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California

In Housing Density, It's Too Close for Comfort

The poor are crammed and rules are tested in Santa Ana, the nation's most crowded big city.

September 15, 2003|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

With the most crowded households of any large U.S. city and many of its dwellings substandard, Santa Ana faces an intractable dilemma: how to enforce health and safety laws without forcing thousands of residents onto the street.

Santa Ana's average household size of 4.6 people is, according to the U.S. census, greater than that of any other U.S. city with a population of more than 50,000. The average household size in Los Angeles is 2.8; in New York City, it's 2.6.

Exacerbating Santa Ana's housing problem is that one in every five dwellings is substandard, the city says. And Santa Ana has the nation's second-highest percentage of foreign-born residents, many of whom are poor and reluctant to complain about living conditions.

And so the city is caught in the middle of competing tensions. It attracts poor working families resigned to sharing houses with strangers and tolerating faulty plumbing and electricity and other deficiencies. And with diminishing resources, the city tries to enforce codes intended to protect residents yet which, if strictly enforced, may only worsen their immediate plight.

In the early 1990s, city officials took a beating from advocates of immigrants and low-cost housing when they tried to impose occupancy standards stricter than the state's, which allow 19 people to live in a 950-square-foot home. The city linked density to higher crime, deteriorated sewers and increased fire hazards.

The advocates killed the proposed density reduction by suing the city, which some accused of being bigoted and trying to drive immigrants out of town.

Thwarted in its attempt to lower occupancy limits, the city has pursued two other strategies. It created more than 50 neighborhood associations that were encouraged to report code violations, and it offers to reduce the business fees paid by landlords if their units pass inspections. Such incentives are more effective and less expensive than taking landlords to court, the city said.

Traditional efforts to enforce health and safety codes -- with inspectors patrolling the streets -- have never been more strained. The city has only 21 code enforcement officers, less than half the number it had in 1984, even though its population has increased more than 50% in 20 years.

Even if the city could be more effective, some wonder what it would ultimately accomplish.

"In attempting to solve one problem -- unsafe housing -- the city is creating a situation where more people may become homeless," said Leo Chavez, an anthropology professor at UC Irvine. "The city is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. And for the poor people, there's no good outcome."

Privacy Not an Option

Gloria Valadez's home offers a scene of life's daily struggles in a working-class Santa Ana neighborhood.

Nightly, Valadez, her daughter and six grandchildren sprawl across the cramped living room, struggling to sleep despite the nonstop commotion of crying and shouting children, women cooking and teens watching TV. That's because Valadez's family of eight shares an aging and dilapidated two-bedroom house with eight other people. A couple and their child sublet one bedroom, and a family of five sublets the other. Each family pays Valadez $400 a month. Others have intermittently lived in her garage.

Her three neighbors also rent rooms to strangers. This is how they cobble together the $1,100 monthly rent. In all, the four 950-square-foot houses on a one-third-acre lot are home to 42 people who put up with mice, cockroaches, broken windows and faulty plumbing. Before the city kicked families out of the garages, there were 55 people.

Two weeks before Christmas, Valadez's only shower stall was thrown onto the lawn by the landlord's handyman. The replacement didn't show up until late January, she said.

"We got out a bucket and threw water on ourselves. We did that right through Christmas and the New Year. It was terrible, but it was fixed. You get used to tolerating these things. You are just happy for a place to live," said Valadez, a 56-year-old strawberry picker.

Indeed, countywide, many renters simply shrug and bear such conditions. Of the 18,342 complaints received by Orange County's Fair Housing Council for the year ending June 30, only 9% involved code enforcement problems. More tenants are concerned about the return of their security deposits.

Undocumented immigrants fear deportation if they tattle to authorities. Others worry that if they are evicted by landlords for complaining, or are ordered out by the city, they will not be able to find another place to live, or can't come up with the deposit.

"If you complain, the landlord threatens to throw us out. I need my place. Accepting it is survival," said Clara Saavedra, 28, who shared her two-bedroom cottage with 15 people until recently, when seven people moved out.

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