| Testimony Statement Presented at the Orange County Public Hearing|
The following statement was read and submitted at the Orange County Public Hearing held on November 14, 2006 regarding Caltrans and their mismanagement of state owned property.
Assemblymember Carol Liu's statement can be found here.
We wish publicly to thank the Orange County Register and investigative reporter Kimberly Kindy for bringing this series of compelling articles to the attention of the public, to Assemblyman Spiter and Supervisor Norby for providing this much needed and important forum, and especially to Assemblyperson Carol Liu who has spent years of time and effort on the tenants behalf.
The Caltrans Tenants Association is comprised of those living in Caltrans owned homes along the 710 Freeway corridor. There are over 500 residential properties along the corridor including ninety-five “historic” homes. The tenants represent an economically and ethnically diverse group of families who have an average tenancy of twenty years and include the communities of Pasadena, South Pasadena and El Sereno.
We came together as an association in response to Caltrans’ shift in a variety of policies that directly affect our tenancies. We believe that our neighborhood and our ability to remain in our homes is continually threatened by Caltrans. We are concerned about Caltrans blatant attempt to depopulate the corridor, their failure to follow their own policies and mission statement, and to abide by state and local code compliance regulations in regard to health and safety codes. Our Association has three main goals:
- To ensure just and fair rent increases.
- To ensure Caltrans complies with safety, health and maintenance codes and provides tenants with a safe habitable living environment that adheres to civil rights and codes that prevent discrimination.
- To preserve our Roberti Bill rights to purchase our homes in the future
In the late 1990’s Caltrans began a shift from “slum lord” benign neglect to depopulation of the corridor by trying to enforce a 25% yearly rent increase until fair market value was achieved. This was on the heels of a federal mandate for Caltrans to rehab the historic properties that were in such poor repair that most were either unlivable or falling apart. Over twenty million taxpayer dollars was allotted for the rehab of the 95 historic properties. Caltrans spent this on 39 homes, less than half. Many of the rehabbed houses did not pass code inspections, and some were never fully completed. This egregious activity resulted in a scathing State Auditor Report (August 2000), initiated in part by the complaints of tenants, which showed gross mismanagement of taxpayer funds with little or no accountability. Privately secured contractors inspected a number of rehabbed properties and, without exception, found the poorest quality of materials and workmanship, well below private sector standards. The scope of the audit was narrowly defined and criminal intent or neglect was not addressed
Our Association organized, with the help of Assemblymember Carol Liu and others, to fight the unjust rent increases and attacks on our Roberti Bill rights. In July of 2001, 230 tenants sent a petition to Caltrans Director, Jeff Morales. It protested the rent increase based on unfair treatment, maintenance and code violations. By signing the petition, a tenant was officially requesting an appeal. Tenants had to demand to be informed of their right to appeal under the provisions of the Caltrans Right of Way Manual. Tenants were not informed of this procedure. Over 100 tenants argued their rights regarding major maintenance, safety and health issues. They came with pictures of leaking and caved in roofs, broken water pipes, rat infestations, major mold and health issues as a result of slumlord property conditions.
Sudden public awareness, local representative interest, and the threat of AB21, forced Caltrans into forming a “Caltrans Rental Housing Task Force”. A rent moratorium was implemented in August of 2002, until the results of the Task Force were reviewed. The Task Force, under the guide of Assemblyperson Carol Liu was completed 2 years later in 2004. Recommendations from members were forwarded to Caltrans. Caltrans refused to accept any recommendations of substance from the Task Force Report. Further more, Caltrans deleted the appeal procedure from their Right of Way Manual. We have been told this is illegal.
In order to protect our rights, the tenants were forced to secure the services of Attorney Senator David Roberti. We continue to work with the affected cities, elected representatives, CA Transportation Commission and the media.
Assemblymember Liu has provided us with the voice that our own government and Caltrans refuses to listen to. She authored AB21, AB1617, has interceded on behalf of many individual tenants. She sparked the inception of the Caltrans Rental Task Force and shepherded the meetings. She relentlessly tried to make Caltrans accountable to at least the legislature. This is contrary to Caltrans remarks made at the first Task Force meeting that they were was NOT accountable to the legislature. Caltrans’ response to Carole is that she is termed out this year and we already have a new Assemblyperson elect. The history and mentality of Caltrans is that they can and will wait out everyone and will continue their practice of acting above the law and accountable to no one.
Since 2005 tenants have received rent increases in varying amounts from 5-20%. This year only “selected” tenants received rent increases of different amounts. Mr. Kempton has recommended a yearly 15% rent increase until fair market is achieved. We have no appeal process and many tenants continue to endure code compliance, health and safety issues. We are also under the retaliatory control of Property Manager Linda Wilford. She continually illegally attempts to evict tenants. She has refused to comply with orders from her superiors regarding tenant issues and has violated many tenants’ civil rights and practices discrimination and bullying tactics. Tenants live in fear of her. Her actions are contrary to the letter from Secretary McPeak that states, “we are now seeing timely Caltrans inspections of properties, diligent repair and maintenance, as well as timely response to tenants”. It is the tenants’ experience that Sacramento is out of touch with what really goes on in the districts and in particular, property management.
Many tenants have filed lawsuits against Caltrans to protect their rights. One tenant had no other choice but to sue Caltrans to preserve his Roberti Bill rights or be evicted. He has prevailed in a settlement with Caltrans. This blatant activity resulted in a California Research Bureau Study, requested by Assemblymember Liu, regarding the disposition of 710 corridor surplus properties, ultimately resulting in AB1617 to make Caltrans accountable for how they conduct procedures under the Roberti Bill in the 710 Corridor. We believe that improper property management has become a legal and financial determent to Caltrans. The Caltrans issue is not money, as many houses stand vacant at rent rates of up to $6,000 and have remained empty for many years while many other properties stand vacant, in total disrepair and a haven for homeless and crime.
The 710 Corridor is unique in that it remains under the Roberti Bill, Government code 54235-54238.7 which provides a much-needed affordable housing component to future purchase. It is based on the original concept that the 710 Corridor was considered affordable housing stock, as once was thought for all state owned properties. Caltrans states that they are mandated by the state to charge fair market value for state owned properties. This is contested in a Legislative Council opinion document, at the request of Assemblywoman Carol Liu. This document showed that it is not state mandated, only a Caltrans internal policy.
Caltrans is knowingly waging a battle violating tenant rights under the provisions of the Robert Bill by increasing rents and forcing qualified Roberti Bill eligible tenants to move. Caltrans internal documents state they want “relief from the Roberti bill”. The California Transportation Commission, the funding arm for Caltrans, in a letter to Assemblymember Liu this year to “change language” in AB1617, called for the deletion of the Roberti Bill. We believe that the relief Caltrans seeks is the ability to sell the properties at fair market value, which does not encumber them to the lender-required repairs mandated by the Roberti Bill. The costs can be more than the property is worth due to Caltrans years of slumlord mismanagement of the properties.
The tenants of the 710 Corridor and the affected cities and counties are being held hostage by an out of control and unaccountable agency that has continued to broaden their damage at an alarming rate. The record of Decision and the EIR no longer exist on the 710 Route as both have been determined to be antiquated information. Caltrans now has plans to go from a surface route to an underground tunnel at the cost of at least 3 billion but refuses to release any of the properties. The association has been told that excess properties have existed for years under the original surface route, but Caltrans refuses to release them. The time line for the tunnel could be easily another 20 years.
In conclusion, the tenants association would like to put forward the following recommendations to be considered as “relief” measures:
- Place a rent increase moratorium on 710 Corridor properties until a realistic future plan is finalized and a new Record of Decision is approved, recognizing that the corridor is under the provisions of the Roberti Bill and affordable housing.
- Future rent increases to be kept to the cost of living index, provided properties with verifiable outstanding maintenance issues are resolved.
- Sell the “off the foot print properties”: all potential excess, excess and surplus property ASAP, but within a year. A list to be compiled by Caltrans with independent oversight.
- Property management of Caltrans state owned properties transferred to another agency with a local component involved, such as the affected city.
- Caltrans maintain all properties in accordance with city housing regulations, including health and safety codes, building and zoning codes and occupancy permits.
- Reinstate appeals process with panel composed of non-Caltrans employees, with grounds for appeals to be limited to appropriateness of comparables, outstanding maintenance issues and economic hardship.
- Offer and expeditiously rent all current vacant and habitable homes and apartments.
- A legal opinion to establish if the Caltrans Right of Way Manual is a legal document or just an internal manual.
- A meeting with Sec. Of Housing and Transportation, Sunni McPeak and Caltrans Director, Will Kempton in the next 30 days to provide a solution to a just end of the proposed rent increases, tenant treatment, and the disposition of the properties and the future of Property Management.
Tenants are dedicated to procuring just and fair treatment by Caltrans as we await the eventual possible purchase of our homes. We consider ourselves a vibrant and caring part of our community and wish to be a part of the American dream in the pride of responsible ownership. Many of us have put considerable time, effort, and money into improving and maintaining our rented homes. We want these homes to be put back on the tax role and to enhance the fabric of our community, as intended by Senator David Roberti when he authored the Roberti Bill. We pledge to use all available legal, political, and editorial means possible to have tenants’ concerns addressed, their rights upheld and our goals met. We invite participation by all interested parties.
We only can hope that at long last we can realize relief from our own Government agency, Caltrans.