Hansen: Cliff house symbolizes both rich and poor

At first glance, the grand house sits like a beacon above Abalone Point, high above Crystal Cove, at the north entrance to Laguna Beach. But then you see the graffiti.

The house is, according to the California Coastal Commission, "among the most visually prominent sites along the Orange County coastline."

And for a long time over the past year, tourists were able to see "The Clash" spray painted in vintage punk-rock style.

So was the house the victim of another financial flame-out? Bad pork bellies? No.

The homeowner just wants to demolish the whole thing and build a bigger, amazing house. Until recently, the problem was a 25-foot argument with the powers that be. The homeowner wanted to rebuild closer to the edge of the cliff. Every government body said no.

As is common in these cases, the argument was resolved. Inevitably, there are conditions: easements, mitigations, setbacks, compromises, fees and ultimately, voila, a deal is made.

In the meantime, every time the public drives by this world-class view, they have a subliminal urge to sing, "Should I Stay or Should I Go."

This house, with all its striking magnificence, has an unintended irony. Everyone assumes it's in shambles because of some financial misfortune. Hardly. The owner can afford to haggle and wait and have his people work the process.

Located at 2695 Riviera Drive, the house is owned by Nariman Yousefi, CEO of Irvine chip maker ClariPhy, and formerly a 17-year senior executive at Broadcom.

If Yousefi had his way, it would not have taken this long. He bought the house in the early 2000s but has never lived in it. He resides in Dana Point, near Salt Creek Beach, and hopes that the demolition can start within about three months.

He said the new house will be "a major improvement to what's there. It's going to feel like something that belongs on that cliff."

So Yousefi will improve the place and that's great, but what's interesting to me is how public reaction has changed as the house has become more decrepit. In other words, no one said much about the house before; now, people talk about it.

In my opinion, what this house symbolizes in a very dramatic way is the growing gap between the rich and the poor. More accurately, it's the gap between the top of the rich — or super rich — and the bottom of the poor.

Politicians like to talk about this during elections because it's a binary, volatile discussion. The facts are these:

•?The gap between the rich and poor is at its widest point in nearly 40 years.

•?Nationwide median income fell 1.5% to about $50,000 or 1.5%.

•?The poverty rate is 15%.

Who benefited in 2011? The affluent. Income for the top 5% or those making over $186,000, grew at 5.3%.

Laguna Beach is unique. Its median household income is about $100,000, and the poverty rate is half the national average.

One reason Laguna Beach is unique, however, is that the numbers do not tell the real story. In some ways, they are skewed. There are demographic pockets of income in Laguna.

Socially, the rich and poor rub elbows in Laguna all the time, and no one is the wiser. Go to the Sawdust Art Festival and see the hundreds of resident-artists. Ask them how they're doing.

Artists typically rent houses in Laguna. The rental market in the city is quite high at 40%, compared to about 30% nationally, adjusted for vacancy.

So here's where we get back to the rich and poor.

What are absentee homeowners in Laguna doing right now? They are refinancing and lowering their mortgage. Do they take that money and lower the rent for their tenants? I'll let you decide.

Is this wrong or anyone's fault? I don't know, to be honest. We used to say it was the expected outcome of free market capitalism.

Is it the fault of those who have money and spend it on home remodels, employing local firms and workers? Probably not. How can you blame them for being successful?

Then why all this talk about the gap between rich and poor?

Maybe because of what that house symbolizes.

For the poor, it's validation that something is wrong. The system is not working. It's an iconic, natural location marred by a man-made financial failure. They may take some quiet personal comfort in that, but publicly, they complain — and are complaining.

For the rich, they probably just look at it as bad pork bellies and would like to buy it. There is comfort in that too.

The facts get in the way of the perceptions here but the outcome is the same: The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer.

Everything is completely above board with the Yousefi house, and the new one will be a great improvement. He has played by the rules and paid his dues with a laundry list of government agencies. That's not the point.

It's just funny that we've had to live with the irony of a beautiful cliff and an eyesore house. Let me put it this way:

One wonders if the local plein air association, made up of artists who no doubt struggle near the poverty line, has taken the Crystal Cove promontory off its list of sites, fearful that a rogue painter would actually paint the scene true to life, giving Laguna Beach a black eye in the festival.

Frankly, that's a painting I would buy — because it's the type of reality we need.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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