Hidden Hills is a community that tries to live by its name. It has just two entrances, both gated and guarded. Million-dollar homes sit behind spacious front yards, oak trees and white ranch-style fences.
It is a town without apartments, without condominiums and without, well, poor people.
But now the city is grappling with a state mandate that it provide low-cost housing. A proposal before the City Council to annex land outside the gates and build 46 units of multifamily housing for senior citizens has resulted in a controversy that has shaken the serene 2,000-member community west of Woodland Hills.
Two stormy public meetings have pitted opponents of the plan against the city's attorney, who is backing it. In the second meeting last week, an uncertain City Council voted unanimously to conduct an informal advisory poll of the residents.
"This is a real sensitive issue for some of us in this community," said resident Susan Porcaro. "Yes, there is a need for low-income housing. No, we don't want it on our street. . . . We worked our tails off to have this house."
Hidden Hills was incorporated in 1961 to retain the area's rural, equestrian quality and to fight off a planned extension of Burbank Boulevard through the town. Some residents say opposition to the affordable housing plan stems from residents' desire to keep Hidden Hills an island in a sea of urban growth.
"When there's a suggestion that the city wishes to annex an area that has higher density, I think there's a reaction," said Paul Gilbert, president of the town's community association, which owns and maintains the city's roads and its two gates.
"Low density is the desire, and there's no other innuendo or implication to flow from that," added Gilbert, who said he has yet to make up his mind on the issue.
But earlier this summer, an anonymous letter was circulated in town. It said in part: "Keep in mind, the residents of the low-income housing project would: 1. Have a right to vote in our city elections, 2. Have a right to be members of our city commissions . . . 3. Have a right to use all city-owned facilities, such as the swimming pool, tennis courts, administration building, etc., 4. And, have their best interests conflict with our best interests. Is this what we really want for our community???"
City Atty. Wayne K. Lemieux says he finds the controversy hard to understand. The project would house senior citizens outside the town's gates and would be shielded from the existing city by a hill. Its residents would use different access roads, he said. Lemieux called the opposition "unreasonable."
"When people are being unreasonable, I look for ulterior motives," Lemieux said. "I don't know if there are any here."
Hidden Hills is considering the senior citizen housing project because of a complex set of circumstances that some residents have found difficult to understand and some city officials have found difficult to explain.
In 1984, the city formed a redevelopment agency to finance a needed flood-control project without new taxes. Hidden Hills was promptly sued by Los Angeles County and a private attorney, Murray Kane. Both contended that the city was not blighted and thus should not reap the tax benefits of redevelopment at the expense of county taxpayers.
Last year, the suit with the county was settled, with county officials agreeing to pay $5.1 million for the drainage project. But Kane contested the settlement; under state redevelopment law, a portion of redevelopment money must be spent on affordable housing. In May of this year, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge R. William Schoettler Jr. agreed to dismiss the suit if Hidden Hills would agree to an affordable housing plan. The City Council consented.
Last year, the wealthy desert city of Indian Wells was involved in a similar controversy after it launched a redevelopment agency to attract upscale resort businesses. Confronted with the affordable housing regulations, the city and a resort developer lobbied Sacramento for an exemption that passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. George Deukmejian.
Aside from Hidden Hills' settlement in the redevelopment lawsuit, Lemieux points to state law that requires all cities to provide for affordable housing in their planning and zoning regulations.
Hidden Hills argued last year to the Southern California Assn. of Governments, a regional planning agency responsible for enforcing the housing law, that the city has no more room for affordable housing and that building it would not be feasible. SCAG rejected the argument.
"What we're doing is identifying what the need is, not how feasible it is," said Jim Minuto, manager of SCAG's housing program. "The city, in their housing element, has to address that need."