SANTA ANA — Already engaged in a court battle for the right to control the number of people living under one roof, Santa Ana city officials are expanding their fight to a second front by proposing a state law that would let each city set housing density limits that are stricter than state standards.
Frustrated by the large numbers of low- to moderate-income families that have strained city services by crowding into small apartments, Santa Ana has developed legislation giving any city the right to set occupancy limits only after the state approves that city's plans to create affordable housing.
City Councilman Robert L. Richardson said that by tying the overcrowding issue to the development of affordable housing, the proposed legislation encourages housing construction and creates a "checks and balances system" to ensure that cities do not abuse the right to set density limits.
Under current state law, he argued, cities are powerless to control problems that they feel are created by overcrowded residences, such as littering, loitering, increasing crime rates and too much strain on water and sewer lines.
The councilman and City Atty. Edward J. Cooper recently took the plan to the League of California Cities' housing committee for its review, and a follow-up hearing is set for March.
The state now requires cities to prove that changes in geographic, topographic or climatic conditions warrant an occupancy limit stricter than what the state code allows.
But Santa Ana ignored that guideline last year when it adopted an ordinance limiting occupancy in an average one-bedroom apartment to five people--half what the state code allows.
In a lawsuit filed by immigrant-rights activists and now pending before a state appellate court, the city has argued that the state Uniform Housing Code is unconstitutional.
The city attorney made the same argument to the state Department of Housing and Community Development in an effort to win a solution through administrative channels. But the state agency rejected Santa Ana's claims in a ruling issued earlier this month.
"Without any ability to have any standards, which is what the state is saying, you in effect destroy any potential to have any ability to build affordable housing," Richardson claimed.
But attorney Richard L. Spix, an Orange County immigrant-rights specialist, said he doubted that Santa Ana's proposed legislation would lead to enough affordable housing for all the people who would be thrown out of their apartments and left homeless.
Even if a city's ability to set occupancy limits is based on state approval of the local housing strategy, Spix said, there's no guarantee that the city will follow through with promises to build housing for large families.
"It's smoke and mirrors," he said. "A 'good faith effort' is not a sufficient standard to assure that the city has done anything meaningful."
Paul Kranhold, assistant director for the state's housing department, said his agency would be interested in reviewing Santa Ana's proposal.
"Our interest is generated by the fact that the housing element law, in its current state, obviously is not working, with only 80% of the jurisdictions in compliance," Kranhold said.
Cities are currently required to include a "housing element" in their general plans and update it every five years. It identifies sites that are available for housing construction, as well as a strategy to develop affordable housing.
Kranhold said that last year $280 million available in redevelopment agency accounts across the state went unspent.
Richardson said homeowners generally oppose new affordable housing in their neighborhoods because they fear a decline in property values by families doubling up or tripling up in order to afford the rents. But if there were assurances that the city could control residential overcrowding, developers might be encouraged to propose housing projects acceptable to neighborhood groups, he added.
"If you wish to bring on more affordable housing, and if you cannot demonstrate to the community that it's something they are going to be proud of five years from now, they (developers) are not going to build it," Richardson said.
The city officials also pointed to what they believe is a double standard in the state housing department's policies, which impose lax occupancy standards on cities but strictly limit the number of people who can live in housing subsidized by the state and federal governments.
The state's rental housing program limits two people to a one-bedroom apartment, a standard even stricter than what Santa Ana is proposing, the city attorney said.
But Kranhold said that was "like comparing apples to oranges."
The rents are set before people move in, Kranhold said, and the amount of public subsidy per unit is based on the income of residents. If a large number of people moved in, he added, they would receive an unfair windfall.