Housing in Pasadena: A Zero-Sum Game?

While Caltech is able to house all undergraduate students who wish to live on campus, this is not the case for graduate students. Only G1’s are guaranteed housing from the Housing Office; thereafter, graduates must enter an extremely competitive lottery to live in Caltech-owned apartments.

In an effort to provide more housing, Caltech bought an apartment building at 400 S Mentor on May 31, 2023. According to Redfin Real Estate, it was sold to Caltech for $7.5 million and contains 21 rental units of different sizes.

On June 8th, Stephanie Berrocal, Associate Director of Housing, informed the tenants via email of the change in ownership, and that the tenants had until the end of September to move out. This email included a formal notice of eviction. They specified their desire to renovate the building before using it as graduate student housing and their desire to provide the tenants “with as much time as possible to relocate.”

However, the tenants of the building felt this was unfair and too little notice. They created a tenants’ union, the Phoenix 400 (named after the address of the building), and held a press conference on June 28th. This press conference highlighted the impactful effect of Caltech purchasing these homes had on residents.

Their primary concerns surrounded the abrupt relocation that these residents would have to endure. Not only would this cause financial instability but security issues for the residents. One resident commented, “I have lived in this building for 22 years," tenant Valerie Murphy said. “My mother lived in this building from 1990 until her death in 2001. At that time I moved into her unit and made 400 South Mentor my permanent home. I want it to remain my permanent home” (ABC News). This press conference sparked several news articles in the community, many putting Caltech in a negative light.

On July 3, Ken Hargreaves, Caltech’s Assistant VP for Strategy Implementation, emailed the tenants acknowledging that the June 8th eviction notice had “caused great concern” and stated that Caltech would work with each tenant individually to “determine the correct path forward” and to “withdraw the notice by mutual consent.” The email offered no concrete plan to the tenants except an offer to meet with individual tenants.

In a public statement, the Phoenix 400 emphasized that their members are “eager to meet [Hargreaves] and the Caltech representatives as a group.” Signed by members of the Phoenix 400 living in 14 different units, the statement urged Caltech to use a delicate approach and take the group seriously.

On September 19th, Caltech sent out an updated offer to every tenant individually. It stated that “the Institute remains committed” to the plan of converting the building to student housing, “but is transitioning the building as units become available.” The offer, which is the latest at the time of writing, allows them to move out with a relocation assistance package (as mandated by the Pasadena Tenants Protection Ordinance), the amount of which is determined by several factors and is around $10,000 dollars. However, Caltech will only provide this assistance if the tenants move out before the 30th of June, 2024.

The City of Pasadena recently passed a new tenants’ protection ballot measure (Article XVIII - The Pasadena Fair And Equitable Housing Charter Amendment) in an effort to shift some of the power from landlords to tenants. Passed on November 11th, 2022, the measure includes much stronger protections for tenants, including a requirement for notice of termination of tenancy for cases such as this. It also calls for more relocation assistance to be provided to tenants. However, as an institution of higher education, Caltech is exempt from the protections made in this bill. Also exempt are rental units in hospitals, monasteries, non-profit homes for the aged, and several other similar programs.

Caltech stated in the September 19th email that: “you may […] remain in your unit for as long as you see fit, subject to the terms of your rental agreement.” However, many tenants are currently on a month-to-month lease. In a statement to the Tech, the Phoenix 400 called this language “nebulous and vague.”

When reached for comment, Caltech’s Chief Communications Officer stated that Caltech’s “goal throughout the process has been to meet the needs of our campus community while also being responsive to and understanding of the needs of our neighbors.” In addition, they sought to be “open to dialogue with the existing tenants during the conversion process,” as well as being “transparent and communicative” with their plans.

However, the Phoenix 400, told the Tech that they are “still concerned over Caltech’s breach of trust by their previous actions.” They added, “Caltech’s refusal to acknowledge us as a tenant group and refusal to issue formal rescindment of the previous eviction continue to strain our trust in Caltech’s responsibility as steward of the community.”