It was difficult to tell who lived there and who was just visiting.
A man and woman left the tiny apartment to run an errand while toddlers dashed in and out of the front door. Inside, the musty smell of the residence mixed with the aroma of garlic and onion being cooked by a woman in the small kitchen. A teen-ager watched cartoons on television in the living room and his father, Alfonso Perez, sat at the kitchen table.
Perez, 47, shares the cramped, yet sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment with his wife, teen-age son, and a family of four--seven people living in a space ideally built for two.
It is not the life he dreamed of when he left Mexico eight years ago, Perez said, but at least it is affordable.
"There are better apartments," he said, "but you have to put down a deposit, plus the rent and pay the light." Here, he added, there was no deposit and the manager understands if the $655 monthly rent payment is a little late these days, when odd jobs are harder to find.
Perez considers himself fortunate to have a roof over his head, but neighborhood preservationists and city officials across the state are formulating strategies to attack his living conditions and those of thousands like him throughout the Southland, arguing that crowded housing is unhealthy, unsafe, and should be eradicated.
Once limited to run-down urban cores of major cities, crowded housing is spreading to small cities such as Dana Point on the coast; to areas in the Inland Empire where the affordable housing stock has not kept up with the increasing population; and to college communities such as San Diego and San Luis Obispo, where groups of students cram into three-bedroom houses and disrupt the surrounding neighborhood.
In an effort to get hold of the problem, some cities are considering tough new zoning laws that limit the number of people who can occupy one dwelling, while at the same time cracking down on building code violations.
But the movement has taken on strong political and racial overtones--in one case costing a group of Anglo Los Angeles County politicians their jobs when they tried using restrictive zoning measures to put the brakes on overcrowding.
The real issue, housing rights groups say, is the lack of affordable housing, a problem particularly acute in the Southland.
"We don't have enough housing, and the housing that's out there just costs too much," said Marc Brown, staff attorney for the Sacramento-based California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.
While conceding that the root cause of the malady--the housing shortage--must be addressed, municipal officials cite a myriad of symptoms they say need their immediate attention--and action.
They call attention to the negative effects that overcrowding has on a city's infrastructure--streets too choked with cars to allow emergency vehicles to pass; schools so packed that children must eat in shifts, and sewers overflowing. Residents also complain about increased crime and vandalism, traffic congestion, loitering, and trash scattered through once pristine neighborhoods.
In the Orange County city of Garden Grove, City Manager George Tindall complained that sewer, water, and gas lines in crowded areas require constant repair because they were not designed for the high densities found in some neighborhoods.
"We have had sewage back up on the streets because of overcrowding," Tindall said. "All that planning goes out the window, when you have 10 or 15 people living in a one-bedroom apartment."
Propelled by the anger of neighborhood activists, cities are seeking ways to control housing density. Strategies employed by some cities include:
* Approval of a new residential overcrowding ordinance in Santa Ana--a law some officials say has possible statewide ramifications--that would effectively impose a limit of five on the number of people allowed to live in an average one-bedroom apartment. Frustrated with state housing and building codes they see as lax, Santa Ana officials are going through the courts to test cities' ability to set occupancy limits that are more restrictive than state law. The law passed one legal hurdle but the case is being appealed.
* Aggressively filing building code violation cases against slumlords in cities such as Anaheim and Garden Grove. While awaiting the outcome of the Santa Ana case, neighboring cities are sweeping through apartment complexes in search of illegal room additions, faulty wiring, leaky plumbing, backed-up toilets, or other code violations that are warning signs of residential overcrowding. Officials hope that by taking the profit out of renting to too many residents and forcing costly repairs, landlords will have an incentive to reduce densities.
* The appointment of a task force in Oxnard to study the issue, with a report due in early 1992. Crippled by budget constraints, however, the city was forced to reduce its staff of code inspectors from four to two, effectively curtailing routine inspections for code violations.
* Approval of tighter residential occupancy restrictions in San Diego which target single-family homes near college campuses that often are rented by large groups of students.
* Study of a proposed ordinance in Inglewood that would outlaw the conversion of garages into apartments. Following an unprecedented population and construction boom during the 1980s, the city enacted a yearlong ban on the construction of multifamily units in 1989, followed by stricter construction standards aimed at slowing growth and requiring more space per dwelling unit.
"How do you deal with that issue without throwing people on the street?" Inglewood City Councilman Jose Fernandez asked recently.
It is a question city officials are being forced to deal with as they find themselves in the middle of a cross-fire between neighborhood preservationists and advocates for the low-income and immigrant communities seeking affordable shelter.
A communitywide maelstrom over the issue swept four of the five Bell Gardens City Council members out of office during a recent recall election.
Voters became agitated and accused the council of racism when it approved a new zoning map that would have reduced home construction within the city. Opponents argued that the zoning changes would reduce affordable housing in a city that is 90% Latino, with almost two out of every three renters living in housing that the U.S. Census Bureau defines as overcrowded.
In general, advocates of affordable housing and immigrant rights argue that attempts to regulate residential occupancy discriminate against low-income citizens and minorities who tend to share households with extended families.
"They (city officials) don't want to break (families) up, they want them to move," said Mercedes M. Marquez, a Los Angeles public interest attorney who represents slum building tenants.
"It's a very divisive issue," Monrovia City Councilwoman Lara Blakely said, "because there's a general feeling that it's being used for racist purposes."
As the new chairwoman of the California League of Cities' housing committee, Blakely also warns that residential overcrowding ordinances will add to the homeless population.
"Would you rather have people in houses tripping over each other, or be tripping over people on the street?" she asked.
Though a solution seems elusive, both sides agree that a serious problem exists.
California ranks second in the nation after Hawaii in rental and owner-occupied units that are considered overcrowded, with a rate of 12.3%, compared to the national average of 4.9%. The U.S. Census Bureau defines residential overcrowding as a unit that has more than 1.01 persons per room.
In Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial, and San Diego counties, almost one out of every four rental units would be classified as overcrowded, based on the 1990 census. More than two-thirds of the overcrowded rental units in the state are located in the Southland.
The problem in rental units is most acute in areas such as Imperial County, where 30.3% of all renters live in overcrowded conditions; the city of Los Angeles, with a 30.2% overcrowding rate; and in Orange County, where about one out of five renters share cramped living space.
In the Ventura County cities of Fillmore, Oxnard and Santa Paula--refuge for immigrant farm workers--more than one out of every three renters lives in overcrowded housing, according to census figures.
A recent study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments concluded that affordability seems to be the obstacle that prevents elderly renters, young families, recent immigrants and the homeless from finding adequate housing. Population analysts, government officials, housing experts and civil rights activists agree that residential overcrowding has worsened in recent years because the number of affordable housing units has not kept pace with the unprecedented population growth in the state--fueled largely by immigration.
And the growth is expected to continue. The combined 1990 population in San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties--now at 5.2 million--is expected to rise 56% by 2005, according to Gov. Pete Wilson's Council on Growth Management.
Newly arrived immigrants and the "working poor" from across the country are flocking to the region only to encounter the economic recession.
Unable to find work and meet monthly rent payments in the high-priced California housing markets, low- to moderate-income families are moving into whatever units they can find at prices they can afford. And if the cost still is too high--the median home value in the state's southern region is $211,600 while the average rent is $586, according to SCAG--families double up or triple up to meet expenses.
"In the last 20 years, rents have gone up 397%, but incomes have gone up only 270%," said Brown, of the Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.
In a South Oxnard apartment, Maria Sapiens pays $150 per month to sleep in a tiny laundry room with her 17-year-old son. Her other son, 18, sleeps on a mattress on the living room floor. The remainder of the one-bedroom apartment is occupied by six other people from two different families.
"Here we are, barely squeaking by," she said recently. "My room gets all wet whenever it rains, but what can I do? It wasn't meant to be a bedroom, but the onion harvest was very poor this year and we barely have enough money for our rice and beans."
During the last 10 years, the rate of overcrowding grew dramatically in most Southland counties.
In San Bernardino and San Diego counties, where exponential growth is expected to occur during the next decade, the rate of overcrowded rental housing increased by 86% between 1980 and 1990. And the number of packed rental units in Orange County grew 110% during the last decade, the highest increase in the region, according to census figures.
The problem is at a crisis level in Santa Ana, where an average of four people live in each household, compared to an average of 2.87 persons throughout the rest of Orange County. In the most densely populated census tract in the center of the city, an average of seven people live in each dwelling.
An earlier attempt by Santa Ana to pass an overcrowding ordinance was rejected in 1990 by an appellate court, which found that the city's interpretation of the state housing code was too restrictive.
Where the city had tried to limit to four the number of persons in an average one-bedroom apartment unit, the court allowed up to 10 people.
The city responded last spring with a new ordinance that requires 150 square feet for the first two occupants, and 100 square feet for each additional resident. Stairwells, halls, closets, bathrooms and kitchens are excluded from the minimum square-footage requirements. City staffers said the law would allow five people in an average one-bedroom apartment.
The plaintiff in the first case, Santa Ana assembly plant worker Ascencion Briseno, returned to court. If the ordinance were strictly enforced, Briseno's one-bedroom apartment would not meet minimum space requirements and he, his wife and three children would be forced to leave.
Briseno's attorney, immigrant rights specialist Richard L. Spix, argued in Superior Court that state law prohibits the city from setting occupancy limits unless they are warranted by changes in geographic, topographic or climatic conditions.
But in a dramatic change in legal strategy, Santa Ana City Atty. Edward J. Cooper maintained that the state law was unconstitutional, and absent a valid state code, cities were free to set their own occupancy limits.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Floyd H. Schenk agreed with the city. However, the 4th District Court of Appeal has delayed enforcement of the ordinance pending appeal by Briseno.
If upheld in court, the case would impact cities across the state.
Support for Santa Ana's legal fight is strongest in neighboring cities in Orange County that complain they cannot prosecute crowded housing cases as forcefully as they would like to under existing state law.
Dana Point is poised to enact a similar ordinance and the cities of Orange and San Clemente are awaiting the outcome of the Santa Ana court case before considering adoption of occupancy limits there.
In Los Angeles and San Diego, officials said they also are watching the Santa Ana occupancy limits case with hopes of strengthening their own enforcement efforts.
But not every housing official is convinced that Santa Ana is on the right track.
"Personally, I'm not excited about the Santa Ana ordinance," said Oxnard Housing Officer Carl Lawson. "It's impossible to enforce. It infringes on the right of landlords to make money, and it has a disproportionate effect on the minority population."
Los Angeles Chief Housing Inspector Jim Carney noted that residential overcrowding usually is difficult to prove.
"Unless we get a search warrant and go in the middle of the night, there's no way of telling how many people are living there," Carney said.
San Jose City Atty. Joan Gallo said that while her city must deal with problems stemming from high densities, the city uses community redevelopment funds and other resources to relocate tenants in affordable units.
"I cannot imagine coming up with an ordinance that pushes a lot of people out of their current homes," Gallo said. "We do not see overcrowding as the problem. We see it as a symptom of a problem and our energies are used to find housing."
A spokeswoman for the California Apartment Assn. said the group supports the accepted practice in Los Angeles--using the state housing code as a guide for maximum occupancy, but also allowing enforcement of a lower occupancy level if the landlord and tenant have agreed to it by contract.
The Los Angeles City Council recently approved a housing strategy, to be submitted with its application for more than $100 million in federal funds, that calls for housing construction along planned transportation corridors, and the preservation and rehabilitation of existing affordable housing, including about 200,000 slum units.
The plan--significantly modified after neighborhood groups rose in opposition--also recommends that if a zoning change bans or limits apartment construction, replacement sites for affordable housing should be identified.
The recent study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments showed that of the $292 million held in redevelopment accounts in 1990 throughout the state's southern region, excluding San Diego County, $204 million was available for affordable housing. The money sits unused in the accounts, the report said.
"This untapped potential for housing assistance has accumulated in the face of an increasing need for affordable shelter," the report concluded.
Without greater assistance from the public sector, housing industry experts said, the construction of affordable housing is not likely to keep pace with the population explosion.
Since 1986, when the construction permits for multifamily housing statewide reached a high of 159,921 units, the number of permits has "dropped like a rock" each year, said Bob Reimar, technical director for the California Building Industry Assn.
He estimated that only about 30,000 apartments would be built this year, far short of the 150,000 new multifamily units that are in demand annually across the state.
Industry experts blame federal tax laws and the credit crunch for driving away potential investors from the multifamily construction market. And without investors, builders are required to pay a larger percentage of the development costs up front and recover their money through higher rents.
"We used to build apartments," said Dan Grady, president of San Diego-based Monfric Inc., which has a large portfolio of multifamily housing throughout most of Southern California. But, he added, the federal government issued a "double whammy" by also cutting back federal rent subsidies to low-income families.
"This will be the worst year for multifamily housing since World War II," Reimar said. "This is a road map for destruction."
Times staff writer Santiago O'Donnell and researchers Danny Sullivan and Maureen Lyons contributed to this report.
Nearly one-quarter of Southern California's rental units are considered "overcrowded" by the U.S. Census Bureau, which means that they have more than one person per room. Rates are worst among Los Angeles County cities, but municipalities in neighboring counties also face the problem.
L.A.'s the Place
Los Angeles County has the worst overcrowding problem. Nine of the 10 most overcrowded cities in the region are in the county.
Rental % Over- Rank City Units crowded 1 Bell Gardens 7,162 64.4% 2 Maywood 4,513 63.9% 3 South El Monte 2,433 61.0% 4 Huntington Park 9,945 60.7% 5 Cudahy 4,374 58.4% 6 Coachella* 1,548 55.6% 7 El Monte 15,624 54.1% 8 Lynwood 7,338 53.7% 9 San Fernando 2,557 52.2% 10 Bell 6,270 51.6% Los Angeles County 1,548,722 27.5% Southern California* 2,679,481 23.3%
* Includes Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial counties.
Problems on the Periphery
Concern about overcrowding has peaked in Orange County, where Santa Ana is fighting in court to regulate living conditions more strictly than state codes allow. Since 1980, the county's overcrowding rate shot up higher than elsewhere in the region.
About 20% of the rental units in Orange County are considered overcrowded--more than double the percentage in 1980. Immigrants looking for work but must cram into pricey units. At $728, Orange County has the highest median rent in the region.
Rental % Over- City Units crowded 1 Santa Ana 37,032 49.4% 2 Garden Grove 17,992 31.8% 3 Westminster 9,335 28.1% 4 Stanton 5,148 27.4% 5 Anaheim 44,465 24.8% Orange County 330,284 19.9%
Ventura County's overcrowding rate is pushed high by the cities of Fillmore, Oxnard and Santa Paula, which are havens for immigrant workers. Oxnard has cut its code inspector staff because of fiscal problems, but a task force is working on the issue.
Rental % Over- City Units crowded 1 Fillmore 1,289 35.6% 2 Oxnard 18,183 34.1% 3 Santa Paula 3,176 33.1% 4 Port Hueneme 3,564 19.2% 5 Moorpark City 1,513 19.2% Ventura County 75,036 19.2%
San Bernardino County
The percentage of overcrowded rental units in San Bernardino County is well below the regional average, but the county may face problems if population continues to rise dramatically, as projected.
Rental % Over- City Units Overcrowded 1 Montclair 3,295 28.7% 2 Ontario 16,678 25.7% 3 Chino 5,020 21.6% 4 San Bernardino 26,014 21.5% 5 Colton 6,464 20.2% S.B. County 170,489 16.9%
San Diego County
San Diego County has the region's lowest percentage of overcrowded rental units, but its situation is similar to San Bernardino's. Both areas have seen their rental overcrowding rates increase 86% since 1980.
Rental % Over- City Units Overcrowded 1 National City 9,534 35.2% 2 Vista 11,702 18.6% 3 Imperial Beach 6,436 18.0% 4 Escondido 18,882 17.1% 5 Oceanside 19,429 16.8% S.D. County 409,824 14.8%
Riverside County, with San Diego and San Bernardino counties, is expected to absorb 1/3 of the state's new population growth between now and 2005. Such growth is predicted to increase overcrowded conditions unless more affordable housing is built.
Rental % Over- City Units Overcrowded 1 Coachella 1,548 55.6% 2 Indio 5,477 42.6% 3 Banning 2,567 24.3% 4 Cathedral City 4,173 23.0% 5 Corona 8,626 21.4% Riverside County 131,191 18.4%
Imperial County has the region's worst rental overcrowding rate. But numerically, Imperial's few thousand overcrowded units are dwarfed by L.A. County's nearly half-million.
Rental % Over- City Units Overcrowded 1 Calipatria 279 40.1% 2 Calexico 2,209 39.2% 3 Holtville 594 32.0% 4 El Centro 4,572 31.0% 5 Brawley 2,933 28.5% Imperial County 13,935 30.3%
NOTE: The Census Bureau counts major rooms such as living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms and dens when estimating overcrowding. Rates shown are for all occupied units.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau and Southern California Assn. of Governments