Poor Hard Hit by Rent Hikes, Bias : 54% Increase Since '80 Leaves Needy Scrounging Shelter

Times County Bureau Chief

A 54% jump in rental housing costs since 1980 and discrimination, especially against children, have increased the number of poor families grabbing for any shelter they can find in Orange County, according to two studies conducted by government-financed agencies.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas F. Riley said he is aware of the problem but believes the county's housing programs are accomplishing as much as possible. Riley cited a county-sponsored $116-million mortgage bond program that lends money to developers who promise to build middle-income housing. He said he hopes the program will be doubled to $232 million next year.

To Review Action

Riley added that the county this year will review a controversial 1983 vote to abolish a rule that required builders to set aside 25% of their new units for low- to moderate-income persons.

"I know there's a problem, and in my district (south Orange County), one of the areas I've been most concerned with is mobile homes. There, the rent increases have been such that those tenants have been contacting me, which is highly unusual."

A study conducted by the Orange County Fair Housing Council states that during fiscal 1983-84, "the numbers of evictions and rent increases were each up 30% from the preceding year."

"These statistics accurately reflect what has been a major trend this year, and which is expected to continue for at least another 12 months . . . an ever increasing number of poor displaced households are seeking any shelter they can afford in Orange County," the report states.

Housing Authority Report

A separate report from the Orange County Housing Authority, which dispenses federal rent subsidies to the poor, states that:

- Rental costs rose 171% between 1974 and 1984 and 54% since 1980, outpacing inflation rates of 149% and 24% respectively for those periods.

- The number of renters compared to owners has risen 24.3% since 1983 compared to an increase of 1.6% in 1974-1983 period.

- Five years ago, 37% of the county's residents rented their housing. Now the figure is 46%.

- In October, 1984, the cost of an efficiency apartment averaged $415 per month compared to $151 in 1975. A four-bedroom apartment or house averaged $854 last October, compared to $264 nine years ago.

Art Luna, director of the Housing Authority, said, "We don't have the same degree of a problem that L.A. has with the homeless, but we're starting to get trends in that direction."

Luna said the authority's housing study was based mostly on census data and information available from government agencies such as the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.

He said part of the county's housing problem involves a vicious circle--as rents rise, more families crowd together to share the cost, producing pressures that lead to property damage, vandalism and eventually demolition to make way for either new commercial establishments or more costly condominiums; this fuels further rent increases for whatever rental housing remains.

Discrimination increases, he said, as landlords are given a wider choice of tenants.

Meanwhile, the demand for rental housing is so high that it is helping to fuel an increase in discriminatory practices by landlords, according to the Fair Housing Council report.

'Largest Obstacle'

"The largest category of discrimination in housing, that against children, continues to present the largest obstacle to renters," the report states. "The discrimination exists at the application level although often it is masked by restrictions on the total number of occupants. Although this is considered legitimate exercise of the landlord's discretion, this practice has the effect of excluding families with children (especially large families) just as effectively as an outright refusal to rent." The state Supreme Court in 1982 held that rental discrimination based on age was unconstitutional.

A survey of complaints received by the Fair Housing Council showed that the number based on race rose 14.6% between 1983 and 1984. About 9% of the complaints were from blacks, "a significantly higher percent than the average percent (of blacks) within the total county population (less than 2%)."

Complaints based on marital status, mostly involving unmarried persons of the same sex, rose 154% between 1983 and 1984. There was also a 75% jump in complaints involving discrimination against the handicapped, from 24 cases to 42, according to the report.

Altogether, the council handled 25,902 inquiries in the 1983-84 fiscal year compared to 25,632 cases in fiscal 1982-83.

The problem of displaced tenants is too complex to have a single cause, the council report states, but has "originated from actions by both private and public entities" ranging from city councils to the federal government.

Federal Cutbacks Cited

The report cites federal cutbacks in rent subsidy programs for the poor as an example. Construction funds for subsidized housing for new family apartments were eliminated by the Reagan Administration, "so there were no funds to increase the supply of such units," according to the council's study.

The report also complains that the county's Housing Opportunities Program isn't helping because "there is no requirement in the program" for units that can be afforded by people making less than $20,000 per year.

Meanwhile, Supervisor Roger Stanton said the 1983 vote to abolish the rule requiring 25% "affordable" units in new developments should not be blamed for the lack of low-cost rental units because the rule involved single-family residences for purchase at prices that were still beyond the financial capabilities of most low-income people.

But while lack of construction is one problem, demolition is another, according to the Fair Housing Council report.

In some areas, demolitions of affordable units are increasing faster than construction of replacement housing, the report states.

"In some cases (Newport Beach, Yorba Linda and Brea), more units were demolished than constructed for a net loss in low-cost affordable units," the council stated.

Intensified Enforcement

The report warns that potentially the most damaging factor is intensified code enforcement against substandard units.

"A side effect of this tactic to date has been substantial increases in the number of displaced poor households," the study adds.

Code enforcement has been highly controversial in Santa Ana, where a debate continues about how the city should handle displaced persons.

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