Compton Cracking Down on Illegal Garage Conversions

Jessica Garrison, Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2009

Up and down Castlegate Avenue and other streets in East Compton, some of the garages show signs of the city’s recent crackdown on blight. Some gleam with fresh coats of paint. Others have clearly undergone remodeling, with doors newly fitted into the frames.

This pleases Marlene Townes, a 45-year resident of Compton. She sees it as yet another sign of her city’s transformation from nationwide symbol of urban violence and decay back into a proud, working-class city.

To Justa Ramirez and some of her neighbors, on the other hand, what has happened to their garages is an injustice with racial undertones that is taking money out of people’s pockets at the worst possible time.

Compton is cracking down on garages that have illegally been converted into living spaces. That includes, according to city manager Charles Evans, as many as a third of all the residents’ garages, some of which house entire families who can’t afford to rent a house or apartment. Others think the number could be even higher.

Compton, a city of about 93,000 south of Watts, is hardly unique. Across Los Angeles County, officials estimate that hundreds of thousands of people sleep each night in quarters originally built for automobiles–although they say it’s impossible to know for sure how many because the units are, by their nature, hidden behind closed doors.

In a region with a deep shortage of affordable housing, officials have long struggled with what to do about illegal garage units. Strictly enforcing all building codes could result in tens if not hundreds of thousands of people pushed onto the street, according to housing experts. But it is not good public policy to have children and families living in unsafe units–especially ones that do not have proper fire exits.

Los Angeles officials are considering a different approach. City Council President Eric Garcetti said he planned to propose that one neighborhood participate in a voluntary pilot project to help residents bring illegal units up to code and get them properly permitted.

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But Compton city officials, pointing to a 2007 fire that killed children living in a Long Beach garage, have said the converted garages pose a health and safety risk–and they have been putting liens on people’s properties until they turn their garages back into spaces for cars or formally legalize them with building permits.

City officials say they don’t know how many people have been cited, but said it has been hundreds.

In a city where tensions between blacks and Latinos have simmered for years, this has led to charges that the crackdown is not hitting the two populations equally.

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Bennett [Anita Bennett, a communications consultant] also said officials do not want to make anyone homeless. “It is a question of liability,” she said. “If the city knows there is an illegal conversion and they do nothing, then the city is liable.”

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But other longtime Compton residents say that the huge numbers of converted garages create blight and parking problems, the last things the city needs as it tries to overcome a negative image arising from years of violent gang-related crime.

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“It would be better for people to not live in a garage,” [Monsignor John S. Woolway, administrator of Sacred Heart church in Compton,] said. But the bottom line, he said, is “people need a place to live.”

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