Taking the first step in what promises to be an uphill fight, a measure that would allow Santa Ana and other cities to reduce overcrowded housing conditions and ease fire dangers won approval Wednesday from a key state Senate committee.
Despite harsh criticism from housing activists, the Senate Local Government Committee voted 7 to 0 to send the measure by Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) to the Senate floor.
Bergeson dramatically revamped the bill before Wednesday's hearing in an effort to ease fears that it could be used by unscrupulous civic leaders to unfairly evict low-income residents and minorities.
As originally introduced, the bill would have allowed cities such as Santa Ana to set their own occupancy limits, an idea that met with sharp resistance when the measure was first heard by the Local Government Committee in March.
Bergeson's new version prohibits cities from tampering with occupancy limits. Instead, the bill would weave stricter standards into the state housing code, tying occupancy limits to the size of a home's bedrooms, not the square footage of the entire dwelling.
While the approach is different, the new version would have essentially the same effect as Bergeson's earlier effort. Although current law allows up to 10 people in an apartment of about 500 square feet, Bergeson's proposal would cut the allowable occupancy roughly in half.
Bergeson argued that the tougher standards are needed to lessen the fire danger caused by crowded dwellings, which can become a tinderbox stuffed with mattresses, clothing and other personal belongings.
"It's a very modest, reasonable approach to dealing with overcrowded housing," said Bergeson, whose bill is backed by more than 50 city councils, fire departments and government associations.
Housing advocates, however, say the measure would push minorities and the poor out onto the streets, increasing the homeless problem. Moreover, they suggested it would prove difficult to determine exactly what rooms qualify as bedrooms. Some expressed concern it would criminalize poor people and prompt landlords to discriminate against large families.
Marcus B. Brown Jr. of California Rural Legal Assistance said the measure would simply put additional pressures on those municipalities that didn't enforce the tougher standards.
"This just moves the problem around," he said. "Overcrowding might lessen in Orange County, but it could increase in L.A. and other urban centers."