Up and down Castlegate Avenue and other streets in East Compton, some of the garages show signs of the city’s recent crackdown on blight. Some gleam with fresh coats of paint. Others have clearly undergone remodeling, with doors newly fitted into the frames.
This pleases Marlene Townes, a 45-year resident of Compton. She sees it as yet another sign of her city’s transformation from nationwide symbol of urban violence and decay back into a proud, working-class city.
To Justa Ramirez and some of her neighbors, on the other hand, what has happened to their garages is an injustice with racial undertones that is taking money out of people’s pockets at the worst possible time.
Compton is cracking down on garages that have illegally been converted into living spaces. That includes, according to city manager Charles Evans, as many as a third of all the residents’ garages, some of which house entire families who can’t afford to rent a house or apartment. Others think the number could be even higher.
Compton, a city of about 93,000 south of Watts, is hardly unique. Across Los Angeles County, officials estimate that hundreds of thousands of people sleep each night in quarters originally built for automobiles -- although they say it’s impossible to know for sure how many because the units are, by their nature, hidden behind closed doors.
In a region with a deep shortage of affordable housing, officials have long struggled with what to do about illegal garage units. Strictly enforcing all building codes could result in tens if not hundreds of thousands of people pushed onto the street, according to housing experts. But it is not good public policy to have children and families living in unsafe units -- especially ones that do not have proper fire exits.
Los Angeles officials are considering a different approach. City Council President Eric Garcetti said he planned to propose that one neighborhood participate in a voluntary pilot project to help residents bring illegal units up to code and get them properly permitted.
“To me, it’s not a question about cracking down and ripping out these units,” he said. “It’s more in a . . . difficult economic moment, how can we make these legal?”
But Compton city officials, pointing to a 2007 fire that killed children living in a Long Beach garage, have said the converted garages pose a health and safety risk -- and they have been putting liens on people’s properties until they turn their garages back into spaces for cars or formally legalize them with building permits.
City officials say they don’t know how many people have been cited, but said it has been hundreds.
In a city where tensions between blacks and Latinos have simmered for years, this has led to charges that the crackdown is not hitting the two populations equally.
“They only apply to certain people,” said Maria Villareal, president of Compton’s Latino Chamber of Commerce. “What I see happening is . . . for those people who come in and complain about code enforcement inspecting garages, they always have a solution for the African American families. But they don’t have a solution for the Latinos.”
Anita Bennett, a communications consultant working for the city, said that charge is baseless.
“If you look at the demographics, it might look like that” because there are more Latino residents and therefore more Latinos facing questions about their garages, she said. “But absolutely, there is no targeting.”
Bennett also said officials do not want to make anyone homeless. “It is a question of liability,” she said. “If the city knows there is an illegal conversion and they do nothing, then the city is liable.”
Pedro Olguin, a community organizer with the Compton-based group L.A. Cause, said he wants the city to consider a moratorium on its enforcement.
“We feel there are so many converted garages in the city that to simply do away with them and not offer an alternative that is affordable and safe creates a problem,” he said.
Olguin, who grew up in Compton, added that many families bought their homes because the garages had been converted, knowing they would have space for extended families or be able to rent them out for extra income.
But other longtime Compton residents say that the huge numbers of converted garages create blight and parking problems, the last things the city needs as it tries to overcome a negative image arising from years of violent gang-related crime.
Last year, the city posted 38 homicides, its fewest in a quarter century -- a 50% drop since 2005. Joggers and people walking their dogs have come back onto the streets; children are back in parks; everywhere in Compton, people are talking about the renaissance.
But it has also allowed residents and officials to turn their attention to issues -- including garages -- that might have seemed insignificant in years past.
“We are focusing on every area that involves blight,” including weed-strewn lots and vacant houses, said Evans, the city manager. But he also said that the tragedy of the children who burned to death in the Long Beach garage “put our city on notice that we do have a problem” with garages.
Across town, Luis Sanchez strolled the neighborhood where he grew up, pointing out the fresh paint and scarred wood on his neighbors’ garages -- signs that they have recently been forced by the city to be converted back.
He and his mother, Ramirez, are fighting the city’s order. He believes that his mother’s garage was converted properly -- with permits that have gone missing at Compton City Hall. Unlike many of the conversions, in which residents just hang some drywall and declare a garage a room, his mother’s garage -- with its pastel carpet and spotless walls -- looks professionally done.
What’s more, Sanchez said, his mother, who bought the house with the garage already converted in 1993, has been paying property tax on the square footage that includes the garage. And then he found an old permit application from the 1970s. Add it all up, he said, and he believes that city officials simply lost the permit and are trying to blame his mother.
So far, the theory is not getting much traction at City Hall.