Orange County Superior Court will be a battleground between the haves and the have-nots this morning, as a handful of low-income Southland residents take on the City of Newport Beach--an affluent, seaside community they contend wants to keep them out because they don't make enough money and their skin is the wrong color.
The case is Davis vs. Newport Beach. And possibly at stake is the future of affordable housing throughout California.
Experts say that Davis vs. Newport Beach, which begins today in Department 17, is the first lawsuit of its kind to be tried in the western United States. The suit contends that Newport Beach's land-use policies deliberately exclude all but the very rich, and it asks the court to force the city to build more affordable housing.
"This case will ultimately map out the extent of the duty that cities have to ensure low-cost housing is constructed and how those cities must use their police powers to do so," said Crystal Sims, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Orange County who helped file the suit in 1980.
Many local residents contend that living in this seaside mecca--where new, single-family homes can cost from $600,000 to $1 million and boat slips are a common backyard feature--is a privilege that must be earned. City officials say Newport Beach already has homes for the poor.
Mayor Philip Maurer has lived in Newport Beach for 33 years, and "the only thing I know is we already have low- and moderate-income housing all over this city," he said. "I think we've done everything that we possibly can."
"This suit challenges the city's land-use regulations as excluding low-income and minority persons," she said. "We have argued that through the (housing) densities the city allows, and other means, the city has in effect excluded these persons from residing there.
Davis vs. Newport Beach and similar lawsuits tried on the East Coast in the 1970s pose "a classic confrontation between the nation's haves and have-nots," said Mark Baldassare, a professor of urban sociology at the University of California, Irvine.
"These cases focus on questions of race, status, environmental protection and future American growth," Baldassare commented last year. "They set the stage for conflicts in suburbs that could become as volatile an issue in the '80s as busing was in the '70s."
In the late 1970s, the Newport Beach City Council took several actions that Sims contends impaired the future of low-cost housing in the city and eventually triggered the lawsuit. The first was its treatment of a proposed housing development, dubbed the Ford Aeronutronic project.
When the complex was proposed, Sims said, it had 600 units--50 of which were designated for low-income tenants. But by the time the project was approved, she said, it had been decreased to 300 units and the affordable units were cut out completely. Finally, in 1978, the city dropped out of a federal block-grant program that is local governments' major subsidy for low-cost housing.
"Between density restrictions and the failure to participate in the most significant federal subsidy program this country has and doing things such as removing an affordability component, those were the major things that led to the suit," Sims said.
Most of the nine plaintiffs suing Newport Beach are low-income Southern Californians who pay high rents for substandard housing, Sims said. They would like to live in Newport Beach for its amenities and its bustling job market, but they cannot afford it.
Olive Davis lives in a Santa Ana mobile home and spends more than 30% of her income on housing, Sims said. Alfredo and Maria Ortiz are a Latino husband and wife. They live in Santa Ana with their seven children in inadequate housing that costs them more than 50% of their income, the lawyer said.
Sharion Garrison is a black Cypress resident who lives with her two children and who also spends more than 50% of her income on housing. And Dorothy M. McAleavey lives in Long Beach's Carmelitos housing project, "a crime-ridden, environmentally unsound public housing project operated by the Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles," the plaintiffs' complaint said. "The unit in which she lives has been condemned as substandard by the city of Long Beach."
According to Sims, the city is not shouldering its share of the region's responsibility to provide affordable housing. And she contends it is denying the plaintiffs an opportunity to work in Newport Beach, "one of the major employment areas in the county." Because even if people like Davis and Garrison got jobs in the city, the commute would be almost prohibitive, Sims said.
"If you've ever tried to get to Newport Beach in the morning and leave in the afternoon, you can see that there are significant numbers of people who work there and cannot get housing," she said. "Starting teachers, firemen, policemen cannot afford to live in any of the 'affordable' units in the city."