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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Too Few Affordable Homes

Urban density in Santa Ana is not solely a local issue

September 21, 2003

Santa Ana cannot win on this one -- at least, not alone. As Times staff writer Jennifer Mena recently revealed, the city is more densely populated than New York or Los Angeles. Yet, as a generally older and poorer city, much of its housing is run-down, with 20% falling below city codes.

No one should be surprised by this. Reports about the increasing number of poor people and hungry children in Orange County, especially Santa Ana and Anaheim, alternate with updates on the county's ever-rising housing prices. How are both of these possible? Only by cramming more and more tenants into existing housing, creating dangerously crowded conditions, especially in garages, which were not built to hold anything but cars and tools.

If the city enforces codes against overcrowding or forces landlords to make extensive repairs, tenants will lose their homes. Though "home" might mean a family of seven living in a small bedroom, and sharing one decrepit bathroom with several other families, it's safer than living on the streets.

Yet Santa Ana has no choice. All it would take is one fire sweeping through a cramped and dilapidated garage used as a makeshift apartment. The city would be held liable for its failure to enforce its own codes and will be pressed into action. Why wait for that tragedy?

Though the scenario plays out most dramatically in Santa Ana, this is more than a one-city problem and it cannot be solved by a single municipal government.

Santa Ana needs help from surrounding cities that have not done their share to create affordable housing. It needs the assistance of the Orange County business community, which benefits from low-wage workers, to create decent housing within its borders to house those workers.

Irvine officials took the right steps earlier this month by offering 14 homes at the former Tustin Marine base as temporary housing for poor families. In addition, the city is requiring the developer of another section of the base to offer at least 83 of those homes as affordable housing, for families making less than $56,500 a year.

Similar steps by other cities would ease the problem, but not solve it. Many families who share houses, with one or more families per room, are illegal immigrants who cannot qualify for low-income housing. The federal government's foot-dragging on a comprehensive immigration policy puts cities such as Santa Ana into impossible straits, picking up the costs for Washington's non-response to immigration issues.

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