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City of Orange Approves ‘Strict’ Occupancy Law

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In an effort to crack down on overcrowded dwellings, the Orange City Council has given initial approval to an ordinance that critics say could reduce the supply of low-income housing in Orange County.

City officials said the new occupancy law, which sets limits on the number of occupants per residence, is necessary to control overcrowding and the social ills it may cause. Housing rights advocates, however, said the Orange ordinance is more severe than a similar Santa Ana law now pending before a state appellate court and promised a legal fight.

The Orange ordinance is “at least as strict, and more likely, more strict, than (the ordinance in) Santa Ana,” said attorney Richard L. Spix, who filed lawsuits against the housing occupancy limits in Santa Ana.

The Orange ordinance, passed unanimously on Tuesday, is based on a combination of federal Department of Housing and Urban Development standards, a model ordinance drafted by the Apartment Assn. of Orange County, and similar laws passed in Dana Point and Santa Ana. It would restrict occupancy to no more than two people per bedroom plus one additional occupant, no more than one person per 120 square feet of living space, and no more than seven people per bathroom.

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The Santa Ana ordinance allows four to five people per bedroom. The constitutionality of that ordinance is being considered by the 4th District Court of Appeal.

“The resulting number (of occupants per residence) in Orange is drastically less than that permitted in Santa Ana,” Spix said.

Orange’s law is most similar to an ordinance being enforced in Dana Point, where a city law passed in January restricts occupancy to two people per bedroom plus one other person per dwelling unit, or one person for each 120 square feet of living space, whichever permits the greater number of residents. That law survived an initial legal challenge, but may face further scrutiny when the Santa Ana case is decided, he said.

Orange Assistant City Atty. Robert Herrick said his city’s ordinance may be more strict than Santa Ana in some instances, but is more lenient in others and should withstand legal challenge.

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For example, unlike the Santa Ana ordinance, only new occupants will be affected in Orange, and infants and guests who stay 14 or fewer consecutive days will not be counted as occupants.

Violation of the Orange ordinance by landlords or tenants will be considered a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison or a fine of up to $500, Herrick said.

Spix said the Orange ordinance is “fairly certain to be litigated.”

“The central issue in the Santa Ana case is whether a city has the power to adapt a change to state law,” Spix said. “That does not change in the distance between Orange and Santa Ana. They can’t modify a state law.”

City officials have argued that the state’s Uniform Housing Code allows up to 10 occupants per bedroom, a limit they argue is unsafe and leads to increases in crime, vandalism, traffic and other social ills.

More suitable, they said, is the standard set for federally subsidized housing by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that allows two to four occupants per one-bedroom unit.

But Spix argued that the HUD standard should not apply to residents who do not accept federal funds.

“The government is offering an incentive for compliance” with occupancy limits, Spix said. “All Orange is giving is the boot.”

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Orange’s law is the latest blow to the county’s poorest residents, said David Casada, a resident of Orange and executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Orange County.

“I’m deeply concerned,” Casada said. “This is a noticeable trend and it’s a very serious problem. It may violate the Fair Housing Act and we’re reviewing it very closely to see if it impacts protected classes.”

Crystal Sims, director of litigation for the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, said cities are trying to “legislate out the only type of affordable housing people have left.

“It’s really a sad commentary that cities are taking this approach to dealing with the housing crisis and with homelessness and poverty. They’re putting their heads in the sand and hoping it will go away.”

But city officials say overcrowded units have become hotbeds of crime, and health and safety hazards, and claim an occupancy ordinance is necessary to control the problems.

The highest crime rate in the city is in the area surrounding the Orange Park Villa apartments, a notoriously overcrowded, 263-unit complex in east Orange, said Orange police Lt. Edward Tunstall.

Code Enforcement Supervisor Susan Tully illustrated the city’s overcrowding problem at Tuesday’s council meeting with a slide show depicting a two-bedroom apartment that housed 25 people. Extra beds were stashed under the stairway, in the dining room and in an upstairs closet, while couches lined the living room. Officials recently discovered 68 people living in three bedrooms and a two-car garage on one lot, Tully added.

“Our objective is to ensure the safety and welfare of residents dwelling in high-density buildings without denying them the only home they have,” Councilman William G. Steiner said.

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Added Councilwoman Joanne Coontz: “As far as we’re concerned, we have to take this position because we owe it to our citizens. We want to keep our city the strong neighborhood city that it is. We don’t want it to be like some of the other cities that surround it.”

The council is expected to give final approval to the ordinance at its June 9 meeting. It becomes effective 90 days after adoption.


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