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Scope of housing dispute broadens

Anaheim's battle over resort land use is now a debate on a city's role in mandating housing that workers can afford.

July 09, 2007|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

It began as a zoning spat between Disney and a developer over a plan to build 1,500 condos and low-cost apartments on the outskirts of Anaheim's Resort District.

But as the yearlong dispute has droned on -- through the courts, neighborhood meetings and civic center discussion -- what was once a small-town squabble has grown into a passionate showdown over low-cost housing.

Housing advocates, labor chiefs and, now, religious leaders have joined the debate, overwhelming Disney's argument that its interest in reserving the Resort District for tourism should not be turned into a forum on housing for low-wage earners.

Despite attempts by Disney and some Anaheim officials to steer the conversation, dozens of maids, switchboard operators and janitors have steadfastly kept the focus on what they call the city's "housing crisis" -- urging the City Council with often emotional testimony to consider the benefits of the project's low-cost housing element.

Three weeks ago, about 500 members of Anaheim's religious community showed up at a housing forum, a clear signal that the neighborhood zoning quarrel between Disney and SunCal Cos. had become a genuine movement in the state's 10th-largest city.

At the next night's council meeting, religious leaders delivered 200 letters from Roman Catholic families seeking lower-cost housing on a different piece of property -- 53 acres of undeveloped, city-owned land next to Angel Stadium.

"Our families are in a crisis," said Freddy Hernandez, a leader at St. Boniface Catholic Church. "Many parents and children are enduring the heavy burden of living in overpriced, substandard, overcrowded conditions.

"There is a sense of urgency, but working together we can find solutions to this crisis. We also wanted to let you know that we are here to stay."

Lorri Galloway, the only council member to attend the forum, said she welcomed a "new demographic of support" to the issue she has championed since being elected three years ago.

"That room [the forum] was just the beginning of a movement," she said. "It was a signal that the housing shortage isn't just affecting the working poor. It's become a cause for everyone in Anaheim."

So far, the issue has failed to gain the attention of a majority of the council. Mayor Curt Pringle believes the city's 2-year-old affordable-housing strategic plan, which calls for 1,328 low-cost units to be built over four years, will meet the community's needs.

The Kennedy Commission, a local advocacy group for low-cost housing, credits Anaheim with planning for more low-cost units than most Orange County cities. But Cesar Covarrubias, a project manager for the nonprofit organization, said Anaheim was still falling short of meeting the housing demands of working families.

Under benchmarks commonly used by planners and housing authorities, a home is considered "affordable" if those who live in it make 120% or less of an area's median income and the mortgage payment or rent isn't more than a third of the household's earnings. The median income in Orange County is $78,700.

Although housing needs are based on complex formulas, advocates say the bottom line is that the true low-wage earners -- such as those who work in the city's Resort District -- are pressed to find housing in Anaheim.

Covarrubias said, for instance, that the city recently approved 11,091 units for families earning more than $78,000, but only 314 for those earning less. "There is a really high imbalance there," he said.

A recent study by the Orange County Business Council rated Anaheim fourth among the county's 34 cities in meeting its workforce's housing needs from 1991 to 2005, but the study did not examine low-cost housing. The yearlong study projected that Anaheim would lead the county in overall housing growth over the next 25 years.

"The business council believes that affordability begins with availability, and that we need an increase in housing in all price ranges," said Lucy Dunn, chief executive of the business group. "Anaheim is at the top of the list among cities that recognize that we are urbanizing as a county. They are producing and approving housing to match their jobs growth."

Many in Anaheim argue that the city shouldn't be in the business of creating low-cost housing.

"Are we obligated to build low-cost housing for everyone who can't afford it?" Elaine Proko, a 45-year Anaheim resident, asked during a council meeting. "I don't understand how people can take a job for $7 an hour and expect to support a family. I just don't feel it's Anaheim's job to provide low-cost housing."

Many parishioners who turned out for the religious conference belong to the Orange County Congregation Community Organization, a coalition of 20 mostly Catholic churches. San Antonio de Padua del Canon, a 3,000-member parish in Anaheim Hills, was one of the forum's host churches.

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