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Demolition Derby

Christopher Gardner

Caltransients: Caltrans has ordered tenants like 18-year renter Ramona Atilano out to make way for the widening of Highway 87.

Residents living along Guadalupe Parkway have known for 20 years that one day the walls of their affordable rental houses would literally come tumbling down. They just never knew when.

By Richard Sine

Maureen Fernandes remembers renting a duplex on Guadalupe Parkway nine years ago, shown around the modest single-story house by an employee of the California Department of Transportation. "They're going to make this into a freeway," she remembers the man representing Caltrans saying. Then he added with a chuckle, "But they've been saying that for 20 years."

Now, it seems, the talk is turning to action. On March 20 Caltrans gave Fernandes a 90-day notice to move. Last Monday, sanitary workers took away her trash cans along with her trash, apparently on the misunderstanding that everyone on the street was ready to leave to make way for two more lanes of traffic on the crowded corridor connecting Highway 101 and San Jose International Airport. Fernandes was indignant.

The bulldozers are scheduled to arrive in June. Fernandes, her neighbors, and the homeless activists with whom they have formed an alliance say they are willing to lie in front of those bulldozers if necesary to ensure that the authorities give them a fair shake. They say they don't believe demolition is necessary yet. And when it is, they want money to assist them in the move.

The folks living along Guadalupe Parkway in the Rosemary Garden neighborhood apparently knew exactly what they were getting into when they snapped up Caltrans' property at rock-bottom rental prices. More than half the residents of the 79 housing units, mostly duplexes, contained in 40 homes on Guadalupe have taken off in the last couple of years, leaving a lot of boarded-up homes along the sun-drenched street. And for the 20 or so families that remain, this story is about a fumbling game of expectations, a lingering sense that something isn't quite fair.

Shelby Charette bounces a little girl on her knee outside her Guadalupe Parkway home, which doubles as her day-care center. Charette, like Fernandes, signed a rental agreement with Caltrans with a clause noting her new digs were only "temporary." The clause added that no relocation assistance would be guaranteed. But Charette moved in 24 years ago, in 1972.

Back in the 1960s, the widening of Highway 87 from four to six lanes, and the removal of a few vexing traffic lights, looked imminent. Some residents were even relocated by the county. But as funding dried up due to budget cuts, Caltrans bought the property and rented it to residents like Charette. The project remained stalled until the early 1990s. By then, rush-hour traffic had slowed to a standstill in front of Charette's home. Guadalupe is now considered the most clogged corridor in the county, with commuters sometimes idling a half hour at the Airport Parkway traffic light.

Faced with trickling taps for freeway financing, Caltrans and San Jose worked together in a halting process that kept the Guadalupe residents hanging by a thread. The city had money to demolish the homes a couple of years ago, but held back because county Measure A, which would have funded the project, was tied up in the courts. (The state Supreme Court struck down the measure last year.)

In response, the city decided to drop several projects that were left only partially funded and funnel money only to the most pressing ventures. And both San Jose and Santa Clara County had tagged the Guadalupe expansion as the region's top transportation priority.

Now Caltrans and San Jose say they are ready to begin the $168 million project in June. This fiscal year, says Larsen, $22 million has been allocated to demolish the homes, buy up some land near the parkway, construct a soundwall, build a detour road and do other preparations for the segment between Airport Parkway and Highway 880.

Yet the freeway's builders acknowledge that all the delays have led to a problem: "Their outrage comes from the fact they've seen so many delays, it's like the boy who cries wolf," says Jeff Weiss, Caltrans spokesman. "They don't really believe us when we say now we have the money, we're going to do the project."

Broken expectations are, however, just the half of it. Fernandes has a daughter who will graduate from nearby Lincoln High School in June. She can walk to work from where she lives, because she hates driving. She sees no reason to move unless she is quite sure she has to. "We understood this would be temporary but we never got a timeline," she says. "We got conflicting stories."

A single parent, Fernandes knows it would be nearly impossible in her school district to find a new place for her and her daughter for $680, the price she has paid for her duplex for nine years. Many current residents moved into Guadalupe Parkway under a now-expired affordable housing project sponsored by Caltrans: they pay anywhere from $200 to $680 in rent. (A 1993 environmental impact report by the city acknowledged that relocation would have a "severe" impact on the 203 residents then living on the street; more than half the households had an income under $18,000.)

Charette, for her part, no longer considers her 24-year residence "temporary." She has built her day-care business over many years, making her reluctant to move. "Once they demolish these houses, how long will this place just sit here like some big mud hole?" Charette asks.

"Caltrans won't say any records or budgets when we ask to see them," Fernandes says. "They say it's confidential. When we ask for relocation assistance, they say it's a gift of public funds." Since 1994, Fernandes and her neighbors have gotten notices about every three months that the project was imminent and they would be told to move in March, June or September. With every notice, some of the neighbors seem to have simply dug in their heels a little deeper.

Much of the neighbors' anger stems from the feeling that Caltrans has let the street go to seed as the construction date approaches. Last year they held a news conference in which they showed reporters broken windows and litter in the vacant units and peeling paint in the inhabited ones.

Since then, Caltrans appears to have cleaned up its act with the vacant units. But residents still complain of lax maintenance. Arthur Chacon says when the water pipe from his washing machine plugged up recently, Caltrans was no help. "They said, 'If you don't like it, then why don't you move out?'," Chacon says.

Fernandes and Charette say that many residents along the block, when they call Caltrans for maintenance, have gotten similar responses. "When they call the building department, they hear, 'If it costs too much money, you'll have to move out.' Or they try to get you to move to an empty unit [in better repair].'"

Weiss, the Caltrans spokesman, denied these charges, saying Caltrans was doing all it could to keep the residences "decent, safe and sanitary." He added, however, that Caltrans has told the neighbors that it will not do cosmetic repairs, like painting interiors or exteriors. "Our main interest is in building projects, not in being in the housing industry," Weiss says.

Christopher Gardner

Backup Plan: Boarded-up homes facing Guadalupe Parkway await demolition to make way for Caltrans' expansion. The Community Homeless Alliance thinks that in the meantime, they could be put to good use.

Caltrans has faced criticism before for lax landlording. Residents of a neighborhood in South Pasadena, angry with Caltrans' maintenance of 600 homes in a swath of land long planned as a freeway corridor, got a court order requiring the agency to keep their houses in good repair. "Caltrans is an abysmal landlord," said Tony Rossman, special counsel to South Pasadena. "They always have money for ambitious new projects, but they always claim a budget shortage when it comes to being a responsible landlord."

State Assemblyman Bill Hoge, who represents South Pasadena, has succeeded in ordering an audit this year of Caltrans' Division of Right-of-Way, which manages property owned by Caltrans. Hoge claims the unit is fraught with "incompetence and mismanagement of taxpayer money." He believes that Caltrans has neglected to maintain and refused to sell property purchased to make way for highways, many of which may never be built.

Meanwhile, the neighbors have formed an alliance with the local Community Homeless Alliance. The homeless activist group fears that some of the current Guadalupe residents may become homeless after the demolition. The neighbors have voiced support for letting the group move homeless families into the boarded-up, vacant homes, once the families have passed a screening process. The Alliance has started lobbying legislators on the issue.

The Alliance hopes for a repeat of a situation in 1993, when it moved six homeless people into a vintage River Street District house owned by the Santa Clara Valley Water District. The district had left the homes vacant for four years because of a flood-control project that faced repeated delays. When the homeless moved in, the district warned that they would be kicked out again in a few months. But the project was delayed even further, and the new residents ended up living at the house for another two years--until last year, when the house was flooded again.

The neighbors are also considering a suit against Caltrans. "If a tenant moves in 10 years after a project is planned, they have to wonder how realistic a [temporary residence] clause is," says their attorney, Amanda Wilson. "My understanding is that many were told by Caltrans mangers not to worry about that clause, that Caltrans would take care of them when the time came. This is not the first time this has happened in the state, and probably not the last time."

Caltrans has balked at the idea of allowing the homeless to move into the houses. Weiss says it would be "extremely unfair" to the former residents who moved out because they knew the freeway was coming, to allow another group of people to move in. Caltrans has placed a "no re-rent" policy along Guadalupe Parkway.

Both Caltrans and the city insist that they're not crying wolf this time. The freeway will be built in stages, and they say any further delay might cause them to lose funding programmed for the next few years. "We delayed any demolition of houses until we were assured we could go forward," says Larsen of Public Works. "Now we have the money and if we don't spend it, we could lose it. ... We want to send the message to the state that this is a priority project in the region. And that will assure us future money for construction will be available. Some project in Southern California could be ready to go, and if the state sees that 87 is held up it could divert our money to somewhere else."

As Fernandes sees it, the houses along Guadalupe Parkway are being used as what she calls "bargaining chips" in a deal among the many funders of the project: the city, the state and the federal government. If the bargain works, the city hopes to have an uncongested freeway all along Guadalupe by the year 2000. If it doesn't, there will be a mudhole where affordable houses once stood.

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From the April 11-17, 1996 issue of Metro

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