Orange County's considerable wealth has sometimes skewed government formulas, such as the one that defines low income as any household earning almost $40,000 per year.
As a result, the county's official plan to provide housing to the poor has focused mostly on building subsidized homes for those earning $40,000 to almost $60,000 per year. And that has resulted in little housing aid for the poorest of the county's poor.
"It doesn't make sense," said Scott Mather, head of the county's Homeless Issues Task Force. "It's not logical."
So advocates for the homeless were thankful Wednesday when county supervisors created a new category for aid to those of "very low income"--up to $25,000 per year.
The Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted a plan Wednesday that is intended to set the county's housing goals for the next five years. The most significant change is this shifting of housing assistance and money to the lowest income groups, in hope of reducing homelessness in the county.
"I believe this is taking the right direction," Supervisor Don R. Roth said. "It is needed."
When the supervisors adopted their last housing plan in 1983, the county's median household income was low enough that those on the bottom of the economic scale were covered by the county's plan.
Since then, however, the county's median household income has risen, so much of the county's housing aid has gone to those earning up to $60,000 a year, even though there is still a large population at the bottom of the scale.
"Because Orange County has such a high income, there are those who fell through the cracks," Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder said after the vote. "Those are the ones that this plan addresses."
Under federal regulations, low income is defined as 80% of the county's median household income; in Orange County, that is $39,933. Moderate income ranges from 80% to 120% of the county's median income, $39,993 to $59,989. The county's median household income as of April was $49,916.
For those surprised by the definition of low income as $40,000 or less, Wieder said: "Everything is relative. That's what the trade-off is to live in wonderful Orange County."
In reviewing the 1989 Housing Element of the General Plan, the County Planning Commission also endorsed adding the "very low income" category earlier this month.
The commission also recommended that the county set a goal of building 1,207 homes and apartments in the next five years for people in that category.
Even that goal is far short of the 3,000 homes needed to meet the county's housing needs for those of very low income, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments.
But the supervisors decided not to establish a housing goal in that category. They said the 1,207 units could be too expensive for the government. Also, if the goal was not achieved, the state could penalize the county by withholding grants.
Instead, supervisors ordered staff members to determine how much very-low-income housing the county can afford and to report back in December.
Lower-cost housing is built by private developers with subsidies provided by the county. The amount of the subsidy is set project by project. Very-low-income housing is the most expensive to build, because revenue from rents is minimal, so the subsidy has to be higher.
In the past five years, since the county housing plan was last updated, 500 homes have been built for those earning less than $25,000 yearly, officials said. They said much of that was built with federal help, not county aid.
Since 1983, 3,402 subsidized homes or apartments have been built for people of low or moderate income.
At the supervisors' meeting Wednesday, nine homeless advocates from throughout the county praised the supervisors for the new policy but, at the same time, gave the supervisors an hourlong education on how serious the homeless issue is and how this new step--while significant--is only a start.
"Very-low-income housing is so critically needed by so many in Orange County," said Mather of the Homeless Issues Task Force. "The number of 1,207 is only a beginning."
Jean Forbath, director of the Share Our Selves community center in Costa Mesa, told supervisors: "I think Orange County is becoming like a Third World country, and I don't mean that to be threatening. We have unbelievable wealth and grinding poverty. Housing is the basic element keeping people in that grinding poverty. "
Housing officials estimate that there are 8,000 to 10,000 homeless people in the county.
Other Elements of Plan
In other elements of the housing plan, the county seeks to encourage development of housing in business and industrial parks, to pursue vigorously more money from the state or federal governments and to combat current laws that allow easy eviction of renters.
"Those who are evicted become the homeless," said Joe Caux, director of the Orange County Renters Assn.