Using Safety as Tenet in Occupancy Issue : * Santa Ana Must Prove State Standards Pose Fire Hazard Before Making Local Changes

The city of Santa Ana is nothing if not persistent in its efforts to write its own local standards on the number of occupants allowed in apartments.

Accused of discrimination against the poor by critics, strongly rebuffed in court, the city is now back at it. State Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) has introduced legislation that would essentially restore the city's earlier intention of restricting apartments to one occupant per 50 square feet, a far more restrictive requirement than a prevailing state standard.

Last time around, the city got blasted by the 4th District Court of Appeal, which considered its argument about a diminished quality of life and found that there was nothing so exceptional about Santa Ana that would warrant giving it reprieve from what the rest of the state abided by. This time, however, the city has raised an issue that cannot easily be dismissed.

The latest legislative try in Sacramento hinges on the question of fire safety, and whether higher density residences are more prone to fire than those with fewer occupants. Santa Ana firefighter Jim Albers has conducted test burns to see if, in fact, apartments crammed with belongings burn faster and hotter, and therefore pose more of a hazard to occupants.

Last January, fire killed three people in a South Alder Street home in Santa Ana thought to be overcrowded. In Santa Ana, 13 fire deaths between the end of 1991 and January were attributed by fire officials to overcrowding. The firefighters' data are still being studied, and more independent conclusions may be needed, but to date the inquiry has sparked interest and support in the League of California Cities and around the county.

In the meantime, housing activists continue to raise good questions about singling out poor tenants in Santa Ana and exposing them to the whims of slumlords when they may complain about conditions. There also continue to be important concerns about producing a new wave of homelessness in the county.

Legitimate concerns about safety and local control are in collision here with chronic housing needs. The city's attempt to arrest a perceived deterioration of quality of life must be taken seriously. However, there is no compelling evidence to date that the state standard on housing occupancy per square foot poses an onerous burden on the community.

Until there is conclusive evidence that the prevailing state square footage provision poses a safety hazard, which would be a finding with statewide implications, the state standard should prevail.

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