Rats, roaches, bedbugs — “We don’t have them,” said Eddy Baltazar, property manager and resident of Monarch Pointe Apartments in Anaheim. “Anytime I see little ants or roaches we just attack immediately.”
Monarch resident Linda O’Conner is quick to sing Baltazar's praises. He is known to walk the property at night and make repairs right away, which, O'Conner said, is a big change from when she lived in an older, poorly maintained apartment in Yorba Linda.
“In other places I’ve lived, it’s very hard to get maintenance," O'Conner said. "You ask for something and you have to continue to ask and ask, and they don’t respond.”
Another difference is that more than half of O’Conner’s salary went toward the rent before she lived at Monarch. Working in a hospital cafeteria, she now pays about a third of her income toward rent, allowing her to buy groceries and clothes and still have enough left to enroll her son in organized sports.
O’Conner is among the 5,000-plus people in Orange County and more than 16,000 statewide living in homes developed by Jamboree Housing Corp., a nonprofit based in Irvine. Jamboree is one of numerous efforts to improve the housing prospects of Orange County’s less affluent residents, whose salaries don’t go very far in one of the nation’s most expensive rental markets.
The high rents often lead families to sublet a room in their house or apartment to another family or even strangers. It's a common practice in central Orange County cities like Santa Ana, where a recent study showed that the number of people living in crowded conditions is 10 times the national rate. Stanton, Anaheim and Garden Grove also suffer from higher-than-average crowding.
Hope in a High-Priced Market
Affordable housing efforts are usually led by nonprofits that draw on local, state and federal grants and tax credits to provide well-maintained homes at below-market rates for lower-income residents. Generally the subsidies are applied in the early part of the project, such as during the land acquisition or property rehabilitation, rather than on an ongoing basis.
In Santa Ana, where the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,400 a month, families pay closer to $800 to live in affordable housing developed in part by builder Barry Cottle. He said that affordable housing covenants prevent many of the problems and abuses rampant in poorer neighborhoods, such as properties falling into disrepair, high eviction rates, crime and crowding.
Landlords in affordable housing complexes maintain their properties, and residents adhere to strict rules about noise and parking. All leasing agreements are in writing, spelling out who may live in a home, which prevents crowding, though when housing is affordable, he said, residents need not double or triple up.
Affordable housing, however, is not without controversy. Residents living in neighborhoods where affordable housing projects are proposed often fight these initiatives, saying that the high-density projects drive down property values and bring new stresses to neighborhoods.
Beyond adding to the housing stock, affordable housing initiatives also help families' transition from eviction or recent homelessness to stable living. In one example, Families Forward in Irvine works with landlords to waive credit restrictions and to lower security deposits, temporarily subsidizing the rent while a family gets back on its feet.
The Limits of Good Intentions
But even effective and well-intentioned efforts such as Jamboree and Families Forward have limits. Jamboree properties have lengthy waiting lists, and residents are thoroughly screened before being considered for a unit. Having a criminal history, credit problem or lack of a reliable income can reduce their chances, though Jamboree evaluates on a case-by-case basis.
And Families Forward, as the beneficiary of federal housing grants, can only subsidize housing for a family in which all members have legal residency. Many families in Orange County’s low-income communities are undocumented or a mix of members with and without legal status.
For residents who can’t qualify for affordable housing, a last source of relief typically comes from community organizations that encourage civic-minded property owners to make their properties safer and more livable.
One example of this is in central Santa Ana's underserved Willard community, where the Willard Neighborhood Task Force for Transformation is working to get landlords and property managers to spend more time on the premises and keep track of people who are not authorized to be in the buildings.
At a recent meeting that included police, a city official and a handful of the neighborhood’s 70 property owners, members of the task force discussed ways to increase lighting, keep entrances locked, improve upkeep of apartments and grounds and paint over graffiti.
“Well-run apartment complexes make a huge difference,” said Pastor Jon Pedersen, organizer of the task force.
But tenants can play a role too, Pedersen said, and his task force is trying to develop community leaders inside apartment buildings to promote safety and get residents to be less reluctant to report crimes.
Other community groups regularly reach out to sympathetic landlords, interceding on residents’ behalf to maintain properties better or just to enhance living conditions. For example, in Huntington Beach, Oak View Renewal Partnership has worked with property managers to set aside areas for community gardens and fruit trees.
In central Santa Ana, Latino Health Access has arranged to secure the common areas of large apartment buildings for free exercise and Zumba workout classes offered to low-income residents there. And among the fabled “motel families” who live in an estimated 50 to 75 motels in Anaheim, one motel manager, who did not wish to be identified, recently dedicated two rooms to serve as a full-time children’s library and food pantry.
But while generous and beneficial, these efforts are piecemeal and don’t solve the systemic problem of distressed rental living across the county. And with the dissolution of 400 redevelopment agencies across the state in 2011, future housing projects are imperiled, according to professionals in the field.
A number of proposals are being debated, but no guaranteed funding stream to replace the redevelopment money has been established yet.
“We’re all trying to figure out how to do business in the future. In the past, the major source of our funding has come from local redevelopment agencies,” said Eunice Bobert, CEO of the nonprofit Orange Housing Development, which has communities in Orange, Santa Ana and Anaheim.
Filling the Gaps
With the prohibitive cost of land in Orange County, there is no way to develop homes that can be purchased or rented affordably without what housing experts call “gap funding,” which can come in the form of state and federal subsidies, tax credits and grants.
Market-oriented strategies are sometimes possible. For example, when a developer asks a city for a zoning variance to build houses, city councils can stipulate that a portion of the housing be set aside that is high-quality and affordable, said Laura Archuleta, president of Jamboree.
This scenario is precisely what enabled the development of high-quality housing for 115 families who earn substantially less than the average income for the area in a new development in Brea. A family of four earning $34,800 will pay about $675 a month at Birch Hills Apartment Homes for their three-bedroom unit.
The idea is that tenants will be able to live close to their jobs at the new superstore down the street and benefit from quality schools and attractive surroundings of Orange County, Archuleta said.
At a recent groundbreaking ceremony this fall, Archuleta pointed to the future site of the Birch Hill apartments and proclaimed them Jamboree’s “first workforce housing overlooking a golf course, which is pretty cool.”
Amy DePaul is a Voice of OC contributing writer and lecturer in the UC Irvine Literary Journalism program. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org