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Changes in San Juan Capistrano Area Set Off Clash of Cultures

Times Staff Writer

The white stucco buildings with the red tile roofs and attractive lawns stand as testimony to the conformity that marks much of South Orange County. The emphasis is on style, a promise of comfortable uniformity in an area that has become synonymous with wealth and influence.

But the Capistrano Villas and Casa de Capistrano condominium complexes are different, and if they do not reflect the south county of today, they may provide a clue as to how some of the area could look in the future.

When they opened 17 years ago, the condominium projects were touted as havens for those looking for a quiet life near the orange groves of San Juan Capistrano. Gradually, however, they have been taken over by renters, many of whom are Latino and some of whom are working poor. It is an area in transition, one that is taking a decidedly Latino bent, and it has not come smoothly.

City officials and others said the changes began about five years ago when owners in the 807-unit Capistrano Villas complex began leasing out their properties, and owners at the 244-unit Casa de Capistrano about a mile away did the same.

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City officials say they are concerned that as many as 20 people--some of whom may be undocumented immigrants--may be crowded into some of the two- and three-bedroom bungalows. Early this year, in response to complaints, the city began cracking down on those violating government housing codes. The Sheriff’s Department has begun mounted patrols in the area to counter a slight increase in crimes such as petty thefts and burglaries. And at the city’s request, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has been conducting sweeps looking for undocumented people.

Yet what seems to be at the heart of the issue is the changing character of the neighborhood, a change brought on in part at least by a lack of affordable housing that prompts low-income people to pool their resources to make ends meet. The crackdown on crowding, however, has set up a culture clash between the old and new residents of the community--the older ones wanting to restore the neighborhood to its former tranquility; the new arrivals wanting places to live in a pricey area.

‘Strong Message’

“We’re trying to send a very strong message that San Juan is not the place for these kind of activities,” said Mayor Gary L. Hausdorfer in reference to the crowded conditions. “It’s gotten to the point that we need to do everything we can.”

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And although longtime residents in both condominium complexes are welcoming the crackdown, it is viewed with some dismay by immigration rights activists, who say the whole controversy has racial overtones.

“When people see ethnically different individuals on the street corner, that’s something that turns heads and people wonder about,” said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission. “When individuals also happen to be ethnically different and speaking in a different language, that generates even more fear.”

Kennedy said, however, that the immigrants loitering on street corners in San Juan Capistrano are the same kinds of people waiting on corners all over Orange County on weekday mornings looking for day-labor jobs. Those people can hardly be considered a threat, he said.

“We’re talking about a person who gets up at 5 in the morning so he can wait for a low-pay, dangerous, under-the-table job,” Kennedy said. “That’s not the profile of a criminal. That’s the profile of a poor person desperately trying to provide for themselves or their families.”

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Hausdorfer defended the city’s action, saying that crowding had become so severe that the city had to intervene.

“The problem is overcrowding (and) the potential for crime and gangs,” Hausdorfer said. “It is not related to race or color.”

Boom a Factor

South Orange County’s building boom also contributed, although indirectly, to the changing demographics of the area. Many of the laborers on the construction projects are Latino immigrants who cannot afford the region’s high rents, said Father Jaime Soto, Episcopal vicar for the Latino community in the Diocese of Orange.

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The problem in San Juan Capistrano is a microcosm of the lack of affordable housing in Southern California overall, Soto said. Many immigrants find themselves living in squalid conditions because they have no other choice, he said.

“I don’t think they enjoy living in crime-infested environments,” Soto said.

And Charles Wheeler, executive director of the National Center for Immigrants Rights in Los Angeles, added that the problem underscores the need for more low-income housing nationwide.

“It’s a major problem not so much with immigration but with poor people in America,” Wheeler said.

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Hausdorfer, however, sees San the situation in San Juan Capistrano in terms of immigration.

“Frankly, when you have large numbers of unhoused people coming across our border, I think the housing solution is very difficult,” Hausdorfer said. “And you have to bear in mind we are talking about south Orange County, and south Orange County is simply one of the most expensive places in the world to live.”

Twenty-seven-year-old Sixto Pastrana is one of eight men sharing the $700-a-month rent on a three-bedroom condominium on La Zanja Street, the main thoroughfare in the Capistrano Villas.

Pastrana, a Mexico City native who moved into Capistrano Villas three years ago, said he works day construction jobs and sends money back home to his parents and brothers and sisters in Mexico. Like many of the immigrants interviewed by a Times reporter, Pastrana said that he initially considered living in Santa Ana, which has a huge Latino population. He said he chose Capistrano Villas, however, because of its proximity to construction work in south county.

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“It is very far to take the bus” from Santa Ana, he said, “and the gasoline is very expensive.”

Pastrana added that he has seen no problems with crime in the area. “We have no problem with our neighbors,” he said.

Leticia Ruiz, an 11-year resident of Capistrano Villas who also lives on La Zanja Street, said that although most of the newcomers to the neighborhood are good, hard-working people, a minority have been responsible for some open drug dealing as well as a rash of car break-ins.

But Sheriff’s Department Capt. Doug Storm, commander of the department’s south county division, said it is difficult to say whether there has been an increase in crime in the area, although he did say that a high concentration of people “always makes for the potential for problems.”

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“Anytime you have a more dense area, the more chances you’ll have for higher incidences of crime,” he said.

Some of the friction is racial, according to local merchants who say they are losing customers because of it.

“We have people who won’t come in our store or parking lot because they see Mexicans hanging around outside,” said the manager of a nearby pet store who did not want to be identified. “There’s a cultural thing about lower-income people in general; they spend more time on the street. But when other people who are retired or middle-class see this, they make a big to-do about it.”

City officials estimate that as many as 5,000 people live at Capistrano Villas and 1,500 at Casa de Capistrano. The city’s total population is about 24,000.

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Renting to Groups

When the developments opened, they were much sought after by retirees and young families, said Ken Dills, president of Capistrano Villas 1, one of the three homeowners’ associations for the community. Dills pointed out that Capistrano Villas was particularly desirable because of its proximity to orange groves and pristine hillsides.

About five years ago, Dill said, many of the condominium owners began moving out and renting their properties to make money.

Marie Smith, a real estate agent in San Juan Capistrano, said that the condominium owners began renting to groups of people, usually Latino immigrants, charging them about $100 per month each. By renting to 10 or more people, Smith said, an $800-a-month mortgage would be taken care of with some left over.

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Smith said, however, that many owners did not know exactly how many people were living on their properties. She mentioned one owner who had been collecting rent from a group of four who later entered the condominium to show a prospective buyer around. It was not until then, Smith said, that the owner discovered that there were 12 people living there.

About two years ago, Smith said, some of the tenants began sub-leasing to friends and relatives or, in many cases, allowing them to stay without paying anything.

“They just bring their friends in to help them out,” she said.

Dills said the situation has become so bad that often 12 to 15 people--and even as many as 25--are sleeping in condominiums designed to hold no more than six. In some cases, he said, bunk beds have been installed in garages to accommodate them all.

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Strain on Services

The crowding has also put a strain on local services. The enrollment of Spanish-speaking students in grades kindergarten through 12 in the Capistrano Unified School District rose from 925 last year to 1,436 this year, and many of those children are from San Juan Capistrano, district spokeswoman Jackie Serra said.

Enrollment in the district’s adult English-as-a-second-language classes has more than doubled over the last year, Serra said. Two thousand adults signed up this year, and again, most are from San Juan Capistrano, she said.

Water and sewer facilities are taxed to the limit at Capistrano Villas. Smith said that the water bill at Capistrano Villas is about $16,000 per month, or an average of $45 per unit.

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By way of comparison, Smith said, “my house with a yard has a water bill of $75 every two months.”

Some residents complain that having so many people living in an individual unit means that some sit outside until late at night drinking and talking.

“They sit and have beer parties on our lawns,” said Henry Edmonds, who has lived at Capistrano Villas for five years. “We get up the next morning and find 20 beer bottles outside.”

‘I Like It Here’

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Sandy Patton, who lives next door, offered a more positive opinion. As a nurse who works the night shift, Patton said, she finds the neighborhood quiet when she gets home.

“I like it here,” Patton, 54, said enthusiastically as she was preparing to ride her horse, which is boarded at a stable across the street. “And the best thing is, I don’t have to worry about what my neighbors say because I don’t understand them.”

The homeowners associations at the developments first tried to resolve the problem themselves, fining people for such things as not repairing broken screens or windows and hanging laundry outside to dry, association members said. The associations could not go inside the residences to remedy the problem of crowding, however, so the city was asked to help.

In October, the city hired a code enforcement officer assigned exclusively to monitor crowding and to alert city traffic control officers to the presence of abandoned vehicles.

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Since starting the job in January, code officer Nabardo Gomez has issued more than 60 citations for crowding, based on occupancy limits set by the California Uniform Housing Code. In general, the code restricts occupancies to seven people for a three-bedroom residence and five for a two-bedroom residence.

Citation Requirements

After a citation has been issued, an owner has 15 days within which to either relieve the situation or respond to the complaint in court.

Jeff Parker, city senior management assistant, said only one of the cases has gone to court and that in that instance, the dwelling was brought into compliance.

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“We are continuing our activities, and over time, we will be involved in more and more cases addressing overcrowding,” Parker said.

Although the city’s cleanup program has been under way for several months now, Hausdorfer said it is too early to judge its success. He said a more complete determination will hmave to be made after a year.

“We are absolutely committed to the program,” the mayor said. “What we want to do is return the neighborhood to the peaceful place it once was.”


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