A month after flames engulfed a Garner Avenue apartment building, chain-link fence surrounds the rubble of the place. Metal bed frames and charred cars remain, and the air still reeks of smoke.
The Oct. 18 fire claimed three apartments and displaced 54 people, 22 of them permanently. Lessees qualified for emergency housing at a nearby Motel 6, but many of those 54 residents weren’t on the leases.
“They just scattered,” City Councilman Tony Barrera says.
As City Council prepares to set its 2015 goals at a strategic planning session Jan. 24, Barrera intends to make it a priority to end overcrowding. This building, where families hung sheets to convert two-bedroom apartments into three, is his case study.
“How can we stop this instead of re-creating it?” Barrera says, during a tour of the property in November. “The owner wants to rebuild. I’m against that.”
As Barrera inspects the fire damage, the landlord, Keith Slama, rolls up with an 8-foot ladder to prune trees. Barrera runs his idea past Slama: What if this building were razed to make way for a small park nestled between buildings?
Slama’s position: no way. He bought the place barely a year ago and needs to collect rent to pay off his mortgage.
Besides, he says, overcrowding isn’t his fault: “You give them the rules, but you can’t stand guard. They’re going to do what they’re going to do.”
That’s why it’s such a challenge to tackle overcrowding. Barrera says he hears frequent complaints from constituents, but they ask him not to notify code enforcement officials. Interventions could put residents on the streets.
“There is definitely an increase in the need for affordable housing,” says Grace Aston, planning manager for the city’s Housing Division.
Aston is beginning to collect data from city residents as part of a five-year plan the city is required to submit to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to receive housing and neighborhood funding for 2015-20.
About a third of Salinas residents – as compared with 21 percent countywide – live in overcrowded conditions, according to the 2010 five-year plan.
Last year, Salinas received about $2.6 million from HUD to spend on housing and neighborhood improvements like lighting and disability access. The county received $865,000. Sinceredevelopment agencies dissolved, eliminating a funding source for inclusionary housing, the HUD money is critical, Aston says: “It’s basically our only source right now.”