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Valley Perspective

To Find a Home

March 12, 2000

A series of stories in Tuesday's Valley Business section made clear that there are two sides to the current housing boom.

Anyone who owns a home is delighted with the resurgence of the San Fernando Valley real estate market, and why not? Home prices are at levels not seen since the boom of the late 1980s, meaning windfalls for recent buyers and a welcome return of equity for those who bought when prices were at their peak.

But boom times for homeowners mean gloomy times for residents saving for their first home or searching for an apartment they can afford to rent.

The city of Burbank recently launched a low-interest loan program for first-time buyers who meet income guidelines. They can borrow up to $20,000 from the city for 30 years to make a down payment.

Some housing experts tout home ownership as an investment in communities. Because a home represents the largest single investment most people hold, homeowners want to protect their investment by keeping an eye out for their neighborhood.

Nonprofit organizations like the San Fernando/Santa Clarita chapter of Habitat for Humanity promote the values of home ownership by helping low-income buyers finance their first homes, which they also help build.

But laudable as programs like Burbank's low-income loans and Habitat for Humanity are, they don't come close to meeting the Valley's need for low-income housing, including the need for low- or moderately priced apartments.

Most of the new apartments in the Valley are luxury units typically renting for more than $1,000 for one bedroom. Developers claim that building anything that rents for less does not justify high land costs, not to mention the expense involved in overcoming opposition from nearby homeowners who don't want apartments, period, much less low-income apartments.

Residents who oppose low-income apartments need to recognize that the alternative is crowded conditions like those that already exist in parts of the northeast Valley, where some families live in garages or doubled up in small houses and apartments. Cities--communities--have an obligation to house all residents, not just ones who can afford a home of their own.

The trick is to balance the needs of lower-income residents with the harsh forces of the market. This requires creative thinking on the part of city planners. Options include partnerships that allow a developer, for example, to build more units than city rules allow in exchange for a promise to set aside some of the units for low- and moderate-income families.

A city founded on the suburban model of a house and a yard for everyone needs to accept that there are places where high-density housing makes sense, especially clustered around transportation hubs and on already busy streets. More widely dispersed, modest-sized apartments are another option, as are innovative programs that not only help low-income residents find places to live but also help them find and keep jobs, resist crime and otherwise contribute to their communities.

Such efforts by the Los Angeles Police Department, a renters' advocacy organization and a nearby Catholic church have led to a drop in crime and increased participation in educational, arts and sports programs at San Fernando Gardens, the Valley's only public housing project. Investment in a community pays off--and is not limited to investment by homeowners.

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