Renters of Caltrans-owned homes give state auditors an earful

Auditors got an earful last week regarding the nearly 400 homes that the state purchased decades ago for a possible surface extension of the Long Beach (710) Freeway.

In that time, the California Department of Transportation, which owns the homes, has been accused of being a poor landlord, and a groundswell is growing to force the agency to sell the properties, especially since extending the 710 Freeway to connect with the Foothill (210) Freeway will now likely involve an underground tunnel.

The auditor's report on the costs of Caltrans maintaining the homes — scheduled to be released Aug. 2 — was requested nearly a year ago by Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) on the news that roofs installed on more than 30 homes cost taxpayers up to five times more than what private homeowners would have paid.

Marie Salas, who has rented a Caltrans home in El Sereno for more than 17 years, said the homes may look OK on the outside, but inside is a different story.

“It's all a façade,” Salas said. “When you go inside, there's rotten foundations that are falling apart; the electric [equipment] is a disaster.”

Lynn Bryant, a Caltrans renter in Pasadena, said tenant pressure and new personnel at Caltrans have improved conditions in recent years.

“However, this new change does not negate the nearly decades of slumlord conditions and evictions,” Bryant said, towing a box of documents on past investigations.

State Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge) recently introduced legislation that would require Caltrans to offer the homes for sale to current residents and require the California Transportation Commission to use the proceeds to fund local transportation projects.

The money could not go to the proposed extension of the 710 Freeway, which is currently undergoing environmental review.

Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard, who has been pushing for Caltrans to unload the homes, said he is concerned Liu's bill might delay a sell-off since it calls for the Environmental Impact Report on the 710 Freeway extension to be completed before determining which properties will be sold.

“It could take until 2014,” Bogaard said. “We in Pasadena would like those houses to be part of the community.”

But Suzanne Reed, Liu's chief of staff, said it is unlikely Caltrans would be able to determine which properties are surplus until a report on how to improve traffic in the so-called 710 gap is complete.

Transportation officials are mulling everything from mass transit improvements to a 4.5-mile freeway tunnel connecting the 710 and 210 freeways.

“We're not going to be able to sell the homes without the project being determined,” Reed said.

She added that given a 12-year effort to sell the homes into private hands, “I don't know if there is a quick way, but we'd certainly like to see it done. These houses have been in public ownership and been off tax rolls for way too long.”

Meanwhile, South Pasadena City Councilman Bob Joe said he is looking forward to seeing the state audit.

“You need to do a very thorough investigation and inventory,” Joe said. “It just scratched the surface, the information that was presented here today.”

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