The City of South Pasadena is a black box. Problems are deposited inside the black box; then, at some future point, a course of action falls out of the black box, fully formed, and is delivered to the community as a done deal. Somehow we’ve built a city government that has no deliberative process. We have local feudalism: the Lords of the manor have decided what shall be done. Gather, peasants, and hear the news of your future.
The latest example of this remarkable performance of secret process was dropped into public view at the March 17 meeting of the South Pasadena City Council, in which the council was presented with a pair of fully formed proposals that could change the character of the community for decades to come.
First, the council was asked to “approve sponsorship” of a bill just submitted in the California Senate, SB 381, that would specifically allow the City of South Pasadena to buy surplus SR-710 properties from Caltrans. Several cities have a corridor of surplus Caltrans properties from the abandoned freeway extension, but the bill doesn’t address the whole problem; it only proposes to allow one city, South Pasadena, to buy homes from the state transportation agency. It’s a bespoke law, quietly stitched together just for us.
The new legislation doesn’t merely allow the city to take the homes from Caltrans for the purpose of getting them sold to private owners. Rather, as the staff report put it, the law if adopted would “allow the City to establish and transfer ownership to a city-approved non-profit housing related entity that would act as a steward over the portfolio of surplus properties and ensure high-quality property maintenance and property management practices.” Just like that, we’re landlords. Dozens of properties in the city will remain government-owned rental housing, taking them off the property tax rolls for decades to come.
Second, the council was invited to approve a contract for up to $180,000 with an affordable housing consultant, CivicStone. The formal “scope of work” for the contract is a bunch of gosh-what-will-we-do squishiness about exploring options with regard to Caltrans-owned housing in South Pasadena, and holding workshops to figure out what to do. But the cover letter from CivicStone’s managing partner makes it clear what the real scope of work is: “CivicStone, LLC proposes to perform the work needed for the City of South Pasadena (City) to determine, prepare, and implement a surplus property acquisition and rehabilitation strategy.”
Just like that, fully formed, as the state magically decides it wants to give South Pasadena its own law for Caltrans properties, the city is presenting a contract with a consultant who will help us become landlords for those properties
Problem: homes purchased from private owners by a government agency, Caltrans, using coercive process and eminent domain power for the purpose of building a freeway, are no longer needed for the freeway.
Solution: permanent government ownership by the City of South Pasadena, which will hire someone to manage the homes and rent them out on behalf of that city government.
If you live in South Pasadena, did you know you had agreed to that? While legislation was being written and introduced, and a contract was being prepared, did you know it was even being proposed?
Decades ago, government forcibly took ownership of a long corridor of homes from private owners — unnecessarily, it turns out. The clearest and most direct solution is to return to the condition that existed before government took unnecessary action, and return the homes to private ownership.
It’s an ongoing embarrassment that Caltrans can’t get this task done, especially in the light of a state law — the Roberti Law, adopted in 1979 — that defines a process for doing it. In light of the failure of the state transportation agency, it might make sense for cities to intervene. But the presumption of long-term city ownership emerging in South Pasadena as fully formed policy is not the inevitable answer, and not something the community has discussed or agreed to Nor do we need to invent a new process for long-term city owenership of Caltrans homes when we have a solution we’ve already implemented successfully in the past.
In 2000, under the leadership of a city manager by the name of — wait for it — Sean Joyce, the city bought a dilapidated Caltrans home from the state and sold it to a private owner for immediate rehabilitation. The city purchase and subsequent sale to private owners of a home on Berkshire Avenue worked, twenty years ago, to solve a problem — but has now been discarded as a solution to our current problem, without discussion and without explanation.
What’s going on, here? Why is our city being run this way?
So far the council as a whole has not agreed to pursue the course presented to it on March 17, and it’s a good start that a council majority is declining to go along with a process presented as complete, closed, and pre-determined. But we need to figure out how we got here in the first place. We need to do better, and we need to do better right now.
By Chris Bray | South Pasadena Resident
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