Zuniga: How COVID-19 Confirms the Need for Housing Security in Orange County

In the wake of COVID-19’s global spread, universities in Orange County have shifted to remote teaching, workers are sent home to telecommute, and everyday activities, meetings, and gatherings have fittingly been cancelled out of precaution for reducing the spread of the coronavirus. The ability to cancel a meeting or work from home also comes as a privilege, granted to few groups. Not everyone, certainly not the most economically vulnerable such as those undocumented, those with less than a high school degree, and those who earn significantly less than the annual median income can afford to call off work due to already pressing issues related to housing affordability in Orange County. Ironically, some of these workers are at the frontline fighting the virus– janitors sanitizing public spaces and retail workers restocking grocery shelves. Though the state assures sick paid leave and additional aid for those missing work, these measures are not enough; COVID-19 or the novel coronavirus, is feared to exacerbate the economic struggle for many working-class families in Orange County just barely making ends meet to pay for rent.

One of the many meetings cancelled recently out of precaution was a Town Hall led by a community coalition known as Rise Up Willowick (RUW) regarding the future of the Willowick Golf Course, a 102-acre, publicly- owned land, located in the City of Santa Ana yet owned by the City of Garden Grove. For more than a year, the coalition’s mission has been to push for deeply affordable housing and the preservation of open space on the Willowick Golf Course. The group’s organizing efforts transpired after the City of Garden Grove shared plans to redevelop the golf course, a site adjacent to predominately low-income residents and communities of color. Through numerous community meetings and countless hours of door knocking on homes in close proximity to Willowick, RUW organizers found that residents strongly rejected these proposals in fear that these would only amplify threats of rent increase, gentrification, displacement, overcrowding, congestion, parking issues and losing an abundance of much needed green space in the Santa Ana and Garden Grove region.

Despite community advocacy for affordable housing and parks on Willowick, the City of Garden Grove issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) in May 2019 to solicit land developers’ proposals. Not only were community needs ignored, the City intentionally made steps to violate the Surplus Land Act (SLA), a state law that requires cities to prioritize affordable housing and other community benefits such as parks on the public land they wish to dispose of. In October 2019, Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD), one of the member organizations of RUW filed a lawsuit against the City of Garden Grove for violating the SLA. The City of Garden Grove’s initial disregard for the SLA bears as an example the lack of consideration the City Council has for the great need for affordable housing in the area and the despair and anxiety residents face on a daily basis when it comes to paying rent and providing for their families.

It is in times of increased anxiety, as we take precaution of the coronavirus, that one finally recognizes how important it is to have a home to go to and stay safe when the media and local officials repeatedly state ‘stay home’. In Orange County, and more specifically cities such as Santa Ana and Garden Grove, many do not have the luxury of a home. For many who do, such a luxury is not guaranteed and can be taken away at any time. The 2019 Everyone Counts Survey, as shared in the 2019-20 Orange County Community Indicators report, states that approximately 6,860 residents were experiencing homelessness in Orange County. In addition, housing concerns are exacerbated with the coronavirus as additional expenses are presented to struggling families who may not have enough funds to purchase extra food to store for a month or pay for child care services as many children are now required to stay home from school. These costs could add to the financial struggle families currently have and destabilize families into homelessness.

The novel coronavirus is exposing the deficiencies within our society; the lack of access to affordable health care; affordable housing; access to open spaces. The lack of this social safety net leaves the already vulnerable more susceptible to the fallout of the virus. Though meetings and town halls have been cancelled, let’s not forget those who cannot drop work so easily. Let’s not forget those who are already struggling day to day with the threat of displacement and the stress of not having a home of their own to find a comfortable space to ‘stay home’. We should not have to wait for a pandemic to be declared to make our cities liveable for the most vulnerable.  Future development and preservation of open space should be carried out on principles that focus on residents’ health first instead of profit maximization. As we are currently witnessing, a healthy community is in the best interests of everyone’s well being. That starts with an affordable place to call home and sufficient park space for all residents to de-stress and enjoy nature in.

While protective measures are unfolding across the state to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, it is important to learn from this pandemic and how cities can better plan for affordable housing for all. Our current crisis begs the question; would we be fearing our inability to contain and deal with the impact of this virus to the extent that we are if we had insured that everyone in our society already lived in well-resourced communities? Unlikely. The preservation of the Willowick Golf Course as a space for affordable housing and open space is a crucial opportunity to do so.

It is time for local government officials to protect those without a home and those at risk of losing their home as they strive to have a place they can go home, rest, and take protection from the virus and, once this crisis passes, to live thriving lives.

Michelle E. Zuniga, a PhD Candidate at the University of California Irvine in the department of Urban and Public Policy, She is a member of the Rise Up Willowick Coalition. 

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please email [email protected]