SANTA ANA — Behind the shady trees that line the streets of this old neighborhood stand remnants of the grand homes that once gave the French Court area its identity.
But the boarded-up front window of a Tudor-style house on French Street, broken by local vandals, is just one small sign of a neighborhood on the verge of being lost to decay. On the corner, graffiti covers a a U.S. mailbox, and across the road, a torn screen hangs from an apartment complex in disrepair.
Because of its deterioration and above-average crime rate, French Court was picked Monday by the City Council as the test site for a new inspection program designed to crack down on slumlords.
Systematically, city code inspectors will be knocking on doors, looking for faulty wiring, leaky plumbing or other signs of Health and Safety Code violations in an effort to clean up the neighborhood between Washington Avenue and 17th Street, east of Main Street.
But while many apartment owners applaud the cause, they also complain about the hefty new business license tax levied on all of them Jan. 1 to pay for policing the violators.
"I wish we wouldn't have to pay (the tax increase) because we don't violate the building codes and we meet all the property standards," said Alan Dauger, who owns a 240-unit apartment complex on North Fairview Street. He saw the cost of his Santa Ana business license increase from about $2,000 last year to $5,691 at the first of the month.
"I have to have an optimistic view and hope that (the inspection program) will improve the city's reputation, and maybe it will improve the class of residents," Dauger said. "We find it very difficult to advertise in the newspaper that we are in the city of Santa Ana. People don't look under the heading of Santa Ana (in the classified ads) because of its reputation."
Ed Pollard, who owns rental units in Santa Ana and saw his taxes increase by $187, said the new fee "is not going to instantly cause me to sell my business or go into bankruptcy, but it's still unbelievable."
Under the "Proactive Residential Enforcement Program," the city will charge building owners an extra $17.50 per year for each of the city's estimated 37,000 residential rental units for seven years. The money will be used to pay for nine full-time building inspectors.
Although details are still being worked out, landlords in the target area will be notified that they have 30 days to schedule an inspection. Eventually, if the owner refuses to cooperate and there are signs of code violations from outside the building, the city can seek a court order to force an inspection.
Officials said they expect to target two areas each year but will not leave French Court until they feel that the job is done. The next target area hasn't been determined.
Representatives of the Apartment Assn. of Orange County and city officials who are negotiating the details of the inspection program said the goal is not to fine slumlords, but to create incentives for cooperation. Officials also are considering a future tax exemption for landlords who remain in compliance.
"Reasonableness is the name of the game here," said Jim Lindgren, city building safety manager. "We are not out to bash anybody over the head here."
Apartment association representative Ray Maggi said the "jury is still out" on the program, but owners are ready to cooperate.
"What we don't want is a witch hunt, from the standpoint that if (city inspectors) get a lot of defects down, they get a lot of money," Maggi said. Owners "are getting charged a fee for an inspection (city officials) are supposed to do anyway."
French Court is not the city's worst neighborhood, nor does it have the worst overcrowding, which often is blamed for rising crime and neighborhood deterioration. But a committee of residents and owners agreed that because of their cooperative spirit, French Court was the best place to start the pilot project to ensure a higher degree of success.
Of the 132 residential properties located in the area, 98 are rental houses or apartments. For three years, the area has exceeded the citywide average for police and fire calls, as well as a high number of complaints about substandard conditions and sanitation problems.
"In the past, it has been a wonderful neighborhood," Lindgren said. "But it's turning a corner and it's sliding downhill, and this is an effort to stop that."
When he bought his home in French Court almost two years ago, Jim Marquez said, he knew that the neighborhood had problems. But he said he also expected that residents would band together to fix it.
"There's drug dealing going on, elevators do not work, and when they do work, they are not kept clean at all and they stink of urine," Marquez said of one apartment complex near his home.
City Hall's responses to complaints usually were not coordinated, Marquez said, and a new cycle of violations would begin just as the old ones were being repaired. Perhaps now, he said, the neighborhood can get back on track.
As the owner of a duplex in Santa Ana, Marquez also must pay the higher business tax. But he is not complaining.
"It is to my benefit to spend $17.50 (per unit) and have my property go up from $150,000 to $180,000 or $190,000. That is an excellent return for my money," he said.