A Santa Ana citizens-rights group on Saturday crashed a city-sponsored Christmas party for needy children to draw attention to their protest against strict enforcement of a state law limiting occupancy of one-bedroom apartments to three people.
The 200 protesters, who said the housing policy would discriminate against many of the city's Latino families, marched at 12:30 p.m. to the gate of Santa Ana Stadium, carrying red and black flags and intending to pass out leaflets.
At first, the demonstrators were barred from entering the stadium--where the city was staging a Christmas celebration for about 3,000 disadvantaged children--because they did not have tickets to the free event.
However, after a brief verbal confrontation between the group's leader, Nativo Lopez, and police and other officials, the citizens group was allowed to join the party as long as the demonstrators put down their flags.
All the while, throngs of children were treated to hot dogs and soft drinks and were entertained by a ventriloquist. Later, Santa Claus was whisked in via helicopter and distributed toys, fruit and stockings filled with candy to the mostly Latino children.
Lopez, head of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, said the large Christmas celebration was an ironic--but appropriate--forum at which to protest the city's enforcement of the state law.
"We've come to tell Santa Claus that we don't want our kids on the street," he said.
"This shows hypocrisy on the part of the city," Lopez said. "This celebration is, supposedly, to show their concern for disadvantaged children. But these are the very same children who will be evicted from their apartments."
Lopez said that as much as one-third of Santa Ana's large Latino population could be evicted from small apartments if the city enforces the housing code. He said Latino families have an average of 4.5 members per family and that many cannot afford to live in larger apartments.
In addition, many of the Latino families in Santa Ana have small children or care for an elderly family member, thus increasing the size of the family, he said.
Lopez said five families have already been served with eviction notices because of overcrowding. He said their case, which will be heard in court on Dec. 30, will be a "sounding call" for the city.
He said the five families live in an apartment complex owned by Joseph DeCarlo. Earlier this year, Lopez's group staged a two-month rent strike against DeCarlo until he agreed to make needed repairs to the apartments.
"We feel this is related to the rent strike," Lopez said. "It is being done as retaliation for that strike."
DeCarlo, who lives in Costa Mesa, was unavailable for comment.
Lopez said that if city officials inspect the apartments in question, they will find that overcrowding has been "radically reduced" since the rent strikes prompted needed repairs at most of the dwellings.
He also accused the Santa Ana City Council of instigating the enforcement of the housing codes in retaliation for the rent strikes. However, Lopez said he does not know which members of the City Council are responsible for the new policy. He said he will seek to meet this week with Mayor Daniel E. Griset and the other six council members.
"We want the council to establish a more flexible code," Lopez said. "The way things are now, anybody who opposes them runs the risk of getting evicted by the city."
No city officials were present at Saturday's Christmas celebration. But George Gragg, the community preservation officer who supervises the city's housing code enforcement program, said earlier that his office has always enforced the overcrowding code, a statement that Lopez called "a total falsehood."
"It's not a new policy," Gragg said. "This is something we've been doing continuously for at least three years."
Gragg also said that the overcrowding problem is most prevalent in older, deteriorating apartment complexes.
"One of the contributing factors to maintenance problems, frequently, is overcrowding," he said. "If a building is well-maintained, it won't come to my attention."