LONG BEACH — Asserting that thousands of impoverished families have been driven from their homes by a redevelopment policy that favors the well-to-do, five low-income residents sued the city this week for allegedly failing "to develop and conserve decent, affordable housing."
The Superior Court action, filed jointly by the residents and a community housing coalition, asks that a judge order Long Beach officials to alter the city's general development plan approved in 1984 and, in the interim, block further destruction of low-income units unless they are scheduled to be replaced.
"Instead of developing and conserving housing affordable to its neediest citizens," the suit alleges, the City Council and its redevelopment agency have pursued "a relentless policy of encouraging the construction of housing units for upper-income families . . . while destroying several thousand housing units affordable to" low-income residents.
As a result, the suit contends, Long Beach is suffering "a critical shortage of affordable housing."
Heather Mahood, a deputy city attorney, said Long Beach officials had no immediate response to the suit because they had not been served with a copy.
But the residents' lawyer, Dennis L. Rockway of the Legal Aid Foundation of Long Beach, said city leaders are well aware of the essence of the complaints in the suit, which he expects to come before a judge within 90 days. The organization that filed the suit is the Ad Hoc Housing Coalition, which was formed when the city developed its general plan three years ago.
"The city has a legal and moral obligation to address the needs of all of its people," Rockway said in an interview. "None of us feel comfortable walking through the streets and passing by people who are forced to live on park benches."
Long Beach's failure to provide adequate housing, he said, "contributes to homelessness, displaces poor people from the city and exacerbates needless suffering for tens of thousands of families."
The suit accuses the city of failing to adequately assess the needs of low-income and moderate-income residents when the general development plan was prepared. Now, thousands of residents are forced to live "in overcrowded, substandard apartments," the suit says.
The suit also alleges that officials violated the law by not setting aside certain tax funds for use in increasing and improving the affordable housing within four redevelopment districts in the city.
Rockway said he expects city officials to argue that the law does not require them to set aside funds for those projects, and that they have been making other "substantial efforts" to assist needy residents through federal and state aid programs.
But Rockway called the city's effort "puny," noting that so many residents need help there is a two-year waiting list at one city assistance program. Long Beach has 36,000 households, he said, paying more than what federal officials define as the limit of "affordable" rent, 30% of income.
One of the five complaining residents, Janice A. Keller, 41, receives $498 a month from welfare and pays 65% of it to rent "a dilapidated one-room apartment" that she shares with her teen-age daughter, according to the suit.
Another, 59-year-old Edith McCabe, allegedly pays 80% of her $247 in monthly general relief "for an unheated substandard apartment infested with rats, mice and cockroaches. The toilet in her apartment is broken. An ill-fitting front door lets in drafts. Vagrants live on the unoccupied top floor of her building." In the last seven years, McCabe "has twice been forced to move" by the redevelopment agency from apartments she has rented in the downtown area, the suit says.
"There are other cities doing all kinds of stuff (to aid low-income residents) but Long Beach is not among them," Rockway said.
For example, in San Francisco and Santa Monica, developers are required to contribute to an affordable housing fund, he said. Los Angeles and Irvine have zoning regulations that require a certain percentage of low-income housing. And Palm Springs and Beverly Hills are among the cities with rent stabilization programs.