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In Santa Ana, a potential ban is in the works on homes shared by more than four different families.

The other name for this type of living situation is “boarding housing,” often the arrangement for some poor families — in this case those living in Orange County’s densest and predominantly Latino and immigrant city.

Yet there are already questions by some about whether this proposed ban would essentially “criminalize poverty” amid city officials’ recent steps to distance themselves from affordable housing obligations — and who, exactly, the city is targeting with this policy in the long run. 

Those bringing the proposed ban forward, on the other hand, appeared to argue this month that the policy wouldn’t actively target poor families in these homes but would enable them to address the “nuisances” of outsized boarding houses, and their impacts to surrounding neighborhoods, as such cases and complaints about them arise.

City Planning Director Minh Thai — asked by Voice of OC to clarify what, exactly, the enforcement approach would be — in an email said city code enforcement activities have typically relied on complaints.

After the publication of this story, city spokesperson Paul Eakins said if “voluntary compliance is not achieved,” then the city could issue citations, escalate fines, or seek a court abatement warrant.

Staff will bring a draft proposal up for a Planning Commission vote on May 24, before the issue goes for a June 15 vote by the City Council, which appoints the planning commissioners.

City officials last week revealed that the Coronavirus pandemic — and its economic stress on renters — has offered a small look at how many of the city’s residents live in homes with multiple families. 

City staff told planning commissioners at a May 10 meeting they observed more than 800 pandemic-related rental assistance applications from residents, out of 3,200 total, that indicated they were living in a possible boarding housing arrangement.

Staff may now propose to ban all boarding houses in the city with more than four leases, likely meaning more than four different families, after saying they’ve received numerous noise or other quality of life complaints from homeowners nearby these boarding houses.

Officials say the new ordinance, if approved as it’s currently proposed, would help City Hall both ensure poor families could still rent with other families to afford their homes while also ensuring the impacts to their neighbors are minimal because the sizes will be limited. 

But there’s concern among people like Commissioner Isuri Ramos, who worried aloud on Monday whether the proposed ordinance “is in many ways criminalizing poverty.”

Specifically, Ramos said, “My concern is that limiting this to four is still very restrictive. I can think of a lot of instances where people in our community might have more than four residential leases at one address.”

Staff said the limit to four leases or families was a decision they made based on data, which they said shows only a fraction of the city’s households count more than seven people in them. 

Restricting it to four leases, they said, would capture a good number of existing boarding houses to be deemed allowable in the city while also limiting their size to prevent dire impacts on surrounding neighborhoods.

“If you’re looking at our population where only 10.9% of households in Santa Ana have seven or more members, then we land in a pretty good place when allowing four rental agreements,” said Assistant City Attorney John Funk.

Yet Santa Ana’s Planning and Building Director Minh Thai acknowledged the city doesn’t know how many boarding houses in total actually exist in the city. 

Still, he said, “this ordinance is a way of proposing enabling regulations where we do have situations that surface” so the city can track on an ongoing basis.

“The proposed regulation is an enabling ordinance that addresses how we view boarding houses and how we address boarding houses should we come across the situation,” Thai said, appearing to dismiss the concern that the city would go seek out all boarding houses in the city for enforcement, if the policy is approved.

Commissioner Mark McLoughlin saw it another way:  “There’s gonna be some fallout no matter what … it’s not going to be pretty and clean.”

McLoughlin said the city data staff cited “also tells you that the vast majority of them (boarding housing renters) probably fall into the category of three or four (allowable leases) depending on the circumstances.”

Commissioner Bao Pham said safety needs to be kept in mind as well, when there are boarding housing situations in buildings that Pham said may not be designed for such uses or coded for fire safety accordingly. 

“I appreciate the sensitivity for ‘housing for all,’ but at a certain point I think we want to promote quality housing,” Pham said. “When we make allowances for so much occupancy in a single family residence … I think that, potentially, the end result might be putting our citizens’ health and welfare (at risk).”

Still, Ramos wondered whether the new policy could be “perceived as an impediment to providing housing opportunities for Santa Ana’s low income residents” in light of those potential goals in the city’s anticipated update to its fundamental housing planning policies.

The policy, if approved, would only be the latest in a series of what activists in town have decried as steps to make the city more hostile to its poor residents and affordable housing.

For example, the City Council last year approved more relaxed affordable housing requirements on for-profit housing developers, decreasing incentives for more affordable housing to get built in the city. 

Officials defended the policy by saying the city has far exceeded its affordable housing goals under the state, while critics pointed out that the city’s been building for-profit housing at a higher rate. 

The tough choices on boarding housing are just one of many controversial, housing-related debates going on at city hall right now. 

Council members in December last year approved a developer’s plan to turn the old Northgate Market into market-rate and luxury apartments, despite protests by some residents. 

Officials and the developers behind the project defended the decision by saying the developers were looking into building an affordable housing complex in another area — but that this higher-end complex was better suited near downtown. 

The project raised the question of who exactly do Santa Ana officials want living near downtown — a growing hub of nightlife and hip restaurants — which has historically been questioned over the area’s noticeable decline in small businesses, mostly owned and operated by local Latino families.

Meanwhile, a new luxury apartment development on Fourth Street, known as the Central Pointe Mixed Use project, was last year approved by the planning commission — a decision that didn’t rise to the more public venue of a final City Council vote. 

Voice of OC asked Thai back in April about these issues — specifically why the city seemed to be building more higher-end housing than affordable. His response, provided in writing at the time: 

“The City is working hard to address local housing needs as mandated by the State … and to institute a regulatory environment that will provide a comprehensive range of housing options for all Santa Ana residents from rental to ownership opportunities and at various price points.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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