In the wake of individuals taking up residence in the backyard of a South Pasadena home, the City Council has introduced an urgency ordinance that would give city staff the tools necessary to hold property owners accountable for allowing their pieces of land to be used for illegal tenancy.
It’s an issue brought to the attention of city staff and the City Council on numerous occasions as residents in the 1100 block of Windsor Place have complained about a neighbor allowing people to live in what some believe are unsanitary conditions in the rear of a home without access to running water, electricity or bathrooms.
“The property has become a huge concern for blight and basically is a tented backyard, which can pose threats for public safety in terms of fire or illnesses,” explained South Pasadena City Manager Sergio Gonzalez.
While the City Council introduced the ordinance to address a specific issue, concerns were raised during a lengthy discussion at the February 1 meeting that the amendments to the public nuisance policy were too broad and that it would unintentionally criminalize homeless people in the City of South Pasadena.
City Council members, along with city staff, pointed out that the intent of the modification was never to criminalize the homeless population in the city. Other concerns were brought forward during the meeting by the faith community, specifically a representative from Holy family Church, who said the ordinance might inhibit their ability to provide welfare services. “They felt they had a charge to do, and that is to provide support and services to homeless population,” explained Gonzalez.
“The city has been very proactive in dealing with the homeless population in South Pasadena,” continued the city manager. “Combined efforts from city departments have yielded what we believe are trailblazing projects for small cities like ours. It includes coordination with nonprofit organizations, the faith community and county facilities.
Intend, or not, South Pasadena resident John Strebalus, in attendance at the council meeting, believes it’s a homeless issue. “A lot of people these days are living in vehicles. People can’t afford apartments. I’m not happy with the (council’s) decision. I think they’re trying to ram this through and make it a show of appeasing this property owner. I think it should have been postponed with more input and transparency. Seems like they’re adjusting the law on the fly. You go back, look it over, research it and come back with something that works in my opinion.”
Adam Murray, executive director of the Inner City Law Center on Skid Row in Los Angeles and a local resident, added: “The message to me is the City Council and the city are dealing with a specific property, and they’re struggling on how to deal with it. I do not know the specifics of that property, but it does not seem right to me that they cannot deal with that with the current laws in the books. Everything that was described with that property is a classic public nuisance sort of situation. They have a very broad public nuisance law on the books. They ought to be able to deal with that situation with the existing law. Instead, what they’ve done is passed a very broad law that has all sorts of consequences that have clearly not been vetted, thought through or discussed. It’s a classic criminalization of homelessness statute.”
Neighbors in attendance reiterated their concerns about the condition of the property, which they say has deteriorated further during the period of occupancy, and poses several health and safety risks. Some expressed concern that the use of extension cords and exposed lighting poses a fire risk, particularly during recent rainstorms. Most disconcerting, according to the neighbors, is the number of times police have been called to address domestic disputes, noise complaints and threatening behavior toward multiple neighbors by the occupants.
Randy Troast, who lives next door to the home inhabiting the backyard neighbors, said: “I can’t comment on whether the city’s existing statutes were sufficient to take action against the owner as I’m not a lawyer. In November, when we discovered that individuals were living in the backyard of the property, we attempted to contact the owner of the property. When he was unresponsive, we began working with city staff to see what assistance they could provide.”
Troast’s neighbor, Erik Gammell, who has also raised concerns about those living outside in the rear of the home, added: “We will continue to look to the city for whatever assistance they can provide; however, the situation at the property has changed. The people in question are no longer occupying the back yard. It appears that they have broken into the house, a situation which has been confirmed by the owner. As a result, the owner stated that he had hired an attorney in late January, to assist him in a lawful eviction action. If true, we are hopeful that the situation will be resolved soon.”
After hearing from city staff, his fellow council members and the public, South Pasadena Mayor Michael Cacciotti stressed there was nothing in a city staff report referring to homelessness. “The intent of this is to deal with a specific issue,” he said, noting that the City Council, city officials and local police department are at the forefront among small cities in dealing with the homeless in South Pasadena. “We’re dealing with a dispute in a residential community and a landlord who is negligent. It has impacted our residents, and we’re going to take action. The intent (of all this) is to deal with a neighborhood issue. It has nothing to do with homelessness.”
The City Council then went on record to specifically narrow the implementation of the ordinance before passing it 5-0.