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These Usually Unassuming Buildings Can Make Revealing Social Statements on Wealth or Poverty : Garages: They’re Home to Some, Luxury Car Housing for Others

Times Staff Writer

Few things epitomize the haves and have-nots in Southern California more than the garage.

It houses five or more cars in some cases; five or more people in others.

The garage is a museum for William Lyon, a real estate developer and retired U.S. Air Force general. His 15,000-square-foot garage, at Coto de Caza in southeastern Orange County, holds 55 classic cars. (Yet, he commutes daily to his Newport Beach office by helicopter.)

Lyon’s garage, which is air conditioned and temperature controlled, also has two mechanics’ bays and a full-time mechanic.

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In Malibu, there is a home for sale at $9.5 million that has a garage for eight cars, and one of the spaces has a hydraulic hoist and an adjacent machine shop with lathes. The garage also has imported tile floors and a half bath.

Room for 13 Cars

Nearby, there are two 500-gallon gas tanks. An underground tunnel connects the garage to the main house.

“I also have an $11.5-million listing on the same bluff as (impressionist) Rich Little’s home with a four-car garage, two of the spaces limousine depth,” said Betty Graham, manager of Jon Douglas Co.'s two Malibu offices.

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A garage in a new Beverly Hills-area house, priced at $6 million, was designed by architect Stephen Ball of Brentwood for 13 cars.

Ball raised the floor of the main quarters so the garage is at street level, but there are some subterranean garages, three that can accommodate nine cars each on Orange County’s Harbour Island, by realtor Bill Cote’s count. The one for a home he has listed at $14.5 million cost more than $1 million to build, he said.

Cote has seen garages with wine cellars, boat storage and metal shops. Frank Ashby, a real estate appraiser with Westside offices, said, “I’ll never forget the guy who opened his garage door and in a corner was a complete kitchen.”

Fancy garages are nothing new. Pat Hug, with the George Elkins Co. in Newport Beach, remembers a house on Linda Isle in the ‘70s that had a Rolls-Royce parked on an Oriental rug with a chandelier overhead.

Many Garage Conversions

The late crooner Rudy Vallee had an electric turntable in his Hollywood Hills courtyard so his car could be rotated to head downhill. Ball worked on a Los Feliz mansion, which also has a turntable. “There was no power steering when it was built in 1918,” he said, “so you’d just rotate the car and drive out.”

In the past few years, garages not only became bigger and fancier, but many were converted--sometimes in violation of city codes--to offices and rooms for games and guests. Ashby has seen garages that were turned into gyms, sound-proof studios, rehearsal rooms and storage for wardrobes and film.

But many garages are now being used as substandard housing, with few if any kitchens or toilets.

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Referring to a 1987 study by The Times, indicating that there are about 200,000 people in Los Angeles County living this way (with an average of five people per garage), James T. Minuto, of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, said, “There has been no increase in government spending on housing assistance, so I would conclude that the problem is the same or worse.”

Apartments Too Expensive

Yvonne Jimenez of San Fernando Valley Legal Services said, “I think the population living in garages is about the same. Or, if anything, it’s grown, judging by the number of people on the streets and the increase in prices in the rental market.”

A large number of apartments are being built in the Valley, she said, “but they are not affordable.”

And what do people pay to live in garages? “I am working with some people that just last month moved into a garage, which was a little larger than for two cars, and it was divided into four rooms, no baths. The rooms rent for $400 apiece.”

Low-Income Workers

William Baer--a USC associate professor of urban and regional planning, attributes the garage-housing demand to an influx of low-income workers.

Edward Soja, a UCLA professor of urban planning, sees the problem as “an emergence of an urban underclass, which is growing and creating a great division in terms of poverty and wealth.

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“There is a significant expansion of urban poor, and the housing situation is deeply embedded in it,” he added.

So, as the saying goes: The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. “But what people fail to see is that the two are connected,” Soja said.

“L.A. is in many ways now a Third World city. The low-paying jobs are a major factor in the region’s continuing economic expansion.”

Solutions: “Widespread recognition and concern,” he suggested, “and some sort of real commitment to dealing with the growth of poverty, which is not isolated to Skid Row or South-Central L.A.”


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