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Easing a Painful Shortage of Reasonably Priced Housing : County Can't Afford to Squeeze Out the Middle Class

February 11, 1996

Look at freeway traffic inbound to Orange County in the mornings and outbound in the evening; look at commuters riding Metrolink trains from Riverside to Orange County; look at demand for reasonably priced housing so great that when apartments become available a lottery is needed to pick the lucky few. This county clearly needs more affordable housing.

There has been some progress recently, but much of it comes from promises to build apartments or rehabilitate rundown units. Between the promise and the turning of the earth years may elapse. Even when wood does meet stucco, the number of reasonably priced rentals available to teachers and firefighters, computer programmers and secretaries, the members of the middle class, is painfully small.

At Irvine City Hall a week and a half ago, the mayor reached into a bin and pulled the names of 116 people fortunate enough to win apartments in a complex for low-income senior citizens that is scheduled to open in May. Nearly 500 applied, or close to five for every lucky winner.

The waiting list for federal rent subsidies under the program known as Section 8 grew so large several years ago--13,000 applicants--that the Orange County Housing Authority stopped adding new names. In five years, many gave up and the authority winnowed the list to 1,000. Next month, for only two weeks, the Housing Authority will add new names to the list and expects to hear from 4,000 or more applicants. Of those, officials said perhaps 1,200 can be helped to get apartments this year.

Lack of a decent, affordable apartment can impose great strains on individuals and families. Low-income seniors live too far away to see their grandchildren as often as they would like. Sons and daughters have to move great distances from their parents. Workers spend two or three hours on clogged roads to get to and from work; they arrive tired for the job and too weary at home to spend much time with the children.

Years ago, home economics teachers taught that people should not spend more than one-third of their income on housing. Good luck using that formula in Orange County.

True, the county's median family income runs over $50,000 a year. But that means half the families make less than that, some far less: The 1990 census showed about 200,000 people falling below the federal government's poverty benchmark: earnings of less than $15,150 a year for a family of four. With decent one-bedroom apartments often going for $700 a month or more, not much is left for food, utilities and other necessities.

The federal government provided funds for the Irvine complex for seniors and runs Section 8. It requires that local redevelopment agencies set aside some of their local tax receipts for affordable housing projects. Yet in Orange County, more than $26 million designated for low-income housing has not been spent.

One reason is community opposition. Too many residents want to pull up the drawbridges and keep all but the most expensive rental housing out of their neighborhoods. They fear lowered property values and higher crime if people of less wealth move nearby.

Yet other communities have shown that is not necessarily so. Costa Mesa converted a motel to efficiency apartments three years ago and has reported no major problems.

Every city in the county should look at Irvine's new apartment complex, Costa Mesa's use of SRO housing and other projects planned in Fullerton, Brea and a handful of other communities. Orange County cannot thrive without a solid middle class of employees able to live where they work. Restricting residence to high-income families living in gated enclaves will not encourage the sense of community that helped make the county prosper.

Cities need to take advantage of the money available to build affordable housing. Officials can enforce standards to see to it that the buildings are well maintained, alleviating the concerns of neighbors. Pricing children, the elderly and middle-class workers out of the county cannot continue.

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