La Canada Hard-Pressed to Find Some Blight to Fight

Times Staff Writer

The strange problem facing La Canada Flintridge is that there is no bad side of town.

The city is in danger of losing $575,000 in federal blight-fighting and disaster-relief grants for lack of blight to fight or disasters to relieve.

"This town is tremendously lacking in deterioration," said Bill Campbell, assistant city manager and director of community development. "You can't do a lot of the things that other cities are doing in this particular town."

Since 1977, a year after it incorporated as a city, La Canada Flintridge, on the San Gabriel Mountain slopes northeast of Glendale, has been accumulating money from the Community Development Block Grant program of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Strings on Money

Most cities use the money on redevelopment, home rehabilitation loans, public works improvements and other public services. But La Canada Flintridge is in the unusual position of having no apparent need for such projects, local and federal officials say.

The federal money comes with strings attached. The Community Development Act of 1974 stipulates that the money must be used to develop projects for residents with low or moderate incomes, to aid in prevention or elimination of slums and blighted areas or to take care of an urgent need, such as disaster relief.

Because La Canada Flintridge is without slums--the average home in the area is valued at $250,000--and hasn't been hit by fire, flood or famine in the past eight years, the city has been left to search for ways to help the small number of low- and moderate-income residents--those who make less than 80% of the median income in a defined area.

High Median Income

The city does not have much to work with. The median family income is $40,687, nearly twice that of the average family of four in Los Angeles County. Fewer than 13% of the city's 20,000 inhabitants fit into the category of low and moderate income, 1980 census figures indicate.

Even an attempt to use the funds to help senior citizens on fixed incomes failed. A "handyman" project that would have used the block grants to underwrite repair work in the homes of senior citizens found no takers.

"Our elderly seem to be very capable of taking care of themselves," Campbell said of the failed project.

He summed up the city's efforts to identify pockets of poverty that might be filled with block grant cash:

"No soap. We can't even get close."

Sewer Project Collapses

The city also struck out with a plan that would have paid for the installation of self-contained sewage systems as alternatives to the cesspools and septic tanks used throughout the community. The city got as far as winning HUD's approval and lining up eligible property owners before it found out that construction of the sewage systems would cost more than the amount of money available. The project was dropped.

City officials believe they may have found a use for the money--to convert the historic Lanterman estate on Encinas Drive into a senior citizen's and community center. However, there's a hitch that leaves control outside the city's hands.

The city now has a half-interest in the $1.2-million estate but will not inherit the other half until the death of Lloyd Lanterman, the last member of the family that founded the city.

Lanterman, 88, still lives on the estate.

The city got half of the property in January from USC, which inherited it after the death of Lanterman's brother, Frank.

Unless the city gets Lanterman's permission to begin work on the estate while he is living there, the renovation project will have to remain in limbo until Lanterman dies. City officials plan to discuss the issue with attorneys for Lanterman in the next few months.

Tougher Rules Foreseen

Even if the city is willing to wait, a budget-deficit-conscious federal government may not be.

Tougher federal regulations requiring the return of unspent funds are expected to be imposed this fall. Under the new rules, a grantee would not be allowed to keep more than 1 1/2 years' accumulation of unspent funds. That could mean that La Canada Flintridge might be able to keep only about $160,000 of its $575,000 account.

Besides, Los Angeles County--which administers the funds for HUD--is considering adopting strict deadlines for cities to start, under threat of a 10% loss in funds if the deadlines are not met.

Although the county is not unsympathetic to La Canada Flintridge's problem in finding a suitable use for the money, "there's a lot of pressure on the county to see that projects are completed, or started," said Marco Garcia, a county administrator of the block grant program. "We have to be more careful and all the cities have to be more careful, a little more conscientious in spending the money," he said.

'Not One Area'

Before a project can qualify for funding, it must be shown that it will benefit an area where 51% of the residents have low or moderate incomes. The problem in La Canada Flintridge, Garcia said, "is not so much that the number or the percentage is so low, it's that there really is not one area in the city where low- and moderate-income people live, and the city cannot carry out programs in that one area."

Still, Garcia feels that the city has not been as "aggressive" as it could be in finding ways to use its money. "Most cities do not have the problems that La Canada has," Garcia said, "but even cities that get close to La Canada with the type of demographics that they have will do something. Even Beverly Hills has done something."

Beverly Hills has used its block grant funds to build a senior-citizens' housing project and to support public service programs. Other affluent communities such as Arcadia, Agoura Hills and Manhattan Beach also have managed to come up with eligible projects, county officials said.

Project Looks Acceptable

But Garcia said La Canada Flintridge may finally have a winner with the Lanterman project. "If the city says it wants to rehabilitate the Lanterman home, we would most likely approve it," Garcia said.

The county would rather see the cities put the grant money to use than have to return it, Garcia said. To that end, the county proposed earlier this year that La Canada Flintridge make a loan of its unused block grant funds to the City of San Gabriel, which plans to build a $1.2-million senior citizens' center but does not have enough cash.

"We figured this was an opportunity to give the City of La Canada Flintridge a little bit more time to develop a project and allow San Gabriel to construct its senior center this year," Garcia said.

The loan proposal got a cool reception from La Canada Flintridge City Council members, who worried about not being repaid should the federal funds be cut or should San Gabriel drop out of the county program.

Permission Wanted

The council took no vote on the loan proposal but directed city staff members to seek permission to conduct a design study inside the Lanterman home. The city is also exploring the possibility of doing preliminary work on the exterior of the house in a way that would not disturb Lanterman.

Such an initial step, City Councilman J. Bixby Smith said, would show the county and HUD that the city is committed to the Lanterman project.

Smith said: "It sends a message that says, 'You bet we're serious, but we have a timing problem. But bear with us, and once the timing problem is fixed, away we'll go.' "

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