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All Cities Need Single-Room Dwellings : In a County Where the Median Rent Is Nearly $800, Many Need Cheaper Housing

Mention of the occupation “developer” in Orange County brings to mind million-dollar homes with sweeping ocean views, or acres of tract homes for young executives and their families. But there are other kinds of developers here, including one specializing in housing for the working poor, housing that is in short supply in this wealthy county.

Merrill Butler is president of a company that took a 96-room motel in Costa Mesa and converted it into efficiency apartments known as single-room occupancy dwellings (SRO) two years ago. That experiment worked so well that the city has approved a second SRO. Butler’s company is developing that one as well.

The SROs, common in many urban areas, including New York City and Los Angeles, have had rough going in Orange County. Only in recent years have SRO projects managed to overcome opposition from various segments of the community and win approval in Fullerton and Irvine.

Unfortunately, projects in those two cities have stalled because the developers were short of funds. But Fullerton and Irvine officials would do well to ask successful developers elsewhere to take on projects in their cities, or at least advise the cities how to get the SROs built.

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The need for affordable housing is not unique to any one city in Orange County. Some Costa Mesa residents complained that putting too many SRO projects in their city could depress housing prices. They have argued, with justification, that other cities should do their share to provide housing for poor people. That is the same argument heard in Santa Ana when it comes to sheltering the homeless, that it is a regional problem requiring help from all cities, lest one community get homeless or poor people “dumped” in their midst.

In Costa Mesa, there has been a waiting list for Costa Mesa Village since the SRO opened two years ago. Residents must be single wage earners with an income of no more than $20,000 a year. The rents run from $476 to $496 a month, including utilities and a telephone. Despite the fears of some nearby residents that crime might come with the SROs, there has been only one violent incident at Costa Mesa Village--one too many, perhaps, but police rate it as an isolated incident.

Costa Mesa officials were wise to approve the new SRO. In a county where the median rent is nearly $800 a month, students, senior citizens and those earning the minimum wage need cheaper housing. Other cities should follow Costa Mesa’s example.


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