SANTA ANA — A day before it was to go into effect, an Orange County Superior Court judge delayed enforcement of a new city ordinance that prohibits overcrowded residences.
Enforcement was delayed until a trial is held next month to determine whether the ordinance violates state housing codes.
Judge Floyd H. Schenk said the city had adequately considered the environmental effects of the ordinance, which would fine or jail landlords and tenants whose homes are overcrowded. But he set a Sept. 30 trial to hear other challenges to the ordinance.
"We are encouraged but disappointed," City Manager David N. Ream said after the court ruling. "We think we have done a very thorough job in the preparation of this ordinance and feel it will be validated through the courts."
Richard L. Spix, an attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Santa Ana resident Ascension Briseno, had asked the judge to either throw out the ordinance or delay enforcement until a trial could be held. His lawsuit had maintained that the city should have prepared an environmental impact review of the new ordinance to determine what would happen to families displaced by the new law.
After Monday's ruling, Spix said that his challenge of the city's environmental process was just "one of the theories" he used in the first round, and that he had several other legal issues to raise during the trial.
"If the ordinance is determined to be invalid, it does not really matter what's going on in terms of environmental process," said Spix, who represents the legal center of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, an immigrant rights group.
Among other legal issues to be raised by Spix is whether the city failed to meet state guidelines to modify the housing code when it set minimum square-footage requirements for "living space."
But Schenk ruled that the ordinance would not have a substantial adverse environmental effect, and that the city had complied with state guidelines.
"I cannot believe that there's a substantial, prejudicial abuse of discretion by Santa Ana," Schenk said during the hearing to announce his decision, "and the city did not take action contrary to law."
City Atty. Edward J. Cooper maintained that the state has never prevented cities from setting residential occupancy levels. He said the housing code applies only to building code standards.
Schenk, however, said the state code may apply.
"Out of an abundance of caution . . . the better procedure would be to maintain the status quo until we have a hearing in the case," Schenk said.
Were the ordinance to be strictly enforced, a large family living in a house or apartment that does not meet standards would have to diminish the number of occupants, face eviction, or live under the threat of a court penalty.
However, Jim Lindgren, Santa Ana building safety manager, said before the hearing that if the ordinance is upheld, the city does not intend to break up families and will wait to receive complaints before pursuing violators.
Homeowner groups vigorously pushed for the ordinance--part of a "neighborhood standards" package--in an effort to stop the deterioration of residential neighborhoods. In many cases, they contended, more than one family or group of single adults have crowded into a home, straining fire and police services.
Under the new law, any dwelling with two occupants would be required to have at least 150 square feet of living space, excluding stairwells, halls, closets, bathrooms and kitchens. Another 100 square feet would be required for each additional resident.
Councilman John Acosta called the court's ruling "wonderful," because he believes there is still confusion over how the law would be enforced.
He said that while he voted in favor of restricting the number of residents in a home or apartment, the city will have to be sensitive in cases that involve large families.