Would-Be Renters Try Luck at Caltrans Raffle

Times Staff Writer

The event Saturday on the driveway of a home along Glenarm Street in Pasadena had all the trappings of an old-fashioned lottery. Orange and blue raffle tickets swirled in a metal drum as about 20 people crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.

"This is so exciting!" cooed one woman as the drum turned and a winning ticket was pulled.

The prize at stake was not a million-dollar payout but rather the chance to rent one of three homes, in the path of the proposed Long Beach Freeway extension, from Caltrans, the state agency that owns almost 600 homes in the area.

Because more than one family had qualified for the houses under strict guidelines set out by Caltrans, the lottery was held to provide a level playing field for would-be renters.

The first house, a three-bedroom, 2 1/4-bath house on St. John Avenue in Pasadena that will rent for $2,250 a month, was awarded to Dana and David Garber and their son, Devon.

Asked to describe the attributes of her new house, built in 1906, Dana Garber, a real estate agent, recited details with the singsong rhythm of someone who sells homes for a living. "It's got a big two-car garage, a bonus room, a sun porch -- and it's all Craftsman," she said.

Many of the Caltrans properties along the proposed extension of the Long Beach Freeway, from Alhambra to Pasadena, have been owned by the agency since the 1950s. At the time they were purchased, construction of the extension seemed imminent.

But since then, lawsuits, lobbying and legislation by some of the cities that would be affected by the freeway have managed to block its completion. Caltrans, as a result, has spent the last 30 years as a reluctant landlord to homes in Pasadena, South Pasadena and El Sereno.

The older homes owned by the agency, many of which are in Pasadena, have long been a source of controversy for Caltrans. A mid-1990s rehab of 39 of the 92 historic homes nearly exhausted the $19.4 million Caltrans received for renovating them, according to a state audit. And many residents of the rehabbed homes have complained, both privately and in public forums, about faulty work and ongoing, unresolved maintenance issues.

Caltrans currently has 45 vacant homes in the Long Beach Freeway corridor, all of which, officials said, are in the process of being readied for rental. On Saturday, the agency's Web site listed 12 units available for rents ranging from $1,100 to $5,000 a month. It stated that in order to qualify for a house, applicants must have a gross monthly income of four times the amount their rent would be. That means that for the largest house in the group, a seven-bedroom, 3 3/4-bath house on Pasadena Avenue, a family's gross income would have to approach $250,000 a year.

The income requirements were no problem for Dana Garber. "We'd been thinking of selling our house in Glendale, for about $400,000 or so, and buying in the $600- to $700,000 range. When I looked at this list, I saw I could rent for $2,200 a month, and buy units instead, or rent out our house, and have my money working for me."

"My dad's girlfriend has lived in a Caltrans home in El Sereno for more than 25 years," Garber said, "and she's had no problems. I don't mind landlords; you take care of your own stuff."

Some affordable housing advocates who attended the raffle worried that the rents -- and the income requirements -- are too high. As a public agency, "Caltrans has a responsibility to use excess property in a way that furthers the opportunities for low-income people," said Michelle White, executive director of Affordable Housing Services in Pasadena.

But another renter, who asked that his name not be used, said he was surprised more people weren't in the running for the houses. His was the first name called for a 1,426-square-foot duplex unit, built in 1906, for which he and his wife will pay $1,235 a month.

He'll be happy to do so. "The homes are beautiful," the renter said. "It's kind of a windfall in terms of quality."

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