CalTrans Housing | SB-381 Hits Another Roadblock at Council Meeting

If the bill is not passed by Transportation April 27, it will be dead for the session. The City of South Pasadena has worked closely with Senator Anthony Portantino on this

Caltrans homes South Pasadena
PHOTO: Esteban Lopez | News | South Pasadena homes controlled by Caltrans for decades now

CalTrans housing stakeholders in South Pasadena will have a little more time to consider the terms of a senate bill aimed at ending decades of uncertainty over the status of dozens of properties in the former SR 710 corridor. Agreement on the reprieve came around 1:00 a.m. Thursday morning at the end of a City Council meeting that lasted nearly seven hours.

The long-delayed approval of the city’s $59.6 million 2021 budget — capstone to an exhausting saga that roiled the city last year — was only a footnote to the epic meeting during which Council members crossed swords over hero pay for grocery workers, approved a long-awaited 20 percent inclusionary housing ordinance that took effect immediately, extended funding for over a half dozen ongoing investigations of complaints against the police, learned of hundreds of thousands of dollars in new annual expenses to filter 123-TCP from water in the Wilson Treatment System, and struggled over the appropriate punishment for the aging Brent Avenue housing code violation from hell.

But the longest discussion, nearly two hours, was over Mayor Diana Mahmud’s push to get approval for the latest version of SB-381, a bill the city has asked Sen. Anthony Portantino to shepherd through the legislature and which currently awaits a do-or-die hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee April 27. The Mayor’s first attempt to get Council approval sputtered March 17 after Council and community members said they’d not been given sufficient time to review the complicated matter. The Council opted to approve the plan contingent on amendments to be crafted after community input.

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Wednesday’s session fared little better, with a raft of oral comment demanding the matter be tabled again pending further public scrutiny. But that outcome risks killing the bill if the Council cannot come to a consensus at or before its next scheduled meeting April 21, lest the draft run afoul of the Transportation Committee’s one-week pre-hearing filing deadline for amendments.

FILE PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | News | Senator Anthony Portantino

If the bill is not passed by Transportation April 27, it will be dead for the session, Portantino legislative aide Kristi Lopez confirmed during Wednesday’ meeting. She provided a list of subsequent committee and floor vote deadlines the bill will face, while emphasizing how Covid restrictions have severely tightened the legislative process, mainly due to constraints on hearing rooms.

Since March 17, remote sessions were held with the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation and as a special hearing hosted with Portantino. Mahmud said she had many other contacts as well. The Council’s Ad Hoc CalTrans Housing Subcommittee, on which Mahmud serves with Council Member Jack Donovan, working with city staff and consultant Adam Eliason of CivicStone, drew up seven amendments.

According to a city staff report, the bill “proposes clarity and changes to the existing surplus disposition process” under the Roberti Act “and provides a path for South Pasadena to ensure that all current tenants are given an absolute priority opportunity to purchase the property in which they reside.” It provides the city “a more favorable short and long-term community outcome regarding the disposition of the surplus properties” by allowing it to purchase and then resell the properties to a housing-related entity (HRE) of its choosing, giving it greater control over how the properties are managed and ensuring their availability as affordable housing for 55 years.

Under Roberti, the City can purchase the 68 properties at CalTrans’ original 1960s-era acquisition cost, which is estimated at $6.28 million and includes 56 single-family homes, 10 multi-family structures and two vacant properties.

While state code gives the City priority over HREs to buy the properties, the Roberti Act itself does not, the report explains. That means the city’s prerogative is subject to the whim of CalTrans, which is presently rewriting the code and reportedly intends to adopt a provision adding an inflation adjustment to the price.

“The city has very little protection if CalTrans decides to change the rules as long as they go through the appropriate rule-making process,” the report adds. “SB-381 will create law that would ensure the City remains ahead of other HREs and locks the City’s purchase price of any properties not purchased by the present tenants.”

The amendments proposed by the Ad Hoc Subcommittee ensure first priority to purchase to tenants in good standing, allows multi-family tenants the ability to form a co-op to buy their property, extends the time to close escrow to 9 from 6 months, clarifies that any “net proceeds” realized would be allocated to affordable housing in South Pasadena, and allows current tenants who buy a home with a historic designation to deduct the cost of any renovation from the price.

Starting at midnight, the Clerk played the recorded public comments of about 18 citizens. Over half, including veteran freeway fighters such as Joanne Nuckols and long-time CalTrans tenants, wanted the matter tabled or were opposed to any new legislation. Only two affirmatively supported SB-381 while others, such as South Pasadena Preservation Foundation President Mark Gallatin and Heritage Housing Partners executive director Charles Loveman offered more nuanced positions focusing on the inclusion of various terms or principles.

Council Member Jon Primuth, who two weeks earlier criticized the Ad Hoc Subcommittee’s approach as a “top-down solution” from which he felt he’d been excluded even though a majority of the properties at issue are in his district and complained the “fix was in” for an outcome of nonprofit affordable rental management, said he wanted the matter the tabled.

FILE PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | News | South Pasadena City Council member Jon Primuth

Council Member Mike Cacciotti agreed, saying the Council can revisit the issue at its next meeting.

Mayor Mahmud wanted to know what would change between then and now. “We have tried to explain the bill, but unfortunately there is rampant confusion” she said, citing the public comment.

Council Member Evelyn Zneimer was wary, citing public concern expressed by citizens such as Mary Urquhart and others over the risk of opening the Roberti legislation and citing the unresolved issue over decades of property tax revenue losses, which some estimates put at $3.5 million.

Other matters raised were the wisdom of an approach that does not deal with other homes in the 710 corridor in El Sereno and Pasadena; the question over whether the city has sufficient authority under current law to accomplish the same goal without the legislative risk by relying on the model used 20 years ago for a CalTrans home on Berkshire; and whether the city could really manage acquiring so many properties at one time.

Mahmud sought to address each complaint in turn. She said South Pasadena is unique in having its own city council unlike El Sereno, which as a part of Los Angeles would not be able to control HRE management as readily as the City could. The Berkshire situation was a unique one she said, and the plan the city envisions is not to acquire all the properties at once but to do so in phases, starting with vacant properties and in all cases after careful due diligence on each.

She argued failing to act now would throw South Pasadena CalTrans tenants “under the bus” because their homes will more likely be purchased by the growing hoard of HREs primed with affordable housing investment dollars.

“What I heard from the people is that the more they understand, the more they favor” the plan, Council Member Donovan said. Many of the points made by the public in opposition “really were not true.” He said another forum or two to “address the misinformation” could help. Absent action, the City is back to where it was 4 months ago, five years ago, ten years ago, he said. “Let’s break the log jam.’

But the later it got, the more apparent it became a supportive vote was not imminent. Cacciotti told the Mayor if she wanted his vote, there would have to be another meeting with SPPF and other community leaders and a second meeting to sharpen things up ahead of the next Council meeting. When she cut him off, he interrupted. “You spoke for 30 minutes. I got one minute. That’s not fair. That’s not the way to do this process. That’s why it’s failing right now, because you’ve run it the wrong way.” Raising his voice, he said, “What you’ve got to do is listen to the community. You’re not a king. This is a city council.”

Mahmud then proposed a special city council meeting.

Cacciotti said a more open forum would be better to give more opportunity to engage all stakeholders and take each matter point by point.

Zneimer agreed. “I don’t want residents to be limited to three minutes.”

“We will try,” the Mayor promised.

The meeting adjourned at 1:11 am.



Ben Tansey is a journalist and author. He grew up in the South Bay and is a graduate of Evergreen State College. He worked in Washington State as a reporter in a rural timber community and for many years as an editor for a Western electric energy policy publication based in Seattle.