Garage Homes: Too Risky and Much Too Common

The death of 15-year-old

Yuridia Balbuena, shot two weeks ago through the thin wall of the family home as she baked a cake, brought quick investigation not just from the Costa Mesa police, but from the city's building code authorities.

The Balbuena family home, where seven people were living, was a 12-by-20-foot windowless garage. At $100 a month, it was all the Balbuenas could afford.

Garage living is a serious code violation, for health and safety reasons. But it's also a sad and unfortunate circumstance for perhaps thousands of poor people throughout Orange County.

"It is extensive, and a travesty," said Santa Ana Housing Authority director Patricia Whitaker. "I wish we had better solutions."

It's difficult to assess how widespread the problem is. Cities such as Santa Ana, Anaheim and Fullerton report it's a constant battle to shut down garage homes, where entire families often are crammed together. Whitaker talks about garages with as many as 20 people, and one where there were so many people that those living there slept in shifts.

"They are just so dangerous, you have to shut them down immediately," said Anaheim's chief code enforcement officer John Poole.

The Balbuenas, for example, had bunk beds jammed close to the hot water heater that served the house attached to the garage. Heater explosions are always a threat, but fume leaks can also cause health problems. Makeshift electrical arrangements are dangerous too.

And almost none of these garages have adequate escape routes in case of a fire.

Sandi Benson, chief code enforcement officer for Costa Mesa, talked about one garage family using hot charcoals set up to keep the sleeping children warm during the night.

"When you see children involved, it's imperative that you shut these places down immediately and help these families relocate," Benson said.

State housing standards make it illegal to live in a dwelling without proper ventilation or plumbing, or allowing people to sleep in the same room as their gas ovens or water heaters.

Costa Mesa is the rare city that actually seeks out garage homes through its police enforcement. Officers will check ads in the newspaper, or notices posted at fast-food places, to see who is offering homes for rent that might be garages. They will even check for curtains on the side doors of garages.

But most municipalities are so low on personnel they rely almost solely on complaint calls.

"We check out every complaint," said Kevin Shear, the city of Orange's code enforcement chief. "But there are whole areas out there that we know nothing about, where many, many people are probably living in such substandard housing."

Jinny Barton, Fullerton code enforcement supervisor, says the city gets about 50 calls a year about garage dwellings, but estimates that there are "many, many more out there we never hear about."

Most complaints come from neighbors, although several code enforcement people told me that too often neighbors remain silent out of empathy for the impoverished garage dwellers.

Sometimes, the garage dwellers themselves make the complaints. They will call the city to blow the whistle on landlords who aren't keeping up conditions like the heat--unaware that their complaint is going to cost them what primitive living conditions they do have.

Some garage conversions are actually well kept, meant for couples or singles. But numerous city code enforcement officers told me they've come across such cramped, unlivable garage conditions that it would shock most people.

"But you have to understand, for some people, garage living isn't substandard housing," said Shear of Orange. "Some have come here from another country where they were living virtually in cardboard boxes."

Some code enforcement problems come not from garage occupants but from too many people crammed into an apartment. That manifests itself into other problems that do come to attention of the authorities.

"When you've got 12 people using just one bathroom, it doesn't take long for it to fall apart," said Brea code enforcement director Roger Gary.

Authorities say apartment overcrowding is much more complicated to address; state laws on how many can live in a house or apartment are so nebulous that it's difficult to make an enforcement charge stick.

But if you know of overcrowding, code officials say, you aren't doing the occupants a favor by keeping quiet.

"By all means, call us," said Benson of Costa Mesa. "We need to know, for the safety of the children involved."

Yuridia Balbuena was carrying a 7-month-old baby, who also died when a gunman shot through that garage door. No one can believe that garage was the proper place to raise a baby.

Her family has since had to temporarily move in with friends. But they will never return to that garage. The property owner has been put on notice that if he doesn't convert the garage back to its intended use, the city will go after him in court.

However, Benson said, "it's very difficult for us to know if these garages remain shut down."

Here's something that won't solve the crisis, but it's a good first step: U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) will hold an affordable housing summit on June 21 at Rancho Santiago Community College District headquarters at 2323 Broadway in Santa Ana. Though not open to the public, some 75 business and community leaders have been invited to come up with recommendations for reducing the numbers of people in the county who live in substandard housing, like the garage dwellers.

"We may not see a solution that day," Whitaker said, "but the more open dialogue we have, the better chance we have understanding what we're facing."

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Jerry Hicks' column appears Monday and Thursday. Readers may reach Hicks by calling (714) 564-1049 or e-mail to jerry.hicks@latimes.com

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