Costa Mesa, according to recent statistics, has 60% renters and 40% home owners — a ratio that has bothered many elected officials for years.
On April 13, Daily Pilot columnist Jeffrey Harlan wrote a piece, "Stop focusing on boosting home ownership in which he — a professional land planner — provided us with statistics to support his contention that our city leaders should "Instead of worrying about whether someone owns a home, let's focus on keeping Costa Mesa one of the more diverse, eclectic and special communities in Orange County."
He went on to ask, "Why is a higher percentage of renters in Costa Mesa necessarily a bad thing?" That seems like a good question. Harlan postulates that, when considering a hometown, potential new residents measure a community's "desirability," which he describes as crime rate, proximity to parks and amenities and the quality of local schools. He says, "For prospective home buyers, a city's home ownership rate is irrelevant."
A few days later, on April 16, Costa Mesa Planning Commissioner Colin McCarthy fired off a rebuttal, "Home ownership should be the goal," in which he says, "I couldn't disagree with him more."
McCarthy confirms that Costa Mesa is dead last in Orange County when measuring homeowners to renters, and blames that ratio on previous city administrations that approved high-density units with insufficient parking. He also tells us, "Because Costa Mesa is 98% built-out, there are limited opportunities to create new permanent housing." Yep, we know that.
McCarthy tells us that we need to improve our housing stock — but doesn't really give us a practical way to do that and significantly shift that 60-40 ratio — which he and many of his cronies apparently feel is the root of all evil in our city. However, he and the Planning Commission continue to approve developments that will likely devolve into rental units, despite all the assurances of the developers.
We should not forget that our recent national financial collapse was due, in great part, to programs that made it possible for people who could not afford homes to buy them anyhow. And, as Harlan cautioned, we should not paint all renters with the broad brush as undesirable residents. Several powerful officials in our city are renters, including our assemblyman, and former mayor, Allan Mansoor.
McCarthy says, "Removing the barriers to home building and leveling the playing field for Costa Mesa to improve its housing stock is a critically important city goal." Maybe, but a greater goal, in my view, is to make our city safer for all residents.
Potential home buyers — or renters, for that matter — will look elsewhere when they learn that crime in our city is up more than 15% in 2012 compared with 2011. They will pause when they hear that the City Council has imposed dramatically reduced staffing levels in both police and fire departments that force excessive overtime by those organizations in order to try to keep us safe.
If we honestly hope to attract new, upwardly-mobile residents to our city — the goal several council members talk about constantly — we should be worrying about the issues that concern them, not whether someone writes a rent check or a mortgage payment each month.
GEOFF WEST publishes a local blog, A Bubbling Cauldron. He lives in Costa Mesa.