What's it like to live in a Caltrans house?

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For more than 50 years, California's Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, has owned hundreds of houses in Pasadena, South Pasadena and El Sereno. The state originally bought them to tear down because they stood in the way of a planned extension of what is now known as the 710 freeway.

But the project stalled, and the houses have for decades been under Caltrans’ management. Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that killed an overland extension of the freeway for good. And he gave Caltrans the green light to sell the homes. So what’s it like to have Caltrans as your landlord? KPCC’s Kevin Ferguson went to find out.

Nora Verdesoto is a Caltrans tenant and a customer service representative. In 1997, the mother of four was on the heels of a divorce. She'd lost her home, and had just gone on disability. She worried about finding a place she could afford. She heard that in El Sereno — the neighborhood in which she grew up — the state owned and rented homes for a pretty good price. Soon she was on the phone with a Caltrans rental agent.

"He helped me, and he told me I could live here," Verdesoto says. "He rented it to me, even with the condition of six of us living here. And that's kind of like, where we started. It was close to home, I've had people here to help me."

Verdesoto says she likes the house, loves the neighborhood, and for the most part she's OK with the quirks of living in a Caltrans home: She sends her rent to Sacramento, deals with Caltrans-employed repair people, and her house is bordered by two vacant lots — also owned by Caltrans. 

But there’ve been challenges. Verdesoto's bathroom has mold, and at one point she says her tub almost fell through the floor. Also, for months, the walls and ceiling in her living room were falling apart.

"The plaster started to crack, and it was coming down," Verdesoto says. "It wasn't hanging, but the cracks were deep. And you could see that it was coming away from the original wall. And they patched it up a little bit at one point, but they would  immediately crack again."

Worrying for her kids' safety ("I mean, we live in earthquake territory," she said) and unable to get Caltrans to do the work, Verdesoto ended up shelling out about $600 for the repairs herself.

Stories like Verdesoto's aren't necessarily the norm, but they aren't uncommon, either. Caltrans has been called a bad landlord by tenants' groups and local editorials. And a state audit found the agency passed up collecting $22 million in rental income because of poor management.

State Sen. Carol Liu represents Pasadena and South Pasadena. She authored the bill that officially eliminated the above-ground option for the 710 extension. It also tweaked the existing state laws to make it easier to for Caltrans to sell the houses.

She says she wants the agency to go back to what it does best. "And that's providing roadways, and maintaining roadways," she says. "And they have more that enough worry about and they don't want to be in the real estate business. "

This was exciting news for tenants like Verdesoto. But for the time being, there's no way to know if she'll get to buy her house. Liu's bill only ruled out an above ground route in the area. There are still five other alternatives under consideration, including a tunnel, a light rail line and nothing at all. Caltrans hasn't said which of its houses might be in the pathway of those projects, so they're sitting on all of them for the time being. That has Verdesoto worried her house will be in the path of future developments.

Nearby, Jessica Susnar lives with her family in a large Pasadena homestead owned by Caltrans. It’s part of a historic district recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. On the rear part of the property there's a large, two story building. It’s well over a century old and probably a carriage house originally. It's been surrounded by a chain link fence since her family moved in.

Susnar remembers the first time she looked inside the building. She climbed up the stairs to the second floor and inside found an apartment — probably the home of the chauffeur. That was years ago.  "Now those stairs are completely decayed. You can't even sneak up those stairs now," Susnar says. "And that's just since we've been here. "

Caltrans has yet to make the building habitable, and while Susnar and her family like their current home, they worry about buying the property if Caltrans puts it on the market. If Caltrans doesn’t fix the carriage house, Jessica’s concerned she and her family would get stuck with the costs if they bought it.

Just because you currently live in a Caltrans home doesn't necessarily mean you can buy it. State regulations require Caltrans to sell the houses only to income qualified buyers — if you're a tenant and your household makes more than the 1.5 times the median income in the LA area, you probably wouldn’t get to be first in line to buy your home.

No matter who buys the homes, Caltrans is committed to getting the properties off its books, says spokeswoman Lauren Wonder.

"Ultimately, Caltrans wants to get out of the landlord business. We never should have been there," says Wonder. "We would like to ultimately divest ourselves of those properties that are not needed. Should there be a project that ultimately goes through, and we might need certain homes, certainly we would have to hang on to those in a proposed in a tunnel alignment, or whatever."

Caltrans says deciding what houses to keep or sell is expected to last a year, at least. Which makes it clear that if this is the last chapter in the saga of the Caltrans homes, that chapter is just beginning.   

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