With the most crowded households of any large U.S. city and many of its dwellings substandard, Santa Ana faces an intractable dilemma: how to enforce health and safety laws without forcing thousands of residents onto the street.
Santa Ana’s average household size of 4.6 people is, according to the U.S. census, greater than that of any other U.S. city with a population of more than 50,000. The average household size in Los Angeles is 2.8; in New York City, it’s 2.6.
Exacerbating Santa Ana’s housing problem is that one in every five dwellings is substandard, the city says. And Santa Ana has the nation’s second-highest percentage of foreign-born residents, many of whom are poor and reluctant to complain about living conditions.
And so the city is caught in the middle of competing tensions. It attracts poor working families resigned to sharing houses with strangers and tolerating faulty plumbing and electricity and other deficiencies. And with diminishing resources, the city tries to enforce codes intended to protect residents yet which, if strictly enforced, may only worsen their immediate plight.
In the early 1990s, city officials took a beating from advocates of immigrants and low-cost housing when they tried to impose occupancy standards stricter than the state’s, which allow 19 people to live in a 950-square-foot home. The city linked density to higher crime, deteriorated sewers and increased fire hazards.
The advocates killed the proposed density reduction by suing the city, which some accused of being bigoted and trying to drive immigrants out of town.
Thwarted in its attempt to lower occupancy limits, the city has pursued two other strategies. It created more than 50 neighborhood associations that were encouraged to report code violations, and it offers to reduce the business fees paid by landlords if their units pass inspections. Such incentives are more effective and less expensive than taking landlords to court, the city said.
Traditional efforts to enforce health and safety codes -- with inspectors patrolling the streets -- have never been more strained. The city has only 21 code enforcement officers, less than half the number it had in 1984, even though its population has increased more than 50% in 20 years.
Even if the city could be more effective, some wonder what it would ultimately accomplish.
“In attempting to solve one problem -- unsafe housing -- the city is creating a situation where more people may become homeless,” said Leo Chavez, an anthropology professor at UC Irvine. “The city is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. And for the poor people, there’s no good outcome.”
Privacy Not an Option
Gloria Valadez’s home offers a scene of life’s daily struggles in a working-class Santa Ana neighborhood.
Nightly, Valadez, her daughter and six grandchildren sprawl across the cramped living room, struggling to sleep despite the nonstop commotion of crying and shouting children, women cooking and teens watching TV. That’s because Valadez’s family of eight shares an aging and dilapidated two-bedroom house with eight other people. A couple and their child sublet one bedroom, and a family of five sublets the other. Each family pays Valadez $400 a month. Others have intermittently lived in her garage.
Her three neighbors also rent rooms to strangers. This is how they cobble together the $1,100 monthly rent. In all, the four 950-square-foot houses on a one-third-acre lot are home to 42 people who put up with mice, cockroaches, broken windows and faulty plumbing. Before the city kicked families out of the garages, there were 55 people.
Two weeks before Christmas, Valadez’s only shower stall was thrown onto the lawn by the landlord’s handyman. The replacement didn’t show up until late January, she said.
“We got out a bucket and threw water on ourselves. We did that right through Christmas and the New Year. It was terrible, but it was fixed. You get used to tolerating these things. You are just happy for a place to live,” said Valadez, a 56-year-old strawberry picker.
Indeed, countywide, many renters simply shrug and bear such conditions. Of the 18,342 complaints received by Orange County’s Fair Housing Council for the year ending June 30, only 9% involved code enforcement problems. More tenants are concerned about the return of their security deposits.
Undocumented immigrants fear deportation if they tattle to authorities. Others worry that if they are evicted by landlords for complaining, or are ordered out by the city, they will not be able to find another place to live, or can’t come up with the deposit.
“If you complain, the landlord threatens to throw us out. I need my place. Accepting it is survival,” said Clara Saavedra, 28, who shared her two-bedroom cottage with 15 people until recently, when seven people moved out.
A few, however, dare to put their foot down. Antonio Villa, a 32-year-old auto body parts salesman, said agents for his landlord came to his door in October, threatening to throw him out unless he paid $300 more in monthly rent. Villa, who earns $8 an hour, agreed to pay $1,100 per month -- if the landlord would put panes on several windows, fix the plumbing and patch the holes in the walls. By chance, he mentioned his woes to a customer whose daughter worked at the Fair Housing Council. She referred him to the city’s code enforcement office.
City officials knew the address. On previous visits they had cited the owner of the four-unit complex for broken windows, no smoke detectors, faulty wiring and improper water heater installation, records show. Another inspection in July led to some improvements, but city officials are prepared to file a criminal complaint against the owner if he does not bring the house up to standards. Inaction could lead to a fine, a lien or even jail.
During the inspection, the city forced about 13 residents out of the four garages, where they were illegally living.
They may return soon enough. “It’s a game of cat and mouse,” said Bruce Dunhams, a code enforcement supervisor. “We can get them out of the garage, but the temptation [for landlords to rent out the garages again] is great.”
So they stay on the case, while acknowledging the paradox of strict code enforcement: potentially displacing the very residents whose welfare they are trying to protect.
“They are just trying to find a place to live. We know this is an economic reality,” Dunhams said. “You have to bring sensitivity to it. It’s an issue of balance.”
A balancing act that veteran code enforcement worker Kitty Jaramillo knows only too well.
Chasing down a tip on a recent weekday, Jaramillo asked a homeowner’s permission to inspect her garage. It was divided by drywall into two small rooms, and inside one of them a man was resting on a blanket on the linoleum floor. The owner said the man was her brother-in-law, not a renter.
“Why would you have your brother-in-law sleeping on the floor when you have a three-bedroom house?” Jaramillo asked. She told the homeowner to remove the rooms from the garage and promised to return.
Jaramillo stopped at another home, where household items and clothes were strewn throughout the frontyard and where she suspected that the garage was illegally occupied. She warned the owner she’d be back.
“Our goal is to get them to comply, to work with us,” Jaramillo explained of the warning. “Cops go slam, bam. We have to work with residents. You get more bees with honey.”
On the way out of the neighborhood, she eyed several open garages filled with beds, bookcases and sofas. But she had a pile of other complaints to investigate. Those garages would have to wait.
Fires Waiting to Happen
Firefighters worry about the fire hazards in cramped living quarters, with so many possible sources of ignition and the abundance of flammable material. For a training video that was distributed nationally, they even set a fire in one apartment to illustrate the danger.
Fire is only one hazard. Studies have linked crowding to asthma triggered by mold in bathrooms that never get a chance to dry out after constant showering, and by spores from rodents and bugs. Colds are transmitted from tenant to tenant. Garage apartments can mean living in windowless rooms that may be filled with the lethal fumes of a gas heater.
Police Sgt. Baltazar De La Riva said high-density neighborhoods generate proportionately more complaints to police about loud music, drinking and fighting.
There are concerns, too, for child welfare. That weighs on the minds of Antonio Villa and his wife, Guillermina Mejia, who have fearfully sublet a bedroom and their living room.
One man, who paid $150 a month to sleep on a couch, hit one of their three children, broke their toys and then suddenly left, the couple said.
“You do this [subletting] only because you have to,” Mejia said. “You have strange people in your house, and you don’t really know who they are and what they can do to your children.”
Neighbor Clara Saavedra said that with so many people around, “you get scared to leave the house. You can’t leave your house, your possessions, when strangers are in it, and you don’t know what problems are in a neighborhood where there are so many people.”
At the Valadez home, tenant Ofelia Simbron tiptoed around the sleeping family and, at 4 in the morning, was in the kitchen, cooking enough food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The one-time preparation leaves the kitchen available to the other occupants later in the day.
Also a strawberry picker, she took some of her food to the fields, where she makes as little as $60 a week.
In the next bedroom, Alejandro Faustino, who arrived in Santa Ana with his wife nine months ago from Guerrero, Mexico, talked about living in the crowded house.
“We couldn’t ask for more,” he said. “We feel really lucky to have this and to have the chance to get ahead here.”