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Enforcement of Housing Code Assailed : Latinos Allege Bias in Santa Ana’s Drive Against Overcrowding

Times Staff Writer

More than 400 Latinos protested against Santa Ana’s crackdown on overcrowded apartments Monday, but they let their children present the case to members of the City Council.

During the evening meeting, about 100 young children streamed through the crowded council chamber to hand officials about 10,000 form letters protesting the building code enforcement, which they said would displace about 150 families.

The controversial crackdown, which city officials believe is needed to eradicate building code violations, hurts large families, the protesters said.

As one of six children and adults living in a one-bedroom apartment, Tony Sanchez, 7, told the council: “I don’t want to leave my school and friends. I like the city of Santa Ana.”

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Request Debated

All the while, City Council members continued to debate the request by the protesters that the city change its interpretation of a state uniform building code and relax the crackdown.

Earlier Monday, however, several council members said there is little chance the council will back down on the enforcement issue.

When the protesters gathered at City Hall before the meeting, they knew they would confront skeptical city officials. But they were not expecting another group of residents there to defend the city’s actions.

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Many residents were on hand to encourage the council to continue the crackdown, most of them from the western part of town in a neighborhood near the intersection of 5th and Euclid streets.

More than 150 migrant workers congregate on that corner every morning, waiting for employers to meet them and offer jobs. Residents on Monday lauded the city’s building code enforcement, saying that many of these migrant workers are the same tenants who crowd into small one-bedroom apartments.

‘Nothing to Do With Race’

“The state has a code, and we expect (the city) to back it up,” said Beverly Ravelli, who lives near the 5th and Euclid intersection. “It has nothing to do with race. There are a lot of Mexicans (in favor of the crackdown). I don’t want anyone displaced, but there has to be a line drawn.”

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However, many Latinos maintain that large families with little financial means suffer from the city’s crackdown on apartment overcrowding.

“We would like to live in a big house with a lot of room, but we don’t have the money,” 14-year-old Irma Martinez told a cheering crowd before the council meeting. “They say that kids are the problem. . . . We are fighting for our rights.”

Martinez said she lives with her parents, two brothers and two sisters in a one-bedroom apartment.

Phil Freeland, Santa Ana’s community development and housing agency executive director, said the city intends to aid tenants by forcing landlords to correct “serious health and safety violations.”

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The overcrowding issue is secondary to rotten plumbing, holes in walls and other building code violations, said Freeland, who is in charge of the city’s stepped-up code enforcement.

“If the place is nice and clean, we’re not going to be there counting heads,” he said.

However, Nativo Lopez, head of the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, an immigrants’ rights organization, said the housing enforcement will displace 150 families.

Based on state law, the city code requires that each home have at least 70 square feet of bedroom space for the first two people and another 50 square feet for each additional occupant.

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The Hermandad group contends that the city’s interpretation is too narrow, noting that Latino families are larger and that the law discriminates against them.

In January, an Orange County Superior Court judge sided with the city in the battle over code enforcement. Two couples, one with three children and the other with two children, lost their fight against eviction and were forced to leave their building.

Tenants Unsuccessful

The two families’ one-bedroom apartments each measured 475 square feet, with a 120-square-foot bedroom. The tenants unsuccessfully argued in court that the city’s formula is arbitrary and that a living room should be counted as available sleeping space.

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The housing crackdown has been going on for about two years, but Santa Ana police last week stepped up enforcement on the street corner where migrant workers primarily congregate in the city. Since last Thursday, police have issued 57 citations, mostly for impeding traffic on the streets and the sidewalk, and have written 28 vehicle code citations, including many to the prospective employers, Deputy Chief of Police Eugene B. Hansen said.

Police arrested the workers on citations and photographed, fingerprinted and released them. But Hansen said he doubts that most of the workers will be heard from again. So far, few of the addresses and names the workers have given to police appear to be accurate, he said.

If the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service raids the area, as some neighbors have suggested, “it will not be in concert with us,” Hansen told City Council members Monday afternoon.

City officials said it is not the Police Department’s job to determine whether workers are illegal immigrants.

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