| PASADENA STAR NEWS ARTICLE |
Renter, Caltrans at Odds
Agency refuses to sell home to Pasadena man
By Mary Bender, Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2004 - 10:28:47 PM PST
PASADENA -- The one-story house is old, perhaps dating to the late 1800s or the World War I era, depending on whom you ask; small, only two and a half bedrooms; and badly in need of repair.
It doesn't seem worth fighting over.
|Harry Nickelson, an 11-year renter of a Caltrans home in Pasadena, has sued the state agency. He has long hoped to buy the house. When it was declared surplus to Caltrans 710 Freeway needs, he thought his time had come to purchase the home. But Caltrans found Nickelson ineligible to purchase affordable housing, so the property was one of 12 put up for bid. A nonprofit agency bought it. Nickelson previously had been approved to purchase the house under the Roberti Bill that governs Caltrans properties, but reasons like his divorce & fluctuations in his income interfered. His lawsuit alleges breach of contract.|
(Staff photo by Walt Mancini)
For 11 years, the Pasadena house has been home to Harry Nickelson, who rents it from Caltrans but would like nothing more than to buy it.
Now he's suing Caltrans because the agency has ruled he's ineligible to buy since they say he makes too much money although he's now unemployed.
Nickelson is like many tenants who live in housing of all types owned by the state Department of Transportation. Caltrans bought the homes decades ago to build a 4.5-mile section of the Long Beach (710) Freeway through Pasadena, South Pasadena and El Sereno.
There's still no freeway.
In January, Caltrans announced it could sell 12 properties it now considers surplus along the 710 corridor. Nickelson's home was one of them.
"I'm an artist,' said Nickelson, who works as a color stylist in the animation industry. "I use one of the rooms for a studio. I like the high ceilings and the tall windows. It's an environment I would like to stay in.'
When the agency ruled him ineligible to buy the house at 1200 S. Pasadena Ave., Nickelson filed a civil lawsuit. Caltrans is required by a state law, the Roberti Bill, to give its tenants the first chance to buy the house they've been renting. Arguing he was unfairly passed over, Nickelson sued the state agency for breach of contract and other claims.
"They arbitrarily decided they weren't going to move forward,' Nickelson said. "So I paid all this rent, for what?'
Caltrans declined comment on Nickelson's lawsuit. "I can't discuss the issue at this point, because it's in litigation,' said Deborah Harris, an agency spokeswoman.
It's a Caltrans policy to withhold any statement until a case is resolved, Harris said.
In his lawsuit, filed in March, Nickelson said he and Caltrans entered into a written purchase agreement in September 2002, stating he would buy the house for $55,164 . The sale price was calculated based on factors including Nickelson's animation income, which because of the mercurial entertainment industry fluctuates from one year to the next.
The whole arrangement fell apart in 2003 when Caltrans offered instead to sell Nickelson a house in South Pasadena, at 1030 Foothill Ave.
"If you decline to accept this offer of a dwelling by May 30, 2003, (Caltrans') obligation to offer you a residential property shall be considered fulfilled,' read an April 4, 2003, letter to Nickelson, according to the lawsuit.
Caltrans then "will proceed to dispose of the property (on Pasadena Avenue) of which you are a tenant, to a housing-related entity,' Nickelson quotes the letter as reading. Nickelson turned down the Foothill Avenue home.
"It's about half the size (of the Pasadena house), and has no characteristics at all. It's basically a cracker box,' Nickelson said.
Attorney Christopher Sutton, representing Nickelson, recently has taken depositions from several Caltrans employees who oversee the agency's rental and "surplus' properties.
In his suit, Nickelson argues that Caltrans picked two high-grossing years rather than a cumulative average in calculating his earnings. "The problem is, his income goes way up and way down. That's the nature of the business,' Sutton said.
During the flush years, someone in Nickelson's position must squirrel away his earnings to have enough money to get him through the lean times, Sutton said.
Nickelson, who said he had plenty of work in 2002 and 2003, has been unemployed for the past nine months.
In February, soon after Nickelson's house was put on the for-sale list, Caltrans officials said the home purchase program is for moderate- to low-income residents. Eligibility is based on an applicant's current income, officials said, noting Caltrans looks at the previous 12 months and a projection of the coming 12 months.
The purchase agreement between Caltrans and Nickelson requires the agency to make various repairs and improvements to the property, as a condition of the buyer obtaining a home loan.
Caltrans shouldn't balk at having to spend money to repair 710 corridor homes they're trying to sell, Sutton said.
"They're slumlords. They've failed to maintain these properties,' Sutton said.
"Caltrans is the worst possible landlord. Then they say: 'We don't want to spend all this money on these houses.' But they're the ones who made them into these wrecks,' Sutton added.
When Caltrans added Nickelson's rental house to the for-sale list, the agency set a minimum sale price of $360,000.
The plaintiffs have a hearing with Pasadena Superior Court Judge Joseph DeVanon on Jan. 11. Nickelson and Sutton are seeking a preliminary injunction, asking that Caltrans not be allowed to transfer title of the house to Beacon Housing Inc., a Los Angeles- based nonprofit organization.
• Mary Bender can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4456, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See Also: Renters protest sale of Caltrans houses