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BUSINESS PULSE : ORANGE COUNTY ISSUES & ATTITUDES : The Workers : Traffic, Costly Housing Can Send Them Back East

May 12, 1988|JOHN CHARLES TIGHE | Times Staff Writer

The Orange County company's final salary offer: $75,000 a year, plus $30,000 in moving costs and a one-time bonus of $20,000.

That was not good enough to lure the Tennessee job candidate, even though he had "fallen in love" with Orange County and would be getting a substantial pay raise by accepting the offer.

"The problem was housing. He had a large house on two acres back there, worth about $120,000. That wouldn't get him anything here," said Paul Brown, a partner at Domenico Brown Group, an executive search firm in Irvine.

Orange County employers are finding it increasingly difficult to attract workers because of the county's high housing costs and growing traffic congestion.

Housing and traffic, listed by participants in an executive outlook survey as the biggest drawbacks of doing business in Orange County, received equally bad marks from more than two dozen county workers interviewed by The Times.

While executives and employees alike cited the county's healthy economy and pleasant weather as strong attractions, the benefits have been overshadowed for some workers. The perceived problems are severe enough to cause people in other parts of the country to turn down job offers here and to prompt some county residents to look elsewhere for a brighter future.

"The only thing that keeps me here is my job," said Isabel Tavoularis, 52, who lives in Orange and is a senior electronic assembler at Rockwell International's Autonetics Electronics Systems operation in Anaheim. When she retires in three years, Tavoularis plans to return to Albuquerque, N.M., the hometown she left 29 years ago to seek a job in Orange County.

"It costs too much to live here," Tavoularis said.

Orange County's median resale home price set a national record at more than $190,000 in March. Only 24% of the county's households earned the minimum annual income of about $55,000 needed to purchase a house at that cost.

While there are plenty of jobs in the county, and the number is growing, many of the new positions are in retail and other customer-service businesses that do not pay enough for a worker to afford a home, or in many cases even an apartment.

Apartment rental costs in the county are about the same today as they were two years ago because of tremendous supply, but tenants frequently pay up to 20% more to live in Orange County than they would to rent comparable apartments elsewhere in the United States, according to Bill Kraus, executive vice president of the Apartment Assn. of Orange County. Kraus said the average rent of a two-bedroom apartment here is $600 to $700 per month.

"I know (home ownership) is prohibitive. I don't even think about owning a home here," said Charles Boulet, 26, a computer operator and magazine editor who lives in a Huntington Beach apartment with two friends.

To avoid big mortgages, some Orange County residents move to nearby Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where housing costs and apartment rentals are less.

Chery Hibbard moved to Mira Loma from Buena Park 10 years ago with her husband and children because the growing Riverside County community offers home buyers more in terms of space.

Hibbard, who commutes more than an hour each way to get to her job in Anaheim, said the travel is worth it. But several workers who live and work in Orange County said they already spend too much time commuting.

"The drive would be absolutely awful," said Kathy Watson, 62, who lives in a mobile home park in Garden Grove and commutes to a production job in Anaheim.

The same factors that aggravate workers will continue to cause problems for recruiters like Brown as they try to lure top corporate talent to Orange County.

The first negative note typically is the high cost of housing, recruiters agree. For some executives, the move can become a disaster.

"I've had people here for three months, and they say, 'Get me out of this place,' " said Brown, who specializes in recruiting executives for hotels, restaurants and theme parks.

But workers agree that the county's woes are largely the result of a healthy business climate.

"If we were in Detroit, we wouldn't be talking about traffic and housing costs, we'd be talking about the problem of getting a job," said Jerry Roberts, 53, a Rockwell manager. "That's a more severe worry."

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