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Overcrowding Complaints Soar in Santa Ana

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gillie Valencia considers herself lucky to find affordable housing in the city. For $700 a month, she and nine others live in a one-bedroom apartment on East 2nd Street.

In a space the size of a tiny garage, she and her boyfriend sleep in one bed while her three daughters sleep in the other. The boyfriend’s five sons curl up on the living room floor, and Valencia’s brother takes a cot outside.

There is barely room to walk around and absolutely no privacy. The teen-age boys often stay out late rather than come home to the claustrophobic conditions.

Still, the rent makes the apartment a good deal for Valencia, who says she cannot afford anything more. Neighbors have complained that her household is overcrowded, but city officials say they can’t act just because 10 people sleep at the home. Although city codes contain an occupancy limit of “three persons per one bedroom,” a state court ruling prevents Santa Ana from enforcing the restriction.

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As thousands of new residents pour each year into Orange County’s largest city, which has grown 41% since the 1980 census, Santa Ana officials are being flooded with complaints of overcrowding. They have received 1,056 so far this year.

Longtime residents say their neighborhoods are being overwhelmed by the sheer number of people living in close quarters. Police warn of a direct correlation between high density and crime. And city inspectors say crowding has led to other complaints, such as excessive trash and too many cars parked on residential streets.

“We are at the point where people are spilling into the streets and people are living on top of each other,” said Dave Hermance, supervisor for the city’s building inspection division.

Mayor Daniel H. Young says crowding is a major city problem that he attributes to the lack of affordable housing in Orange County and the influx of illegal immigrants who find that rents are lower in Santa Ana.

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“The illegal population is the principal source of overcrowding in the city,” Young said. “Many of them stay here, and the last thing they want to do is spend a lot of money on housing. They are willing to tolerate terrible living conditions, including overcrowding.”

But attorney Richard L. Spix, who specializes in tenant cases, says officials unfairly blame low-income renters for urban problems that cannot be resolved by limiting the number of people living in one room. And because the bulk of the complaints are directed at neighborhoods that are mostly Latino, Spix contends that many of the charges are “racist” as well.

“The problem is not the number of people living in one room,” Spix said. “The problem is that the city doesn’t know how to take care of problems that come along with being a large city. You can’t blame the Mexicans just because they have more people in a household.”

Benjamin Gonzales, a janitor, lives in a $575-a-month, one-bedroom apartment with his wife, four sons and a nephew. They have squeezed two beds into a tiny room where statues of saints and Little League trophies stand side by side. There are no closets, and bedding is carefully rolled to make room for stacks of children’s clothing.

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“Where can I go?” asked Gonzales. “I cannot pay for a bigger place.”

Half of what Gonzales earns from his $7-an-hour job goes to pay rent. The rest pays for groceries, gas for the car and other housekeeping expenses. There is not much left for luxury items.

A year ago, the city could have cited the family for overcrowding because Gonzales, his wife and three of the children sleep in the bedroom while the others stay on the sofa bed in the living room. The city would have been following its own housing definition that forbids residents from having more than three people per bedroom.

But in December, 1989, the state District Court of Appeal upheld a decision that requires Santa Ana to follow the state housing code, which permits rooms other than bedrooms to be considered sleeping quarters. Under state law, residents are allowed to use other rooms in an apartment--living rooms, dining rooms, hallways--as sleeping quarters.

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The court decision helps the Gonzales family, but city officials complain that it handcuffs them.

“By community standards, there is an awful lot of overcrowding in the city,” Hermance said. “We can’t do anything about them because of the ruling. Meanwhile, the wear and tear that goes through a neighborhood continues.”

Figures from the 1990 census show that Santa Ana is the most populous city in the county, with about 288,000 residents, about 50,000 of whom are undocumented. Many of the illegals resort to living in the central and eastern portions of Santa Ana, where the rents are cheaper and where a majority of the city’s largest apartment complexes are located, Spix said. The apartment buildings are clustered along Chestnut Avenue and Walnut Street below the Civic Center and in the Minnie Street Corridor, where up to 12,000 residents are squeezed into a 22-block area.

“We end up having more crime problems in these areas than any other part of the city,” Police Chief Paul M. Walters said.

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Police statistics generally reflect higher crime rates in crowded areas. For example, Police District 186--the area where the Minnie Street Corridor is located--had more than 1,299 criminal incidents in 1989, much higher than in other parts of the city.

District 106--another crowded region bordered by 1st Street, McFadden Avenue and Raitt and Sullivan streets--had 1,322 reported incidents last year.

The city’s most crime-ridden police grid includes a chunk of Bristol Street, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. Police reported 1,719 crimes in that area last year.

Police officials say that crowded conditions in apartment buildings invariably lead to problems on the street.

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The number of vehicles in a high-density neighborhood often prevent trash trucks and street sweepers from making rounds. Tenants who congregate outside their homes draw complaints from neighbors who say they are too loud. And overtaxed plumbing systems sometimes cause raw sewage to spill into yards and the streets.

Code inspectors say some landlords and even tenants take advantage of the lack of affordable housing by illegally converting garages and toolsheds into living quarters without proper building permits.

In one incident reported to the city, a landlord built a miniature shantytown in central Santa Ana, where he rented several wooden sheds to his tenants. The sheds housed a dozen or so people who shared an outdoor kitchen, shower and toilet. Because the shacks were illegally built, the city was able to make the owner demolish them.

“There’s a market out there where people are taking advantage of each other,” said Mary Anne Gaido, of the Orange County Human Relations Commission. “The conditions are so grim for low-income people that they have become desperate for a place to stay.”

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Mayor Young said the overcrowding has forced Santa Ana to increase city services. More police officers have had to be hired to keep up with rising crime in some areas, school enrollment has skyrocketed and the city’s social services have found themselves overloaded.

Young admits that there are only a few solutions the city can employ to ease overcrowding without violating people’s civil rights.

Some solutions include eliminating overnight street parking in the most crowded neighborhoods, as well as requiring apartment owners to enforce strict rental agreements that limit occupancy. The most drastic solution the city could use is also its most expensive tactic: acquire the most overcrowded and dilapidated apartment buildings and tear them down.

Such solutions are intolerable to attorney Spix, who agrees that Santa Ana suffers more than its share of overcrowding but doesn’t want low-income tenants to become “scapegoats.”

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SANTA ANA OVERCROWDING VIOLATORS

The Santa Ana inspection services division receives about 100 overcrowding complaints a month. Last year, the city received 1,479 complaints. So far this year, the number has reached 1,056. The sites outlined on the map indicate areas in the city where there has been a high number of overcrowding violations that have been verified by the city’s building code inspectors.

Source: Santa Ana Planning and Building Agency


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