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Washington Post: California needs more homes. So why are these sitting vacant?

April 19, 2023

LOS ANGELES — In northeastern Los Angeles County, dozens of homes sit vacant: cozy bungalows, grand mansions and stucco apartment buildings, many of them boarded up and left to decay. Blocks away, homeless people in broken-down cars and RVs prepare for summer heat after an unusually rain-chilled winter. 

The empty houses belong to the state’s highway authority, which bought them decades ago to make way for an extension of Interstate 710 that never got built. Now, what began as failed transportation policy has become failed housing policy, exacerbated by the kind of litigation and infighting that can make even the simplest issues in California tremendously hard to solve. 

“It’s a big mess,” said Richard Schneider, a former South Pasadena mayor. As for why the homes have been permitted to sit unoccupied so long: “Beats the [heck] out of me,” Schneider said. 

With so many unhoused people in the area desperate for shelter, the homes have become a potent symbol of California’s inability to solve a housing crisis that has ballooned to embarrassing levels. Despite widespread acknowledgment that the state lacks sufficient dwellings for its people, housing construction has lagged population growth and prices continue to soar. Middle-income people have been forced out of the market and the poorest are pouring into open-air encampments and homeless shelters. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has unveiled aggressive measures in hopes of increasing the supply of homes by 2.5 million by 2030. But bureaucratic hurdles and community opposition remain formidable obstacles — and as the empty L.A. County homes demonstrate, government itself can sometimes stand in the way. 

The 115 houses — including celebrity chef Julia Child’s former family home — are scattered along a five-mile stretch through east Los Angeles as well as nearby Pasadena and South Pasadena. The highway authority, Caltrans, purchased them in the 1950s and 1960s using the threat of eminent domain at a time when freeway construction was rampant nationally. But politics shifted with environmentalism on the rise, and Caltrans’ effort to complete 710 — originally envisioned running from Long Beach to Pasadena — began getting contested and litigated. The freeway extension was eventually shelved before being killed outright in 2018. 

In the bitter aftermath, Caltrans’ plans to sell off the now-unneeded properties encountered immediate opposition, and critics charge the agency let them deteriorate to the point of blight. But disputes and litigation over everything from historic preservation to affordability to upkeep costs to purchasing rights threaten to stall any resolution, just as they have for years. 

During the pandemic, about two dozen activists took matters into their own hands. They broke into the unoccupied homes in East L.A., illegally taking up residence. They ultimately signed onto a state-brokered deal with the city’s housing authority that gave them until this year to stay. Time is now up for most of these residents, and eviction proceedings have begun. 

“I’m constantly in fear, every day, wondering what’s going to happen,” said Marsha Garcia, 56, a single mom and “reclaimer,” as the residents call themselves.  

They eschew the term “squatter,” with all its negative connotations. Garcia has given her home a welcoming feel, filling it with plants and decorating the walls with aphorisms like “Bless this home and all who enter.” 

Residents who live near the abandoned houses would love to see them occupied and fixed up the way Garcia has done. 

“It’s a nightmare, it’s like the worst of California government. Caltrans has been a horrible property manager,” said Greg Campeau, 61, a South Pasadena resident who can see one of the vacant houses from the window of his home office. “They’re just getting more and more rundown.” 

The situation also angers the homeless people camped out in a long line of cars and RVs near the boarded-up houses in northeast L.A. 

“I would like to get into one of those houses,” said Valerie Martinez, 52, who lives with two dogs and two rabbits in a leaky RV parked on a median nearby. She said she’s tried unsuccessfully to talk to Caltrans about it, and has even considered breaking in, but “It says ‘no trespassing,’ I don’t want to go to jail.” 

Caltrans has spent $23 million on security to patrol the area to prevent people from busting into the empty homes. 

“Caltrans increased security along the corridor to prevent individuals from entering vacant, uninhabitable homes that have various health and safety issues,” the agency stated in response to questions. It disputed that it has let its properties decline, detailing various inspections and other measures it takes to ensure upkeep. 

Caltrans also said it had been prepared to sell the houses “but the process was halted by a lawsuit that challenged Caltrans’ regulations on home sales.” 

Complicating matters, Los Angeles, South Pasadena and Pasadena each have their own housing stock and political issues to manage. What they share in common are homes sitting vacant in the midst of a housing crisis so severe that new Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declared a state of emergency on homelessness her first day in office, and Newsom’s administration has begun suing cities that don’t meet his demands to produce adequate affordable housing. 

For the dozen “reclaimers” facing possible eviction in coming months, the politics is secondary to their own fragile hold on the roofs over their heads. 

Garcia, who lost her job at an adult day-care center at the start of the pandemic, had been living in her car with her then-high school age daughter. She contracted a severe case of covid-19 that left her with long-term health issues that prevent her from working. 

Garcia pays $200 a month for the small but cheery abode she shares with her daughter. She could not afford much more and is simply hoping she will somehow be allowed to stay. 

A neighbor, Maria Merritt, is in similar straits, housed under a temporary agreement with the Los Angeles Housing Authority after spending 13 years homeless. 

“I just want an opportunity. … Just give me a chance,” said Merritt, whose home is adorned with photos of her late partner, Darrell, who died in a car crash, and her dog, Fuzzy, also recently deceased. 

The housing authority contends that participants in the short-term rental program understood it would be ending and had received numerous options for permanent housing solutions. 

“While many Program Participants are actively engaged in their personalized solutions and are seeing positive results, some participants have refused all options presented to them,” the agency said in a statement. Both Garcia and Merritt said they’d been offered options but in neighborhoods away from friends and support networks. 

Roberto Flores, a community activist with United Caltrans Tenants, said the group’s lawyers intended to litigate each eviction notice individually, with the aim of making it costly to move forward with them. More broadly Flores expressed disgust at Caltrans’ stewardship of the houses it owns amid a housing crisis, including around 78 that are vacant in the El Sereno neighborhood. 

“Seventy-eight empty houses, can you imagine that?” he said. “And tons of homeless people.” 

Caltrans is trying to sell off the properties, with longtime occupants supposed to get first right of refusal, but litigation is ongoing over what purchase price should apply. In its statement, the agency detailed how it’s also in the process of selling vacant properties for use as affordable housing. 

The issue has been bedeviling local officials for decades. The disputes contain echoes of many of the issues that have made the housing crisis so difficult to resolve in California: The difficulty of introducing multifamily properties into neighborhoods built around California’s archetypal single-family home; aggressive historic preservation rules; and the “Not in My Back Yard” attitude that still prevails in some communities. Complicated environmental rules and labor union politics have introduced additional difficulties. 

“When you have government ownership of land, figuring out ways to dispose of it in a useful way is of course rife with politics,” said Richard Green, director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. “Given its location it would be a really great place to put some dense housing — and neighbors would probably howl.”

In upscale South Pasadena, the dispute involves who would be allowed to buy the properties, how much they would pay, how much affordable housing would result, and where. Some activists charge that longtime residents simply don’t want the type of person they perceive to be attracted to multifamily dwellings and affordable homes. 

“The whole region is in a housing crisis and South Pasadena has very assiduously avoided building affordable housing,” said Ella Hushagen, a leader of an activist group called Care First South Pasadena. “There’s a real older generation of folks who are very, very recalcitrant to these kinds of changes, and the state I think is not going to let them be in charge anymore.” 

South Pasadena city officials and historic preservation advocates dispute such accusations, contending they’re all committed to finding a solution that disposes of the Caltrans properties fairly while addressing the need for affordable housing in a way all parties can support. 

“There is a group in the community that really wants to protect the look and feel of South Pasadena, and that’s where [the city council] needs to strike a balance,” said Deputy City Manager Domenica Megerdichian. 

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