With Orange County struggling to find affordable housing for its growing population of low-income working people and welfare recipients, county supervisors Tuesday ordered a study of an innovative housing program initiated in San Diego and emulated across the nation.
In particular, the Orange County study will focus on construction of single-room-occupancy hotels, which are clustered residential living areas that resemble college dormitories, often featuring shared bathroom and cooking areas. The 60-day review will be conducted by the Environmental Management Agency, which is expected to return with specific recommendations for zoning and building code changes that would allow for development of the hotels in the county.
SROs, as the residential hotels are known, have been successfully tested in San Diego, and Orange County Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, a leading advocate of SRO construction, said Tuesday that the facilities "would truly be something that would be effective in terms of helping the homeless people of this county."
Santa Ana Mayor Daniel H. Young, who co-chaired an SRO task force with Stanton, agreed, calling the prospects of residential hotel construction in Orange County "excellent" and predicting that some of the facilities could be built as early as next year.
Since San Diego launched an SRO program in 1987, the idea has spread to cities across the country, but it has been slow to catch on in Orange County, where the area's wealth often has obscured a dire shortage of low-income housing. If the supervisors approve the needed building and zoning changes, officials predict that SRO development will quickly take off because the area's acute housing shortage has created a demand for the facilities.
Mike Lennon, community affairs director for the Orange County Building Industry Assn., said local developers already have expressed interest in building SROs. The BIA is planning to hold a workshop at the end of October to brief prospective developers on building the residential hotels.
It won't be a moment too soon, say county officials and housing advocates.
"We're seeing more and more working poor people in this county," said Larry Leaman, director of the county's Social Services Agency. "We have more and more people coming forward needing food stamps and needing welfare and needing housing."
The county's review will be aided by a new guide to SRO development prepared by area cities, building industry officials and county staff members. That document, entitled "Orange County SRO Housing Development Guide," was presented to the board Tuesday and was quickly hailed by housing advocates.
"They're calling this the SRO cookbook," said Judy Lenthall, president of HomeAid, a nonprofit housing corporation backed by the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California. "But I've been calling it the SRO New Testament. It's fabulous."
Lenthall, who drafted the much-admired San Diego program, called the Orange County guide the "latest and greatest in SRO planning and development in the nation" and predicted that it would be widely used by city and county governments trying to pave the way for SRO construction in their areas.
Orange County cities assisted in drafting the report, and their cooperation would be needed to make widespread development of the residential hotels possible. Most of the county's densely populated areas are incorporated, so merely amending the county zoning laws would not have any direct effect on the laws of cities.
The cities' support seems solid, however, as 16 of them were represented on the task force that produced the guide, and the local League of California Cities chapter heartily endorsed it.
Indeed, SRO construction has found support from a broad range of constituencies: Conservative Republicans such as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp--who commended Stanton on Orange County's guide--see them as a way for the private sector to address a social need. And liberal Democrats hail them as a way to alleviate homelessness.
"This program has no politics," Lenthall said. "Orange County is ripe, and they've finally matured enough to recognize the importance of affordable housing. I'm very optimistic."