Think of all the ways we could be using Caltrans-owned property that Caltrans no longer needs. First among many possibilities, the transfer of many of those homes to private ownership – especially to ownership by longtime Caltrans tenants – creates the possibility of homeownership in an expensive community for people who couldn’t otherwise afford to own homes here. Beyond that, anything is possible. A blank slate gives us the room for an explosion of creativity. A community that talks constantly about affordable housing could actually make some, in a long path of innovation through the middle of town. We could reinvent and reinvigorate our community.
But the potential for creative brainstorming by an engaged community has run into an infuriating and pointless obstacle by the name of Diana Mahmud, who seems increasingly determined to do her spot-on imitation of the character Alec Guiness played in The Bridge on the River Kwai.
South Pasadena’s mayor, acting without the agreement of the full city council, has asked our state senator to introduce legislation, SB 381, that would transfer ownership of Caltrans properties to the City of South Pasadena – so the city could then manage them as a landlord, renting out Caltrans homes as city-owned homes. It’s the status quo with a new face, trading government ownership for government ownership. We could have a corridor of diversity and innovation, or we could have an ongoing corridor of government housing.
The spirit of this decision is flawlessly conveyed by the language of an extraordinary press release that recently announced a city-sponsored forum on the Caltrans houses: “The City of South Pasadena, in partnership with Senator Anthony J. Portantino, will host a community discussion of Senate Bill 381 on Monday, March 29, 2021, beginning at 6:00 p.m. The community forum is an opportunity for the public to ask questions and provide input on the bill as it advances in the legislative process.”
The bill is written, introduced, and advancing through the legislature, but we invite you to offer your input on the thing that’s already complete in form and moving forward. You may comment on our done deal. Here’s how the press release quoted Mahmud: “There will be multiple opportunities for community input as the bill wends its way through the Legislature and beyond.” If your comment would be that the bill shouldn’t wend its way through the legislature, peasant, you were not invited to offer that particular input. The City of South Pasadena values all comments that align perfectly with the decisions that have already been made.
It’s like I told my family this week: I have decided where we will go for our summer vacation. I have completed a full list of the places we’ll visit, I’ve planned the route in full, I’ve made all the necessary reservations, and I have a full and final schedule for the trip. I now invite your input on our travel plans.
The most remarkable feature of Mahmud’s recent maneuvers is that the idea of the city as a major landlord ignores the long administrative history of our small city government. Two years ago, confronted by activists who unsuccessfully demanded that the South Pasadena City Council pass a local minimum wage ordinance, the city manager responded that the city didn’t even have adequate staffing to prepare a staff report on the idea. This response has been a frequent way for the city to punt unwanted discussion away: We’re too small to manage something like that.
In fact, the bizarrely stagnant state of Caltrans houses in an abandoned freeway corridor is partially a product of city government inaction and ineptitude, as city officials have shown no ability to force the state to clean up its mess. Dozens of state-owned homes dwell endlessly in limbo because, in part, the city has shown no ability to pressure Caltrans or engage in effective negotiations with the state. So the solution is for the city government to take direct ownership of dozens of homes, and become a major landlord? Why should we not regard that as precisely the most labor-intensive and complex course of action for a city government that has made its administrative limitations abundantly clear?
As I have already written, the city solved a smaller version of this problem almost twenty years ago, compelling Caltrans to sell a dilapidated home on Berkshire Avenue so it could be restored by private owners. The person who led this effort, City Manager Sean Joyce, now serves as our interim city manager – a clear indication that the current poverty of thought and spirit in city government comes from the vacuum at the council level, not from the ability of city staff.
A more recent development also now offers a suggestion about a path forward, as the state has completed the sale of a Caltrans-owned lot adjacent to the Garfield House, reuniting the house and its full historic property. The sale was the result of negotiations between the state, the owners of the Garfield House, and the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation. While the details are complicated, SPPF has shown a way to do what our city government hasn’t been able to accomplish: They’ve moved a property from Caltrans ownership to private ownership by successfully negotiating with the state.