Illustration by Jamie Morton

Leo Herbert, a lively and outspoken man in his mid seventies, still remembers April 21, 1971, the day he received a letter from the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) that said it needed to purchase the rights to his property.

Herbert’s home, located in the foothills of Hayward, California, 15 minutes south of Oakland, sat in the middle of a 10-mile corridor of land where Caltrans planned to develop a freeway that would link I-580 in Castro Valley with I-680 in Fremont.

“They said, ‘We need your house for a freeway, so [if] you go out and find a house that you want, then we will give you a fair price’,” said Herbert from his back patio, motioning to the vacant field behind his home where Caltrans planned to build the freeway.

In preparation for the construction of the “Foothill Freeway,” in some instances Caltrans utilized eminent domain, the process by which the state seizes private property, to purchase 620 parcels of land in the Hayward area during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Herbert was not threatened by eminent domain. He resisted the demands of Caltrans while others in the area were bought out by the agency, which then began to rent out the newly acquired property to tenants while freeway plans stalled.

During the next three decades, a series of lawsuits were filed against Caltrans by local environmental organizations and tenants, stymieing Caltrans’ freeway plans in Alameda County courts until the project was abandoned completely in the mid-2000s.

While freeway plans languished, Caltrans became one of the largest landlords in the Hayward area, amassing several hundred properties in a corridor from the Hayward foothills and Mission Boulevard east to the west, and north to south from unincorporated Alameda County to Industrial Boulevard in south Hayward.

Caltrans’ takeover of properties has had a lasting impact on neighborhoods like Herbert’s, which sits on the edge of the Hayward foothills, just east of downtown.

“That little house across the road was immaculate. You know what they use that for now? Storage,” said Herbert, pointing to the boarded-up home opposite his that was owned by his neighbor prior to the Caltrans buyout in 1971. “It’s a shame. They could have rented it out to so many people, people wanted to buy it, but they wouldn’t sell. It’s just a shed now.”

As of late, the proposed sale of these vacant Caltrans properties, along with hundreds of other occupied residencies owned by the state, has drawn controversy. Some long-term tenants who have lived in the constant shadow of the proposed freeway are unable to purchase the Caltrans residences they have come to call home.

“We have been given no definite time of when we have to be out, but it’s still annoying that we’re going to get a letter from Caltrans saying, ‘OK, it’s time to move,’” said Shannon Stewart, a Hayward Caltrans tenant who resides just east of downtown Hayward.

In 1970, La Raza Unida, an organization composed of predominantly low-income Hayward residents, brought a suit against the state of California which called for the blocking of the freeway proposal on the grounds that the project violated local environmental standards.

By the mid-1970s, plans to connect I-580 in Castro Valley with I-680 in Fremont were abandoned by the state, and an alternative plan dubbed the “Hayward Bypass” was implemented. The plan proposed the connection of I-580 in Castro Valley with Industrial Boulevard in South Hayward by means of a 5.3-mile corridor that would run through the Hayward foothills.

Sherman Lewis, who founded the Hayward Area Planning Association (HAPA) in 1978, has spent three decades fighting this proposal.

As he sat in the basement of his Hayward home surrounded by boxes and file cabinets full of research pertaining to the proposed freeway construction, Lewis recalled some of the factors that drove him to take a stand against the project.

“I was involved because I was pissed off, and you don’t want to piss off intellectuals,” Lewis said. “This was an extremely destructive project in many ways, they were subsidizing driving, and as a result destroying the environment.”

In 2001, HAPA and Citizens for Alternative Transportation (CATs) won a case against the state, which banned use of a half-cent sales tax titled Measure B, which was implemented in 1986 to fund the “Hayward Bypass” project.

According to Lewis, during the late 1990s, city leaders had performed what he called a “bait and switch” on the ballot, which lead voters to believe that Measure B funds were used to fund an alternative transportation project through Hayward, not the bypass project. He said the local government knew voters would not have approved due to its intended route through the Hayward foothills.

In 2004, “Hayward Bypass” project plans were all but ended for good by judges in an Alameda County appeals court.

Caltrans, deeming some homes ineligible to be purchased, leave some Hayward neighborhoods littered with vacant houses

By December 2009, after it became known Caltrans was planning to begin the sale of the properties, a settlement between Caltrans, the city of Hayward and Caltrans tenants was reached, designating which of a selected 193 Caltrans homes located in the corridor would qualify for purchase by tenants.

According to the settlement, structures that do not conform to single-family residence zoning qualifications are deemed ineligible for purchase.

The settlement also provides relocation assistance in the form of lump sum stipends for tenants unable to purchase their Caltrans homes, which is calculated according to the number bedrooms  and income level of single family residences. For example, a three-bedroom single family residence occupied by a low-income family would receive $22,310, which could be then used for moving expenses and relocation costs.

Stacy Sorensen, who works for the City of Hayward as the 238 Caltrans project manager, will monitor the sale process of the 107 Caltrans homes deemed eligible for purchase by the settlement.

“We work as the facilitator, the administrative piece to the pie, we work with tenants on receiving stipend amounts and work with tenants on purchasing their home or another home if they so choose,” Sorensen said. “We are looking forward to helping tenants make the best decision for them and their family both emotionally and financially, if you will.”

Since the 2009 settlement, nearly 50 Caltrans tenants have opted into the Opportunity to Purchase Program (OPP), which allows to buy their Caltrans homes if they qualify for purchase.

According to Sorensen, residents eligible to purchase their homes and have taken stipend checks, awarded to tenants in January of 2010, have until July 6th, 2012 to opt back into the program.

Although no Caltrans homes have been sold to tenants as of yet, Sorensen remains hopeful that in the coming months the first homes will be sold.

“We have a couple that are close, but as of today none have been sold,” Sorensen said. “There have been eight properties approved by Caltrans that are now ready to be purchased.”

Marilyn Batler, a long-term Caltrans tenant and Hayward resident, lives in one of the 45 homes deemed ineligible for purchase.

Batler said unless her house is declared a historical landmark, she will have to accept relocation assistance provided by the settlement and move elsewhere.

“They told me I would have to move in three months because of the freeway construction plans and I said ‘OK, whatever,’” said Batler, recalling when she began renting her Hayward Caltrans home in 1981. “If that would have happened back then it would have been alright, but after 30 years you kind of make a place your home.“

Batler’s home doesn’t meet single-family residence requirements zoning qualifications, and is not eligible for purchase.

“The way I saw it, they picked and chose the properties that they wanted for themselves. In my case they rezoned it from single-family residence to high density, then they turned around and said it is ineligible to purchase because the zoning didn’t conform,” said Batler, whose home and accompanying land was appraised at around $225,000.

While the 2009 settlement provided relocation assistance on behalf of the city of Hayward, Batler has developed a strong connection to her home and is fighting for the right to buy her property.

“Caltrans said, ‘We will offer you another house on the corner.’ No, I want the house that I have lived in for 30 years, I don’t want to move,” Batler said. “I have lived here half my life. You think I want to pack up and go?”

Some tenants who do have the option to purchase the homes they rent do not see this as a wise investment, largely due to the poor condition of the structures.

“The appraiser basically told me that I could never get a loan on my house, the retaining wall is falling back, looks like there is water leaking in through the foundation, there is a sink hole in the back yard that is falling in because Cal Trans didn’t put a replacement on leaking gutters,” said Bob Swanson, a longtime Caltrans tenant who lived in unincorporated Alameda County.

Swanson feels years of property neglect on behalf of Caltrans created an unrealistic purchasing scenario, and took the lump sum stipend provided through the 2009 settlement.

“There is no chance for me here, so I took my stipend and bought a house in Castro Valley and I am very happy with it,” Swanson said. “The cost to bring the Caltrans house up to code would be an incredible amount of money, and if I can’t get a loan on it then I can’t buy, so I bought a house that’s in way better shape and it works for me.”

Some long-term tenants who have lived with the Caltrans freeway project for years are unable to purchase the residences they have come to call home.

Shannon Stewart, a Caltrans tenant for nearly two decades, lives on a stretch of Fourth Street just east of downtown Hayward, where nearly 10 Caltrans houses sit vacant.

Stewart, whose home is surrounded on three sides by vacant Caltrans properties, claims the local Caltrans agent evicted several tenants more than five years ago, and the houses were never rented again due to plans to begin to sell off properties.

Although Caltrans public affairs spokesperson Tracy Brews acknowledged that most recently some Caltrans properties have been offered for sale, no timeline could be provided on when vacant houses like those in Stewart’s neighborhood would be sold.

“We are in a real dead spot,” Stewart said. “I keep my Christmas lights on year-round because the street is so dark. We petitioned the city of Hayward to put up another street light, but we got turned down.”

Stewart, who is upset with both state and city responses to the problem, said vacant homes attract suspicious activity to the neighborhood.

“We have people walking down our driveway all the time — it’s actually kind of scary,” said Stewart while, motioning down to the pathway which runs past her door and leads to a vacant home sitting virtually right behind her home.

Stewart also claims that Caltrans and police are largely unresponsive to the problems of trespassers. As of press time, Caltrans could not be reached for comment regarding this matter.

“We call the police [and] they don’t care; we call Caltrans they don’t care either,” Stewart said. “We have actually told them ‘There are people in the house right now, we have just watched them walk in and they are squatting on state property.’ But this is Hayward, they have real crime to fight.”

Stewart, who is not eligible to purchase her house due to its location on a land parcel with three other homes, plans to take her lump sum stipend and move.

According to City Project Manager Stacy Sorensen, the fate of Caltrans properties ineligible for purchase by tenants is still up in the air.

“Caltrans may sell them at auction, they may demolish them, they may leave them as they are, they may have the developer come in and take over,” Sorensen said.

Bunker Hill, which sits below Cal State East Bay, is unique in that it contains a substantial amount of the 41 homes labeled ‘unclassified’ by the September 2009 settlement. This means there has not yet been a decision on whether the homes will be made eligible for sale to tenants or sold to a private developer.

According to Lewis, longtime anti-Caltrans freeway activist, much of this decision rests on prospective development plans and the infrastructure of Bunker Hill, as much of area requires road widening and the installation of new sewage systems.

“One of the issues up there is that they need lot line adjustments, so determining the boundaries is one of the things we need to move forward with,” Sorenson said. “We are still talking with Caltrans about what that process looks like, then we can do a proper appraisal of properties.”

This could be a lengthy process, one that Melanie Cedeno, a seven-year resident of the neighborhood, believes may not be worth the wait, especially in light of the current state of her home.

“Up here, the biggest issue is retaining walls — the dirt is falling and they don’t do that stuff,” Cedeno said. “If they did a few things, with the foundation or any of the few things that need to be fixed before you a buy a home, I really would like to buy it, because it is really nice up here.”

While Cedeno and other tenants no longer live in the shadow of the proposed construction of a phantom freeway, uncertainty surrounding future living arrangements looms as they wait for a decision on when Caltrans will begin to sell off more property.

For tenants like Stewart, Caltrans’ mismanagement of a once well kept neighborhood has had such an effect that moving on will not seem as difficult a task a initially conceived.

“If the condition of the neighborhood was kept up I would have liked to stay,” Stewart said. “But it’s just no fun living in a dead zone.”