Substandard Housing : Garages: Immigrants In, Cars Out

Times Staff Writers

For two years after journeying north to Los Angeles from central Mexico in 1982, Manuel and Josefina Acevedo were forced to share a series of cramped apartments with other families.

Eventually the young couple found a place of their own. But it was no dream home. It was a one-car garage behind a house in the East San Fernando Valley.

Three years later they are still there, living with their 5-year-old son amid a few pieces of old furniture.

They have no plumbing. Their bathroom privileges in the house expire at sunset. They collect drinking water in jugs from a garden spigot. Electricity comes from two extension cords strung from the main house. They prepare meals on a hot plate.

'This Is My Calvary'

"Life in here is no good," Josefina Acevedo said of her $150-a-month home. " Es mi Calvario --this is my Calvary."

The Acevedos have been driven by poverty into the ranks of Southern California's garage people, a hidden legion of immigrants living in structures designed for automobiles, not humans.

A systematic survey by The Times indicates that about 42,000 garages are sheltering about 200,000 people in Los Angeles County. In addition, an unknown number live in other parts of Southern California.

They lie in a swath of mostly low-income Latino neighborhoods from Sylmar through East Los Angeles into Long Beach, with pockets in the east San Gabriel Valley, central Orange County and San Diego.

Living in the structures are immigrants, most of them from Central America and Mexico, who have overflowed the region's cheap housing. Profiting from the situation are landlords who are violating laws governing sanitation, zoning and safety and adding as much as $450 to their monthly incomes.

Some of these black market homes have been remodeled. Others are simply garages. Most have no plumbing, no heating, no windows and drafty gaps around overhead doors.

Extra Inspectors

Officials in some communities have become alarmed. Santa Ana and South Gate have hired extra housing inspectors to evict hundreds of garage dwellers a year. Los Angeles, however, simply responds to individual complaints, with doubtful results.

The Times' count, based on checks at 500 houses, appears to be the first to be made countywide. Some experts said they were surprised by the large number but found it credible.

"It doesn't seem an unreasonable number," said William Baer, a USC expert on the "shadow market" that includes non-residential structures converted to housing. He noted, "That's a city larger than Torrance or Glendale."

"I would not have guessed it was that high, but . . . it's perfectly plausible," said Mary Lee, housing attorney for the Western Center for Law and Poverty.

"The low-income housing market is getting tighter all the time, but proving it is difficult," said James T. Minuto, who supervises housing studies for the Southern California Assn. of Governments. "People are falling out of the bottom of the housing market. And we are hearing about a very large shadow market."

The lack of government data has not kept the practice from being noticed by people in affected neighborhoods.

Since immigrants began moving into garages several years ago, her neighborhood has "changed so you would hardly recognize it," said Pacoima homeowner Marie Harris. "They cut down trees to plant vegetables in the yard, and they hang clothes on the fence. And people are always loitering."

Paramount mailman Gordon Hash has watched in awe for two years as immigrants have moved into garages of 75 of the 376 houses he delivers to. Many ask him to post letters stuffed with cash to their homes in Mexico.

Such neighborhoods can change rapidly.

Garbage cans overflow. People congregate on streets and sidewalks. Cars, displaced from their own shelters, jam the streets.

Public health nurses, who see a cross section of housing conditions of the poor, say garages, like slum apartments, spread intestinal ailments such as salmonella and shigella.

"Parasites, malnourishment, lice--it's all common," said nurse Rosa Perez-Minton.

Ditches Instead of Toilets

Nurses say the biggest problems stem from cold drafts, the lack of kitchen areas to properly clean, cook and refrigerate food, and the absence of bathrooms. Health officials say the most common complaint is of garage dwellers' using backyard ditches instead of toilets.

Virtually all occupied garages fail to meet requirements for ventilation and, because the overhead doors are often sealed, for multiple fire exits.

In the crudest of converted garages, safety violations are blatant. Extension cords, often the lone source of power, are draped across bushes and tree limbs and are exposed to wind and rain. Gas pipes are often laid on the ground, vulnerable to damage.

Kitchen appliances are commonly too close to combustible material. Sinks and toilets can lack vents to let sewer gases escape. Toilet drain lines often do not slope enough to permit waste to flow freely to the sewer connection at the house.

Firefighters must cope with a new category of blaze--the occupied-garage fire.

Los Angeles City Fire Capt. Anthony J. Pasqualone, stationed in Pacoima, said that elsewhere in the city a garage fire is not life-threatening. In his district, he said, "we go to a garage fire wondering how many people are living in it."

Pasqualone's station responded to 24 garage fires in 1985-86, double the number in the previous record-keeping year, he said.

In 1983 a child died in a garage fire that started when a space heater ignited. Last fall, a mother and child escaped unharmed when their Pacoima garage home was gutted by a fire caused by a candle on a countertop.

When a fire strikes an occupied garage, the dwelling is usually destroyed, officials said. Wall studs and ceiling joists are often exposed and have clothes hanging from them.

Before 1980, only a handful of garages in Southern California were used for rental housing, usually as temporary shelter for newly arrived immigrants.

In recent years masses of people have been propelled north by economic decline in Mexico and Central America and war in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Cash-Strapped Immigrants

From his vantage point as a counselor at El Rescate, one of several storefront organizations in Los Angeles that aid newly arrived Central Americans, Ricardo Garcia has watched the tidal wave of cash-strapped immigrants.

To get to the United States, he said, they sold what they had or borrowed money.

Central Americans pay an average of $1,000--including about $400 to cross the border--to "professional guides" who advertise in their hometown newspapers, Garcia said. Mexicans pay somewhat less because they travel shorter distances.

Garcia said most of the 500 families and single adults counseled each month at El Rescate linger a few weeks in the crowded tenements of the Pico-Union neighborhood southwest of downtown.

Then, in search of jobs or living space, they fan out to find niches elsewhere.

"It's only after they find they have no choice that they decide to move into a garage," Garcia said.

They usually learn of garage vacancies from friends or relatives. Some see a handwritten advertisement on a bulletin board in a coin-operated laundry or a store. A desperate few simply knock and ask to rent the garage.

They turn to garages because the region's supply of cheap housing has failed to keep up with the demand created by this army of immigrants, housing experts say.

Even shoddy one-bedroom apartments rent for $300 or more a month, said Barbara Zeidman, director of Los Angeles' Rent Stabilization Division. Garages go for $200 or $300.

New immigrants, among the poorest of the poor, are overwhelmingly the most numerous users of the "shadow market."

Some chose a garage because at least it is private. Others have families too large to suit apartment landlords.

A few could afford an apartment but do not have the first and last months' rent plus security deposit that is typically required for an apartment. "I went to look and found one-bedroom apartments for $400," said Soledad Castillo, 38, a hospital worker who rents a $250-a-month unplumbed garage in Pacoima. "But without the deposit, it's impossible."

Saving for an Apartment

Mary Lou Villar, an attorney with the East Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation, said many of her garage-dwelling clients have saved toward that elusive unshared apartment, "but they didn't ever seem to make it. They would send for relatives rather than rent an apartment."

Such was the case with Irma Portillo, a Salvadoran who has lived in a two-car Pacoima garage since 1982 with her three children, her late brother's two children and her mother.

In 1984, Portillo said, she had saved almost enough to rent an apartment. When her brother was killed in El Salvador, she used the savings to pay a "coyote," or professional guide, to bring the two nephews to Los Angeles.

Portillo earns $570 a month as a nurse's aide. She said her landlord responded to the two new residents by raising the rent by $100, to $300 a month.

"I know garages like this are illegal to live in," she said. "I know it is terrible, terrible in here. But where else can I go?"

The situation has attracted official notice only sporadically partly because advocates for the poor have been reluctant to make it a public issue.

Social activists said they see no possibility of alternative housing. If the public became inflamed about garage dwellers, said Lee, the Western Center for Law and Poverty lawyer, the result could be mass evictions, "and I don't see how we could gain from that."

"I don't report them all" because evictees might end up homeless, said Gayle Gutierrez, a public health nurse in East Los Angeles. "You sometimes decide they're cleaner and safer in a garage."

Occupied garages are usually hard to spot from the street because most are detached structures in backyards. Modifications such as windows and sealed overhead doors are often hidden with such cleverness that Los Angeles City building inspector William Casillas calls them "masterpiece conversions."

Diego Vigil, a USC associate professor of anthropology, said his "eyes were opened wide" recently when he was hired by the U.S. Census Bureau to make a test count in a Pico Rivera census tract.

Vigil, a former counselor to gang members, said that by becoming friendly with residents he found 20% more people than census takers using standard methods had turned up a short time earlier.

Most of the uncounted were "hidden in structures behind the main house, mostly in garages," Vigil said. His report will go to officials planning the 1990 count.

Some cities are cracking down.

800 Families Ousted

In Santa Ana, in Orange County, an estimated 800 garage families have been ousted in the last year. Officials say they have barely made a start. They have hired additional inspectors and expect a higher rate of evictions.

In the City of San Fernando, in the San Fernando Valley, a code enforcement officer has been hired to investigate the 20 garage complaints each month from the city's 20,000 residents, City Manager Donald E. Penman said.

In Lynwood, population 55,000, officials have stepped up enforcement after being swamped by nearly 300 complaints in eight months.

"In one case, one of our men went out on a complaint, and he found seven other converted garages on the same block, and all of them were obvious," Public Safety Director Ronald W. Lathrope said. He said he could not estimate how many of Lynwood's 9,000 single-family houses have occupied garages.

Officials in Anaheim, Long Beach and Huntington Park each report about 20 complaints a month.

Most notably, in South Gate, south of downtown Los Angeles, more than 1,000 families have been evicted from garages in the last three years, city officials said. City surveys point to about 4,000 remaining occupied garages housing about 20,000 people--about one of every five of the city's residents.

Five full-time inspectors do the work, and they do not wait for complaints. Seven days a week, said Building Director Mark Sutton, they are on the street looking for telltale extension cords, burglar bars on garage windows, sealed-up overhead doors, sewer vent lines, outdoor water heaters, second television antennas. The annual cost to the city: $350,000.

Homeowners go to great lengths to camouflage their bootleg rentals, said South Gate inspector William Campagna, who served notices on 10 landlords one day while accompanied by a reporter.

One stunned landlord's occupied garage was spotted only because, just as the inspector drove by, the homeowner's sons lifted the garage door to get at their barbells--and revealed a second wall six feet inside. The ruse is increasingly used by landlords aware that a sealed-up overhead door can sometimes be spotted from the street, Campagna said.

Sutton said clearing the remaining occupied garages will take at least five years. By then, he said, "we may have to start over on quite a few of them."

South Gate's consensus in favor of mass evictions grew out of an unusual political scenario.

Step Up From Barrio

A working-class city of well-maintained homes between the Harbor and Long Beach freeways, South Gate has represented a step up from poor Latino barrios for decades. Although South Gate, which is 70% Latino, is part of the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District, a prime lure is the quality of local schools, particularly South Gate High School, Mayor Henry C. Gonzalez said.

Several years ago there was an uproar. Parents were told that the high school was overcrowded and that many students would be bused to Jordan High School in Watts.

The official population of 76,000 had grown only slightly. "Everyone demanded to know where the new students came from," Gonzalez said. The answer, city officials concluded, was occupied garages. School officials disclaim knowledge of the causes of the crowding, and no one knows how many of the 368 high school students being bused live in garages. In any case, garage living got the blame.

The evictions that began in 1984 have "incredibly widespread support throughout the city," Sutton said. "And without that support we couldn't be carrying out the program."

In April, 1986, three City Council candidates who supported garage evictions were elected. They easily outdistanced a fourth who wanted to halt the program.

Groups supporting the evictions include the South Gate Ministers Assn. "Displacing people is wrong," said the Rev. Ben Vinluan, a Methodist minister who heads the group. But he said it is a greater wrong to have "illegal aliens living in your garage to collect money."

Of course, evicted residents have to go somewhere. Where is anybody's guess. No city has tried to track them, much less provide alternative housing.

Outside 'Our Control'

"Those are not things within our control," said Rex Swanson, Santa Ana deputy city manager. "Such solutions would have to come from the federal or state governments. We can only enforce our building and zoning laws."

"The tenants? I don't know where they move," said James Funk, the Huntington Park building director. "They probably are moving to South Gate."

In South Gate, Sutton said, "we tag them, and they vanish. We don't know where they go. They probably go to Cudahy, Compton or Lynwood."

Garage living does appear to be largely confined to Southern California.

Lupe Castillo, a legal worker with the Tucson (Ariz.) Ecumenical Council's Legal Assistance program, reported "lots of doubling and tripling up in houses and apartments, but no one in garages."

One possible reason is that Tucson has mainly carports. But her comments echoed those of immigration assistance workers in Dallas, Houston and Phoenix--all cities with large numbers of Latin American immigrants. A few people have started living in garages in San Francisco, said Oscar Herrera, who directs a Central American refugee program there.

In Tucson most Latino immigrants are "in transit and don't stay here very long," Castillo said. Their destination? "Almost always, it's Los Angeles."

Los Angeles' city government appears to represent an exception to the growing official concern in Southern California.

Robert Steinbach, chief inspector for the city's Conservation Bureau, said his office receives a "few complaints now and then about occupied garages" but does not count them. He termed the situation "not a real horrendous problem yet."

Steinbach's 25 inspectors must deal with all residential building and zoning problems and respond only to complaints, he said, never canvassing neighborhoods in search of violations.

Interviews with inspectors point to mounting concern in neighborhoods. Eight occupied garages in three blocks on Kewen Avenue in Pacoima were anonymously reported on one day last year. Thirteen are under investigation on Arminta Street in Sun Valley.

'Risen Slightly'

Steinbach acknowledged that in the last year complaints "appear to have risen slightly" and that, because of the increased workload, the city has become slower in responding.

Delays of six weeks to four months are common, records show. And the process of securing compliance from garage landlords is anything but swift and sure.

Typically, inspectors leave a notice on their first visit telling a landlord he is permitting occupancy of a structure not approved for habitation and ordering eviction in 30 days.

Months, sometimes years, can pass before a landlord is formally accused of a misdemeanor for which he could be fined. If the homeowner ignores the citation, it can be two years or more before the case is turned over to the city attorney's office for prosecution.

Said one inspector: "If I was trying to outwit the law, I wouldn't be nasty or rude, but I wouldn't let anyone on my property and I wouldn't abate. I would do nothing. The system relies heavily on voluntary compliance."

Even a landlord whose case is ultimately turned over to prosecutors can have a misdemeanor charge of maintaining an illegal occupancy dropped by complying "right up to the time the case gets to a judge," said the inspector. He attributed the city's reluctance to prosecute to an "incredible workload."

Once a landlord complies, Steinbach said, "he usually doesn't do it again. But he sells the house to someone else who does the same thing."

Some of the hardships suffered by garage people are readily detectable. Others are more elusive.

Many adults are so ashamed of their garage homes they "do not want you to see where they live," said Becky Gaba, who aids garage dwellers as a volunteer with several San Fernando Valley churches. "I wonder what it does for them to realize they are below the bottom rung on the ladder."

In an interview arranged by a refugee counselor, an 18-year-old woman said that for her family the transition from a house in Nicaragua to a garage in Huntington Park has been "psychologically very hard."

Her mother and father's savings were nearly depleted after the family spent $1,500 each to fly from Managua to Tijuana, then $400 each to a guide to bring them across the border.

A robber in Tijuana relieved them of what money was left--and of the last chance that they might have been able to afford conventional housing in this country.

'I Am Ashamed'

"In Nicaragua we had a house, a TV. I had a bedroom," the daughter said. "Now I cannot tell anyone where I live because I am ashamed."

Her face flushed as she added: "My father had to build a bathroom for us outside."

School officials say self-esteem among garage children seems to slip away as they grasp the reality of their social position.

Many conceal where they live, said Ricardo Sosa-Pavon, principal of Sharp Elementary School in Pacoima, where about five children per classroom live in garages.

Very young pupils seem to be only slightly aware of their humble homes, he said. But on television, they see children living in "houses with rooms and with bathrooms." By fifth or sixth grade, their self-image has been dealt a fatal blow, he said, "and when that happens, you can throw education out the window."

Mirla Garcia, 10, until recently lived with her mother and three siblings in a series of San Fernando Valley garages. She would tell her classmates that she had "lots of toys and lived in a big house," she said.

One day a friend insisted on visiting her. She was forced to reveal her secret. Her worst fear was realized when word spread.

Mirla, who spoke in English so her mother would not understand, said schoolmates thereafter mocked her as a "poor girl because I lived in a garage with nothing in it."

Mirla's family recently moved into an apartment with another family on one of the most drug-ridden streets in the San Fernando Valley. But she is happy there.

"I like the apartment because I can take a bath whenever I want," she said. "Someday I'm going to live in real big house."

Recently a sixth-grade student at Telfair Elementary School in Pacoima smelled so foul that classmates asked not to sit next to him, teacher Linda Witham said.

After numerous complaints, Witham and a school nurse visited the boy's home, a garage without plumbing. They found the boy sleeping on the floor in clothes he had soiled.

"We told the mother she would have to find a way to clean her child, even if she had to bring him to the school to do it," the teacher said.

Never Returned to School

But the boy never went back to school.

Garage tenants have legal as well as psychological handicaps. They are almost guaranteed to lose when they clash with their landlords.

Theoretically, they have the same rights as all renters, including advance warning of eviction and habitable quarters.

But the law is all but useless to garage tenants, Legal Aid lawyers say. A 1978 state Court of Appeal opinion said a rental agreement is not enforceable unless the dwelling has an occupancy permit.

"The law is clear," said attorney Roderick T. Field of Legal Aid's eviction defense center in Los Angeles. "If you are living in a unit without certification of occupancy, the landlord can evict you whenever he wants."

An evicted garage tenant is not covered by a Los Angeles law that requires a landlord to pay $2,500 to a family whose apartment is ruled uninhabitable. Zeidman, director of the city's Rent Stabilization Division, said a garage tenant "has in effect conspired with the landlord to commit an illegal act by living in a garage."

Landlords who do not want to dirty their hands with a conventional eviction need only report the illegal occupancy to the Building Department--in effect, turn themselves in. Armed with an inspector's order to clear out the garage, a landlord can painlessly and promptly rid himself of unwanted tenants.

Ruth Levia, a paralegal at San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services, said landlords regularly use this ploy to get "an eviction without any fight at all."

On the other hand, tenants sometimes get their shots in too, especially after they have been evicted.

Los Angeles city building inspector Casillas said that up to 40% of the illegal garage conversion complaints in his east San Fernando Valley district are telephoned in by disaffected tenants.

Garage landlords, for their part, tend to depict themselves as entrepreneurs. Some say they are providing desperately needed shelter for those who would otherwise be homeless. Many insist that they rent only to relatives or friends.

Outraged at Citation

Property owner Luz Montero of San Fernando was outraged when a San Fernando code enforcement officer cited her recently for renting a garage to tenants who she said could not afford an apartment.

"I don't know what the big deal is," said Montero, 27. "They don't bother anyone. Everyone around here rents their garages. People need a place to live."

In Santa Ana, 72-year-old Evelyn Ayon said she rents her garage and basement because "I need the money. I can't get by only on Social Security."

For retired municipal employee Jose Corrales, the possibility of cashing in on his garage and large backyard in Pacoima became irresistible a few years ago.

Corrales, 63, sealed up the overhead garage door, parked three aging house trailers in the yard and built an outhouse.

He acknowledged that before a building inspector closed it a year ago, his backyard shantytown was bringing in $400 a month.

Does he miss the extra money?

"Well, I used to eat big chunks of steak," he said, laughing. "Now I eat hamburger."

A garage tenant in Arleta is on the verge of becoming a garage landlady.

She was paying $350 a month for a two-car garage with a kitchenette. Then she won $100,000 in the state lottery and bought a house. But her minimum wage job at a doughnut shop will not pay the bills.

Her solution: "I'm going to have to rent the garage in my new house. It's the only way I'm going to be able to pay for it."

Crystal balls turn opaque when experts try to predict the long-term future of garage living in Southern California.

If it is widely obeyed and vigorously enforced, the new federal law that outlaws the hiring of illegal aliens theoretically could reduce immigration. Likely to result in increased immigration, on the other hand, are the stepped-up civil war in Nicaragua and a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that broadens the grounds for acceptance of foreigners' petitions for asylum.

In Los Angeles, an ordinance passed in December restricts the number of people who can legally live in a rented house or apartment. That law, if it can be enforced by the overworked Conservation Bureau inspectors, might force people onto the streets--or into garages.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is seeking to evict illegal aliens from publicly subsidized housing. That has been held up by a court injunction and a congressional moratorium that ends Sept. 30. It, too, could force immigrants into alternative housing.

May Be Counterproductive

Even vastly increased enforcement could prove counterproductive, some experts think. They say the accompanying publicity could give homeowners the idea of moving their cars out of their garages and moving tenants in.

Experts tend to agree that in the short term garages will be occupied in great numbers. They see no end to the economic pressure that pushes immigrants northward, or any likelihood that the immigrants will be deterred by housing below the U.S. middle-class norm.

"They come up here and live in poverty, but before they lived in misery," said Gutierrez, the East Los Angeles public health nurse and a former Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia. "They may have come from a dirt floor, but now they have a concrete floor."

Leobardo Estrada, a demographer at UCLA, said Latinos are moving to the suburbs--where garages are plentiful and cheap apartments are not--in pursuit of jobs in outlying industrial parks.

Unskilled and semi-skilled laborers are finding work in the San Fernando Valley, Orange County, San Bernardino and Riverside, he said. "Jobs have suburbanized. And it's forcing immigrants to relocate."

Lee, the Center for Law and Poverty lawyer, is among the housing specialists who say occupied garages should simply be legalized. That would provide inexpensive housing and avoid concentrations of poor people in public housing projects, she said. There would be "sprinkles of low-income people living in small efficiency apartments in garages."

Current zoning laws are an "obsolete way to think about some single-family areas," said Baer, the USC "shadow market" specialist.

Single-family homeowners are already permitted to convert garages or build second units under so-called second-unit ordinances, which every city in California had to adopt in some form under state legislation passed in 1981.

Complicated and Expensive

However, in Los Angeles, as in most cities, the permit process is complicated and expensive, requiring a public hearing and a non-refundable $1,900 application fee.

Frank Eberhard, the city's chief zoning administrator, estimated that there are no more than two applications a month.

Baer derided the second-unit ordinance as a "sort of a middle-class view" of how to create low-cost housing.

When the demand for cheap housing is as great as that generated by garage people, he said, "building and zoning regulations don't do any good."

Baer said Southern California's garage people have their counterparts in developing nations around the world.

Immense numbers of peasants have abandoned the countryside hoping to work in their countries' new industries. Unable to find jobs or housing in teeming cities such as Calcutta, Bombay and Cairo, they have formed huge squatter settlements on sidewalks, in parks and in cemeteries.

Southern California, Baer said, is "facing a Third World phenomenon, and we are not equipped to deal with it."

Neither he nor UCLA's Estrada predicts evictions in the numbers that would produce Third World-type squatter settlements here. Baer has studied South Gate's eviction program and doubts that other cities could stand the political heat that would result from "evicting a mother and her children from a garage when there is no place for them to go."

Said Estrada: "If we were to force people not to live in garages, they would have to go to cars. If they don't have a car, they would go to the parks, sleep in buildings or on your front lawn. The issue would get bigger and bigger and uglier and uglier."

Story Behind the Survey

To estimate the number of garage dwellers in Los Angeles County, The Times used a list of 500 single-family houses purchased from Damar Corp., a Los Angeles real estate research firm.

The company has property tax records in its computer, including the county's 1.32 million single-family residences. Damar produced a list of every 2,643rd house to obtain a total of 500 houses across the county.

Reporters visited each house to determine whether the garage was occupied. Sometimes a visual inspection was enough. At times interviews with landlords were necessary to confirm that a garage was inhabited.

Sixteen of the 500 houses, or 3.2%, had occupied garages. After several visits, three others that appeared to be inhabited were counted as not occupied because neighborhood hostility prevented confirmation.

The number 16 was multiplied by 2,643 to produce an estimate of 42,288 occupied garages.

An average family size of five emerged from interviews with officials in South Gate, where a large-scale crackdown on garage dwellers is under way, with building inspectors in Los Angeles and Long Beach, and with people familiar with the neighborhoods.

Multiplying 42,288 garages by five people per garage produced an estimate of 211,440 garage dwellers.

(In researching the article, reporters visited scores of other occupied garages, which of course were not part of this sample.)

Times Poll director I. A. Lewis, who designed the count, and other authorities in statistics said that a sampling of this size can err up to 1.5 percentage points in either direction. That means the share of dwellings with occupied garages could be as low as 1.7% or as high as 4.7%.

David M. Heer, associate director of the University of Southern California's Population Research Laboratory, said the true number is much more likely to be in the middle than at either extreme.

"The farther you get from the median, the less likely it is to be the correct number, but it's still possible," he said.

Heer, who teaches poll-taking at USC, said the survey employed a "very acceptable, standard method of sampling."

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