Far from home

Caltrans delays selling 710 Corridor properties until an alternative to surface connector road is approved

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 10/17/2013

Caltrans will hold two public workshops on Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 24, to provide information and take public input for drafting regulations related to the sale of recently approved surplus properties in the so-called 710 Corridor, the proposed route of a surface road meant to connect the Long Beach (710) and Foothill (210) freeways.

However, a Caltrans official told the Pasadena Weekly that the agency won’t begin selling the properties until an alternative to the surface connector road is chosen sometime in spring 2015. Currently, five alternatives to the surface connector are being considered: a 4.5-mile-long tunnel, light rail, increased bus service, traffic improvements and a no-build option.

With plans to build a surface road connecting the two freeways now shelved, more than 580 homes seized through eminent domain and hardship sales by Caltrans in the 1960s are considered surplus. Due to years of neglect by the state agency, more than 180 of those structures are unoccupied or too dilapidated for habitation.

Senate Bill 416, authored by state Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge, and signed into law two weeks ago by Gov. Jerry Brown, provides for the sale of those homes by state transit officials. However, there is no timeline in the bill that requires Caltrans to sell the properties by a certain date.

"Caltrans will know how many properties will be for sale once the project is determined," said Caltrans spokesperson Maria Raptis. A draft environmental impact report for the project is set to be released sometime this spring, with the final decision expected to be made the following year.

"We can’t sell excess land until we know if there’s a project or not, and if there is where the alignment will be," Raptis said. "Even if it’s an underground tunnel, there are things like ventilation, access, maybe a maintenance area, that will have to be above ground and that may be on a property that we need. Otherwise, we’ll have to buy property back."

In a letter mailed to tenants living in the 710 Corridor, Caltrans announced that the regulations drafted at the upcoming meetings "will implement existing law (the Roberti Act) and establish the procedure for the sale of SR-710 properties which were developed as single-family or multifamily family housing and which are no longer deemed necessary for use by Caltrans (surplus residential properties)."

Under the Roberti Act and SB416, the properties must first be offered to low- to moderate-income tenants in good standing at an affordable rate. Properties must also be sold to current and former tenants at "fair market value." However, under Liu’s legislation, the properties can be sold "as is," meaning Caltrans is no longer required to make any needed repairs before selling the properties, as it was under Roberti’s law.

As for next steps, Don Justin Jones of the group United Caltrans Tenants (UCT) said they will have to see what "directives, policies and strategies come out of these workshops, and see how those are translated into deeds and actions. We’re going to approach this in good faith and remain objective."

UCT will be holding a meeting Sunday to discuss the sale of the homes.
Others are more skeptical than Jones.

"If we want something done, we have to do it ourselves," said Pasadena property rights attorney Christopher Sutton. "The first step is [Caltrans Director] Malcolm Dougherty must issue an affirmative written decision to the director of District 7 listing each individual property by address and Caltrans ID number that he finds to be ‘surplus.’ We believe these hearings are just a distraction. So we’re going to come up with a comprehensive list ourselves and petition Dougherty directly to declare them surplus, and then go to the three city councils [Pasadena, South Pasadena and Los Angeles] requesting that they also push for that. We’re going to take on the job that staff should be doing themselves."

Sutton acknowledged that SB416 is a major step forward, but he maintains serious doubts that Caltrans staff at District 7 in Los Angeles will get the job done. Sutton said the Los Angeles Caltrans office is a completely insubordinate "pirate ship" that doesn’t follow orders from Sacramento.

After Dougherty declares the properties surplus, the next step would be assigning two full-time staff members to see out the process, Sutton said.

"Unless you get the right person assigned to do this job, nothing will happen," said Sutton. "[District 7 Deputy Director] Andy Nierenberg said their unofficial plan is to start selling the homes in January 2015. They’re just going to drag their feet forever. Even if they started in January 2014 and averaged 10 sales per month it would take at least to the end of 2017 to sell all the properties."

In an email to tenants, Sutton said they should restrain their excitement for SB416 and the possibility of soon owning their homes, adding that it’s going to be "a long and tedious process."

Roberto Flores of UCT is also worried that the upcoming meetings with Caltrans aren’t being held in good faith.
"If the hearings on rental rates [held earlier this year] are any indication, we’re in trouble," said Flores. "Are these hearings just a show? Are they going to be a democratic, participatory process, or are they just going through the motions because it’s mandated? We’re concerned about that."

At a recent UCT meeting, Jones recommended that tenants start preparing for the implementation of SB416 by getting their finances in order, as well as all paperwork, contracts, correspondence and agreements they’ve had with Caltrans.

"The starting point, as far as tenants are concerned, is whether or not they have a present or former contractual relationship with Caltrans," said Jones. "You have to have that to even qualify for this bill. It can be broken down into four parts: the people, the properties, the process and the results. We’re just at the threshold of the process. The goal of our group is to make sure everyone has a roof, that there’s no loss of housing."

Flores urged tenants to adhere to an all for one and one for all mentality. He said that everyone can get the best deal if they all stick together.

"We have to unite and think in terms of all of us, as opposed to individual tenants just worrying about their own house," he said. "We are going to fight as hard as possible for a humanitarian policy that includes everyone, so no tenant is thrown out."
Another tenants group, Caltrans Tenants Association (CTA), sent out an email to tenants urging them to attend the upcoming Caltrans workshops and make their concerns known.

"Every tenant is encouraged to make their comments known at the upcoming Caltrans meetings," states the CTA email. "Our input must be included in the discussions regarding the sales process. The association will attempt to speed up the procedure and ensure that it is fair to all tenants involved. The association’s goal is to provide as complete and accurate information as possible so that we can all make wise decisions."

Sutton said it will take about a month to come up with the comprehensive list of properties that he will submit to Dougherty for consideration to be declared surplus so that the process can formally begin.
"But I remain skeptical that District 7 will ever undertake such a task, because it requires thought, commitment and the regular use of math," said Sutton. "No law is the law truly until it is implemented."

Caltrans will hold two public workshops, one from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the El Sereno Senior Citizens Center, 4818 Klamath Place, Los Angeles, and the other from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24, at the Pasadena Convention Center, Ballroom C, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena. United Caltrans Tenants will hold a meeting at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at Eastside Café, 5469 N. Huntington Drive, El Sereno.