portantino’s office, along with other elected officials, throughout the sales process,” she said.
Attorney Christopher Sutton, who is representing tenants in their lawsuit, said the bills don’t do enough to protect residents. “ They don’t go far enough,” he said.
“Holden has a bill that simply, at the moment, only deals with the freeway route and not with the property sales issues,” he said. “Portantino’s bill only makes these general statements regarding the sales. It doesn’t actually change any of the parameters of the sales or it doesn’t set a deadline. In addition, by not amending the so-called good standing requirement, is it really denies hundreds of people their right to buy it because Caltrans has artificially deemed lots of people to be not in good standing for various highly technical things.”
So the tenants plan to suggest improvements or new legislation to deal with those issues, and others, such as “slum conditions,” Sutton said.
“I think either bill is going to have to be improved,” he said. “And I think that, particularly, if it’s really trying to guarantee that the nonprofits are able to stay where they are and serve the communities, they should be allowed to buy based upon the current use, not based upon the fair market value of condos on Orange Grove (Avenue), which are now going for a million and a half (dollars) a piece.”
Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek said there’s not a great deal the city can do to intervene.
“This is really in Caltrans’ ballpark. They’ve got a whole series of regulations and legislation that they have to respond to,” he said.
“Senator Portantino, as part of his legislation, as I understand it, is also addressing that disposition process. So this is something that’s been 40 years in the making. It’s not going to get resolved in 48 hours. It’s going to take awhile,” he said. “But the city will continue to be vigilant about what’s going on, but we’re not going to be driving this process.”
Tornek said the issues at play are many and complex.
“There are lots of conflicting public policy issues here. There’s a desire to make sure that historic properties are restored properly. There’s a desire to try and give tenants who have been paying rent in these places, in some cases for decades, an opportunity to buy these properties. There’s a desire to generate some affordable housing out of this,” the mayor said.
“There are lots of sometimes conflicting, very worthwhile ideas about this and it’s going to take a while to sort through it all,” he said.